A healthy Pittsburgh Penguins team should scare the rest of the NHL

When the NHL returns hopefully later this year, the Pittsburgh Penguins will likely be a fully healthy team. And that should put the other 30 NHL teams on notice.

Despite the NHL season being on hiatus, it’s never too early to look at what could happen if the league resumes at any point. With this case for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it could mean that they are fully healthy going into the playoffs if or when they start.

There’s been some preliminary talk that the season could get underway in July again or perhaps even have the playoffs in August and September before having a short offseason after. This is all very fluid though, and most likely changes on a daily basis. If something like that were to be the case though, a team like the Penguins would have all of their players back in the lineup most likely, and yes that includes forward Jake Guentzel.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford finally broke his silence this past week after not speaking to the media for two weeks and actually spoke about the potential return for Guentzel. Here is what he had to say about it:

If you look at when he was injured and what the projection was on the timeline for him to return, it was 4-6 months. So, if you take the shortest period, that would be the end of April, and, obviously, you can do the rest if it’s six months. I would expect that, knowing Jake Guentzel, that he’s going to be ready.

His rehab’s going well. He’s at the point now where he’s one of the guys that’s going to return home and continue to work on the rehab on his own. But all the reports that I’ve had, there have not been any setbacks at this point.

Obviously, the end of June would be the six months for Guentzel, so he would very likely be able to return in this situation. This would make the Penguins lineup, when healthy just downright terrifying, especially their top six.

On the first line, the Penguins can roll out Jason Zucker, Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary and on the second line, they can roll out Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. Those are basically two first lines that the Penguins will have at their disposal, and it’s likely they’ll get very close to the same amount of playing time.

Zucker was already producing very well with Crosby (he had six goals and 12 points in 15 games on his wing before the hiatus kicked in). Then with Sheary flanking the other side, they have another winger who has shown before he can go on some hot streaks, as he and Crosby mesh very well together.

The Jake Guentzel factor

After that, with Guentzel on the second line, you’re getting a proven 40-goal scorer. They’re also getting someone who was leading the team in goals with 20 in 39 games before he had to have shoulder surgery. Combine that with Rust on the right-wing (who was on pace for well over 30 goals) and there aren’t any teams who will want to face these two lines in the postseason.

Switching over to the bottom six of the lineup, it’ll be that much deeper with the returns of Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese, which will force hard roster decisions. The Penguins were always using their Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev line as sort of their “checking line” in games, but all three can also produce offense as well.

Aston-Reese has six goals and 13 points on that line, Blueger has nine goals and 22 points, and Tanev has 11 goals and 25 points. That line will most definitely be intact if the season returns, and the Penguins were definitely missing how strong Aston-Reese is defensively after he got hurt halfway through February. That line is just a menace with how they forecheck in the offensive zone, and it starts with Tanev, who has been a brilliant signing by Rutherford (he certainly has proved me, and a lot of others, wrong).

For the other line, there’s going to be six players vying for three spots, and it’s not going to be easy for who gets in. The Penguins could try a line with Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, and Patric Hornqvist if they choose to and that would be a pretty good third line. Hornqvist has rejuvenated himself this season with 17 goals and 32 points in 52 games after really struggling last year with injuries. Marleau had been great since coming over from the Sharks, as his speed was very evident despite the lone goal he scored against the Carolina Hurricanes. He was able to fit right in with how the Penguins like to play.

The potential wild card is McCann, who at times this season had been very good, but as the season got closer to the hiatus, he was struggling mightily. Prior to the hiatus, he had just one goal in his last 24 games, despite having 14 goals on the season. The last goal he scored came against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 14th.

If the season is to resume, his play is going to have to get better, and he’s going to have to start producing or he may find himself in the press box. A player such as Evan Rodrigues or Nick Bjugstad (if he stays healthy) would gladly try to prove themselves in the lineup at center if McCann kept his struggles up.

That then leaves us with Dominik Simon, who’s one of the team’s best playmakers and who has also had some really poor luck with goal scoring. He had seven goals and 22 points prior to being hurt at the end of February, and always rotated between the Crosby line and the bottom six. He’s always been a favorite of Mike Sullivan, so getting him into the lineup may not be as tough for him, but these will still be very hard decisions. It’s also a great problem to have if you’re the Penguins.

Defensively, the Penguins will not likely have any surprises with Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, John Marino with Marcus Pettersson, and Jack Johnson with Justin Schultz.

In goal, it doesn’t really matter who would get the nod in the playoffs as both goaltenders were playing pretty well, but the favorite would have to go to Matt Murray over Tristan Jarry, as the former is Sullivan’s guy. This was evidenced by him always getting the start in the big games before the hiatus and plenty of times in their championship years.

With this lineup though, the Penguins have the potential to be one of the bigger favorites to win the Stanley Cup. We’ll just have to see if the NHL season gets resumed first.

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