Perhaps one game, maybe for fun, Penguins coach Mike Johnston will have Nick Spaling center a line between left wing Chris Kunitz and right wing David Perron.
They are the only two Penguins forwards Spaling has not played with this season.
“We said he’s a versatile player and will probably play in a lot of different spots,” Johnston said of Spaling. “So far he has. If you track where he’s played in our lineup, from center to wing, from top line, second, third line, he’s played in every position.”
Johnston is right. Sort of.
The starting lineups the Penguins tweet before every game list Spaling as playing the first five games at center — the past 37 at left wing with all four of the team’s current centers — in 14 different combinations. He’s played on lines one through four.
Yet rarely has Spaling, one of only three Penguins to have played in all 42 games, looked overwhelmed or out of place.
“For a lot of players, they play subpar games, but they also elevate it above subpar some nights,” Johnston said. “You know what you’re going to get from (Spaling) every single night.
“He’s not a guy who’s going to dazzle you on any single night, but he’s a solid player every night. Those guys sometimes get overlooked, but they’re invaluable to your team.”
On a team that, counting mumps, has 17 injuries or illnesses against 26 wins, Spaling’s consistency and versatility have been much needed.
He’s also — quietly, of course, given that’s his preferred style — having a career year.
His Corsi For Percentage, a ratio of shot attempts to total shots in the game, is 4.3 percent better than it’s ever been at 51.8 percent. Spaling also has been on the ice for 1.88 goals-against per 60 minutes played, another advanced statistic that measures defensive responsibility.
Spaling is one of the Penguins’ top four penalty-killing forwards on a unit that’s ranked second in the NHL at 88.3 percent and leads Penguins forwards with 26 blocked shots, a career-best .62 per game.
“I just try to play the same way no matter who I’m playing with,” Spaling said. “There’s a focus on different details depending on where you’re playing. For the most part, it’s still a similar game when you’re playing in the offensive zone. In the other areas, you want to bring the same type of work ethic and the same type of compete throughout the whole game.”
Center Brandon Sutter — Spaling’s linemate for 11 games — laughed when it was brought to his attention how many different spots Spaling has played.
“Not many guys can do that,” Sutter said, “but he’s done a pretty fantastic job so far.”
Spaling, 26, was acquired with Patric Hornqvist in the trade that sent James Neal to Nashville. He’s on pace for 12 goals and 23 assists, which would equal a career-high 35 points.
It’s not Sidney Crosby- or Evgeni Malkin-like productivity, but the Penguins are OK with that. They knew what they were getting.
And that, given the seemingly an endless list of maladies for the Penguins in the season’s first half, is exactly why they employ Spaling.
It’s also why the Penguins are off to one of the five best starts in franchise history.
“He’s a guy who has proven to be able to be pretty reliable in different roles,” Crosby said. “Having that has helped us and has allowed us to stay in it with everything we’ve faced.”