Fully healthy, what should Mike Sullivan’s lines be?

With only about two weeks remaining until the NHL playoffs begin, every team that is virtually in the playoffs wants to finish strong, lines intact, and healthy. Some teams will get healthy just in time for the season’s most fun and entertaining hockey. Others will suffer a crucial injury or have already been crippled by an injury that will carry over.

Fortunately for the Penguins, they have been only getting stronger with the past couple of games (knock on wood). On Friday night, Dominik Simon returned to the Penguins line-up after being injured a few weeks back. In recent days, Zach Aston-Reese has been skating and seems poised to return in the near future. This is a big development for the Penguins as their last two Stanley Cups have predicated on the use of their depth guys.

It’s always fun to sit and speculate how the lines will look when the team gets fully healthy. Throughout the grind of the season, the call-ups and reassignments, there never really is a chance to see the lineup. Come game one of the playoffs, that’s when the lineup is finally revealed. The best 12 forwards, the best six defenseman, and your franchise goalie.

I’m going to state what I believe the lines should look like in a few weeks if the Penguins can get and stay healthy and provide my reasoning for why.

Jake Guentzel/Sidney Crosby/Patric Hornqvist

The postseason magic between Guentzel and Crosby last season was just ridiculously fun to watch. While the spark hasn’t been as prominent this season, the chemistry hasn’t necessarily left either.

Crosby has looked better and better in recent games and unsurprisingly is waking up just in time for the playoffs. When Crosby is on, he can lift his linemates up immensely. Guentzel scored 13 goals to lead all scorers in the entire postseason and also tied the rookie record for goals in that time frame.

Hornqvist is your typical left wing that has done nothing but score ever since signing his extention. In 15 games since inking his new deal, he’s scored seven goals. He has 24 on the season and has ranged from the top line all the way to the third. This line is one that could be exciting come playoff time as it is playing well right now.

Carl Hagelin/Evgeni Malkin/Bryan Rust

I don’t think this decision is too hard. Malkin is playing some of the best hockey he has ever played as a member of the NHL. He has done it primarily with these two guys flanking him.

Briefly, Rust took an excursion to Crosby’s line and has been good in doing it. Rust has 37 points on the year and has gotten a lot of them playing alongside Malkin and that should stick as a constant.

Hagelin is notorious for heating up after the all-star break. Most people had been clamoring for Hagelin to sit and even be traded for a brief couple months until January hit when he began showing his offensive potential.

If Malkin can continue to play at this level, and there is no reason to believe he won’t, Hagelin and Rust will continue to play well and become almost a de facto “1B” line until of the second line.

Zach Aston-Reese/Derick Brassard/Phil Kessel

I would love for Hornqvist to be on this line but he’s better suited to be a right wing and it’s probably the better fit.

Aston-Reese had been really finding his stride and had been playing along side Crosby before his mysterious upper-body injury derailed what had seemed to be a potentially very good line. Aston-Reese will have less than 20 games of NHL experience by the time the postseason rolls around. The task of first line minutes would likely be daunting for someone of that inexperience.

Obviously, Kessel and Brassard are the fixtures on the third line as Brassard was acquired to be the third line center and Mike Sullivan prefers to have Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel on different lines to present the talent in different waves. With Brassard finding his way in Pittsburgh’s system, Kessel’s shot, and Aston-Reese’s net-front presence, the line would create a huge match up problem.

Conor Sheary/Riley Sheahan/Tom Kuhnhackl

This has the potential to be a really good line. Sullivan, however, has been very reliant on his top three lines in recent weeks and has used the fourth line as almost a “stash line” to put his penalty killers on.

Sheary has struggled mightily at times and he might be best suited with a lesser role in the postseason after becoming a healthy scratch for a few games over the last two championship runs. Sheahan has been nothing but solid and has even moved up to wing during some games when Sullivan is unhappy with one of his wingers’ play. Kuhnhackl is the team’s best penalty killer and absolutely should be in over Simon.

Brian Dumoulin/Kris Letang

This is the best top pair you can go with. We saw Oleksiak playing with Letang Sunday and it wasn’t a disaster but you’d like to see the familiar pairings together in the playoffs.

Dumoulin has become a more offensively inclined player and he is now the perfect compliment to Letang. Teams have to respect both of their offensive abilities while Dumoulin will always be back to assume his defensive responsibilities.

This should and will be the top pair in April and beyond.

Jamie Oleksiak/Justin Schultz

This is a fun pair in my eyes. Two guys who had their careers resurrected upon being traded to Pittsburgh, Oleksiak and Schultz have become a formidable pair.

Schultz is a guy who is always an offensive threat and can run the top powerplay if asked to. Oleksiak won’t do a ton of scoring but he does have a piercingly hard shot that goalies and players alike must respect. He has enough ability as well to jump up into the play but he does it in a conservative matter.

Watch for this pair to be one of the deciding factors in the Penguins fate. Their play will really set the tone for the defense in the playoffs.

Olli Maatta/Chad Ruhwedel

Maatta has been the most consistent goaltender on the blue line for Pittsburgh this year. He has been so steady and he is rarely caught out of position. Ruhwedel has alleviated the panic of trading Ian Cole after fans and management watched Matt Hunwick struggle in epic proportions following being given an everyday chance.

Ruhwedel does all the little things so well that when he scores a goal or makes a beautiful pass, it’s a refreshing reminder that every hockey player can make these type of plays. Even one who doesn’t do anything exceptionally well but does everything pretty well.

If Maatta can play to the same steadiness and Ruhwedel can keep being the perfect sixth defenseman, the Penguins will have a lot less problems on the blueline in the postseason

Matt Murray/Casey DeSmith

This is your tandem and it is pretty cut and dry. Murray is the two-time Stanley Cup champion and DeSmith has outplayed Tristan Jarry every chance he has gotten. No surprises here.

Hunwick will factor in as the seventh defenseman. If he has to play in a pinch, it may not be the worst news for the Penguins. He won’t be someone who can play more than one game at a time and make the defense feel settled. It’s even thinner after him.

Simon should be the team’s 13th forward and should not be too much of a concern. His defense is a bit of a liability but it’s not suspect enough to not deserve a spot if an injury would occur or someone in need of a reset healthy scratch.

The wild card on this team could be Sheary. He has struggled this year as previously mentioned, but Sheary has maybe found just a tad of chemistry with the newly-acquired Brassard. Brassard is not overly skilled so Sheary could feel comfortable being the third option on that line. Such a move would slot Aston-Reese down to the fourth line which would do nothing but make the team that much deeper.

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