Only eight games into the 2015–16 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to break up Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby and move the former on a line with Evgeni Malkin. The move bumped up Patric Hornqvist to the first line with Crosby.
When comparing the new line combinations to personnel Crosby and Malkin found success with in the past, Kessel with Malkin and Crosby with Hornqvist allows all four player to better utilize specific skillsets.
In the 2013–14 season, Crosby and Chris Kunitz tore up the NHL, Crosby scoring 36 goals and finishing with 104 points in 80 games and Kunitz scoring 35 goals in 78 games. Remember the days of Kunitz forechecking hard, throwing punishing hits, freeing up the puck and space for Crosby and finally parking in front of the net for a backdoor pass, tip or rebound? At 36 years old, Kunitz no longer plays with the same speed and physicality, but at 28 years old, Hornqvist plays a similar game to the Kunitz of seasons past.
Additionally, Crosby and Hornqvist worked well together last season. Hornqvist spent nearly 70 percent of his even strength minutes with Crosby, scored 19 goals at even strength in only 64 games and established a new career high with a 0.80 points per game average.
Hornqvist plays exactly the style of hockey Crosby needs in a winger. A pest of sorts, Hornqvist forces at least one opposing defender, sometimes two, to tie up in front of the net, freeing up the time and space Crosby needs to execute.
Malkin, on the other hand, won a scoring title and produced at the highest rate of his career in 2011–12 on a line with James Neal, scoring 50 goals while Neal scored 40. In 2013–14, Malkin scored 23 goals despite playing in only 60 games, and Neal finished with 27 goals in only 59 games. With Neal missing last season, Malkin struggled to produce missing a true trigger man.
Kessel, a legitimate sniper comparable to Neal, excels at finding open ice and letting plays develop while Malkin thrives when developing plays and beating defenders with finesse and quick puck movement.
The Penguins need to start generating offense at a higher rate, especially with a team loaded with talent without significant depth scoring, the scorers need to, well, score. The new line combinations look like a step in the right direction.
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