Penguins’ Injuries Cast Doubt on Early-Season Success

Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Pittsburgh Penguins

There usually aren’t too many negative takeaways after earning a 7-2 victory over a division rival. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ big win over the Columbus Blue Jackets left fans holding their breath and waiting for more info on the in-game injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad. Both forwards were placed on injured reserve Monday and are expected to miss at least a month with Malkin potentially missing a bit more time.

It’s tough to spin this one; Malkin is one of the game’s most dominant players when he’s in a groove and desperately needed a bounce-back season. Bjugstad has been great as the team’s third-line center since he was acquired prior to last season’s trade deadline, recording the team’s sixth-best Corsi percentage among players appearing in at least 25 games. The Penguins came into the season expecting to win games with strong forward depth but it’s going to be a struggle over the next several weeks.

Meet the Replacements

The Penguins recalled a pair of forwards from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to fill in for their injured centers: Sam Lafferty and Andrew Agozzino. Aside from being called up together Monday, the two don’t share much in common. Agozzino is a 5-foot-9 AHL journeyman with just 21 games of NHL experience with the Colorado Avalanche. The 28-year-old has suited up for six different AHL teams, accumulating 146 goals and 352 points over 468 games. He signed a one-year deal with the Penguins this offseason to provide some organizational depth that’s being put to the test early.

Andrew Agozzino (by Ashley Potts courtesy of the Colorado Eagles)
Andrew Agozzino could provide a surprising spark to the Penguins’ bottom-six (by Ashley Potts courtesy of the Colorado Eagles)

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-1 Lafferty is one of the team’s better prospects. He grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a town just two hours east of Pittsburgh. The 24-year-old notched 13 goals and 49 points in his first full AHL campaign last season after a four-year collegiate career with Brown University. His decent all-around game should allow him to be effective with the big club.

Lafferty doesn’t have a ton of offensive upside, but his goal-scoring touch could make him an intriguing bottom-six winger during this stint in the NHL. Unfortunately for the AHL Penguins, Lafferty and Agozzino were both on the top line for the team’s first game. In an ideal world, they’ll be back in the minors early next month if Malkin and Bjugstad return.

Don’t Expect Concrete Line Combinations

Head coach Mike Sullivan has never shied away from tinkering with the lineup, so Pittsburgh’s forward lines will undoubtedly be shaken up several times over the next month. Right now, it’s almost impossible to pin down how the lineup will look over the next few games aside from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel leading the way on the top line.

The most likely candidate to slide into Malkin’s role as the second-line center next to Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev will be Jared McCann. He might be the Penguins’ most versatile forward; he can play nearly anywhere in the lineup including both the power play and penalty kill. The 23-year-old already has a tight relationship with Galchenyuk, so some early chemistry should be easy to find. On paper, McCann’s craftiness, Tanev’s energy, and Galchenyuk’s shooting should produce fairly well in Malkin’s absence.

Pittsburgh Penguins Alex Galchenyuk Evgeni Malkin
Can Alex Galchenyuk find chemistry with Jared McCann the way he did with Evgeni Malkin? (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

After that is where things start to get murky. Teddy Blueger has primarily worked as the fourth-line center and he could see a bump up to the third line in place of Bjugstad. Partnering him with Zach Aston-Reese and Patric Hornqvist should be the best bet. That’s a line that could give opposing defenses fits with plenty of energy and physicality on the forecheck. Blueger’s goal-scoring touch will open up the offensive end for Hornqvist in front of the net, as well.

Finally, Dominik Kahun should move from the wing back to his natural position at center. Prior to joining the Chicago Blackhawks last season, the 24-year-old had only ever played center in his hockey career, so he should be able to slot right back in. Unfortunately, he will probably skate alongside the two new AHL callups Agozzino and Lafferty. Those three won’t have very high scoring expectations, but the Penguins will rely on them to at least drive some shots and keep opponents away from Matt Murray on the other end. Should Sullivan roll with these lines, the lineup will look like this:

Guentzel/Crosby/Simon

Galchenyuk/McCann/Tanev

Aston-Reese/Blueger/Hornqvist

Agozzino/Kahun/Lafferty

Again, this lineup will change often, probably even at some point during the first period of Tuesday’s contest against the Winnipeg Jets. Regardless of how the lines shake down, the Penguins no longer have the strong forward depth that was supposed to lead the team this season. Instead, it’ll be back on the shoulders of Crosby and Guentzel on the top line to drive the offense.

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