As we look to the upcoming season, many pieces of the team should be highlighted. Whether that be on the defensive side, between the pipes, and forward depth. Forward depth is one of the pieces that matters most because it’s a long season. Injuries happen, player slumps occur, and you need depth to be able to weather those storms. Today we are looking into the Penguins line combinations for the bottom six to evaluate their depth.
The Penguins are already beginning the season with a pretty significant loss with Jake Guentzel to start the season. The star forward is expected to miss 5-6 games to the start of the season. Although his absence is not long, it still forces the Penguins to dip into their forward depth to kick start the 2023-2024 campaign.
Let’s take a look at the third line, as it might stand right now:
Pittsburgh Penguins Line Combinations
The Third Line
This is, in a word, troubling. Drew O’Connor has been in the Penguins organization since his professional hockey debut in the 2020-2021 season. The 25 year old winger still has time for development. Asking him to step up on the third line of an aging team, might be too tall of a task. The production for O’Connor just isn’t there. Last season, he played 46 games for the Penguins tallying only 5 goals and 6 assists. Per Hockey Reference, O’Connor’s FF% (Fenwick For %) sits at below average 52.4%. His Fenwick For Rel is at a -0.8%. These statistics can help is see how effective O’Connor was at 5 on 5 in his 46 games last year. Being on the third line, those numbers have to improve. There is no other way to put it.
Luckily, there is time for continued development for O’Connor. He must make the most of the opportunities given to him in order to improve going forward.
Here is the anchor for the third line in the Penguins line combinations. Jeff Carter is an interesting player in Pittsburgh. He is a player that brings size and a veteran presence. This comes at a cost. That cost is production and takes a deep cut at speed on the third line. In a league that values quick skaters, Jeff Carter fails to deliver in that department. However, he may be the best third line centre option they have. Still, options will still need to be evaluated before the beginning of the season.
You can have centre Lars Eller up on the third line, but Carter has the slight edge in every other metric. Better at faceoffs percentage wise, more production, more time on ice, getting more shots to the net. The list goes on. Where Lars Eller does have the edge, is age. Eller is 34 years old, while Carter is 38 and nearing the end of his NHL career. Even if you start Jeff Carter on the third line, you can always swap him out for other options.
Noel Acciari is a solid third line winger. He brings toughness to the third line along with Jeff Carter. He is able to produce with 14 goals this past season and 23 total points. He is more known for his defensive game. Last season he tallied 81 blocked shots and a defensive zone faceoff win percentage of 63.1%. This shows that Acciari brings a decent defensive forward presence on this third line. This is something they might need considering his possible linemates.
The Fourth Line
The Penguins signed Hinostroza to a one year contract this off-season in an attempt to bolster forward depth in the bottom six. Last season, he split his time between the Sabres and their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. He has shown glimpses of offense but ultimately is a steady fourth line player. He works hard, doesn’t give up on plays, and has a respectable reputation in Buffalo due to this. It’s fair to say that he was brought in because he has reputable NHL experience. He has shown the ability to hold down the fort in the fourth line.
I think Lars Eller is a lock to stay on the fourth line and rightfully so. Colin White is interesting. He was brought in on a PTO but has experience on the fourth line for the Florida Panthers. Considering that was on a team that went to the Stanley Cup finals, that has to count for something. He appeared in 68 regular season and 21 postseason games for the Panthers. Having that postseason experience on the fourth line along with Lars Eller may help bolster Hinostroza’s play. It’s important to note that, for all intents and purposes, Hinostroza is looking for a fresh start in Pittsburgh.
White is a reasonable choice as a fourth line winger on this team. It will be interesting to see what the final lines are going into the opening of the season.
Forward depth is a legitimate concern for the Penguins. With the league replying on depth, the Penguins seem to be at a disadvantage. Especially if the injuries start to pile up. Which, in the past, has been an issue for this squad. The Penguins have young talent on their forward depth chart. Unfortunately, it is known that head coach Mike Sullivan is not keen on relying on players that are still in development. That’s why even if the production isn’t there, he relies on players with NHL experience under their belt.
Preseason will provide the opportunity to see how these potential lines jell. The Penguin’s first preseason game is on September 24th at 1:00PM EST against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Main Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports