On August 2, 2023, Pittsburgh’s number one winger, Jake Guentzel, underwent right ankle surgery. Initially, the team stated that Guentzel would miss the first month of the 2023-24 season; however, Guentzel has been taking the ice in practice with the team, albeit in non-contact form. Even though Guentzel’s return may be more timely than the coaching staff thought at first, he will still likely miss the first few games with the Penguins. Guentzel is arguably one of the league’s most underrated wingers and one of the most impactful forwards for the Penguins, outside of Crosby and Malkin; his absence will leave a gaping hole on the left wing of Sidney Crosby, which leaves the coaching staff with some decisions to be made.
Filling In the First Line
In their most recent preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh’s starting lineup looked much like it most likely will at the beginning of the season. On the first line, head coach Mike Sullivan decided that wingers Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust would most complement Crosby at center. This most likely has to do with familiarity.
Rakell spent most of last season on Crosby’s wing alongside Guentzel, and together, they solidified themselves as Pittsburgh’s top line. However, Bryan Rust is no stranger to playing alongside Sidney Crosby; before Pittsburgh acquired Rakell from the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline during the 2021-22 season, Rust most often played on that first line with Sid and Jake. Not only that, but Rust and Rakell have played some time together, both at times having played wing on the second line with Evgeni Malkin. This Rakell-Crosby-Rust line is sure to do some damage come the regular season, but with choosing Rust to play on the first line, the most significant questions now lie in what the second line will look like.
What About the Second Line?
The Penguins’ second line, centered by Evgeni Malkin, has been shaken up this offseason. With Jason Zucker leaving and Bryan Rust starting the season on line one, inevitably, Malkin will have brand new linemates coming into the season. Reilly Smith, who the Penguins acquired by trade from the Golden Knights this offseason, will likely slot in on the left wing with Malkin, but who will take that right wing spot?
Alex Nylander got the nod in Thursday’s game, and I think this move makes the most sense. Last season, Nylander showed he has what’s needed to play in the NHL. Although it didn’t appear on the score sheet, his tenacity, speed, and consistency in his game were evident. These qualities fit wonderfully with Malkin’s style of play and will bring a lot of life and power to that second line.
Another player making his case for a spot on that second line is 25-year-old Drew O’Connor. O’Connor has been up and down from the minors several times over the past few seasons but has never had the chance to solidify a consistent role in Pittsburgh. He seems to have taken a significant step forward this year, most recently scoring two goals and notching one assist in the Penguins’ 3-1 preseason win over Buffalo. He will most likely be at least on the third or fourth line this year, but the possibility still stands for him to end up taking that second-line role from Nylander.
It will be a curious season start for the Penguins, but at least they have options. The Penguins are dealing with a highly versatile forward group, and as far as the top six go, anyone could play with anyone. Even though it looks like that first line will be Crosby, Rakell, and Rust, Sullivan could flip it and put Nylander with Crosby and put Rust back on the second line, where he thrived for much of last year. It will be exciting to see what decisions will be made both with Guentzel currently gone and with his eventual return. Anything is possible; we’ll have to wait and see how it all shakes out.