Call it the “52 Pickup” line.

What is it about the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise that chews up coaches and spits out a pile of picked-clean bones? I ask this because Michel Therrien is rolling full speed ahead into the "lost his shit" phase, which has signaled the end of every Penguin coaching tenure not involving Bob Johnson (cancer) or Scotty Bowman (getting on Mario's bad side).

Last season, when the Pens were changing line combinations frequently, it appeared that Therrien was creating match-ups, making little tweaks and adjustments that would keep the offense one step ahead of the night's opponent. It would be something simple, like switching Malone and Roberts between the first and second lines. And let's face it; it's easy to excuse coaching decisions that would look iffy at other times when the team is winning.

This season, he seems to have no idea what combination of forwards will give him four strong lines.

The fourth line appears to have fallen into place for him. Jarkko Ruutu, Georges Laraque, and Maxime Talbot had some great shifts last night against the Devils, producing good cycles down low, one or two quality scoring chances (which is as much as you can expect from a 4), some SportsCenter-worthy hits (not that ESPN would show them), and plenty of energy for the team and the crowd to feed on.

At the top, Therrien has five players for three positions: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone, Petr Sykora, and Mark Recchi. Most coaches would love to have that many options for their first two lines, with playmakers like Sid and Geno, finishers like Malone and Sykora, and grinders like Rex and…

Uh-oh. There's the problem. Nobody has stepped up to complete that second line. Jordan Staal is mired in the Mother Of All Sophomore Slumps. Erik Christensen has started out cold. Gary Roberts seems to be a half-step behind on every shift. Adam Hall and Tyler Kennedy are third line players. And Colby Armstrong has, for reasons unknown, landed in Therrien's doghouse, and can't play his way off the healthy scratch list for love or money.

Therrien doesn't want to put Crosby and Malkin together. That kills the second line. A Malone-Malkin-Sykora line would have the potential to wreak havoc on NHL defenses. They haven't played on a line together for more than a few shifts, but in pairs, Malkin-Malone and Malkin-Sykora have clicked. But that leaves the reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP on a line with Recchi and a spare part.

And with Recchi producing turnovers faster than Arby's, he's playing like a spare part, too.

Thus, with 14 forwards and 12 slots, Therrien's decision making looks a little something like this:

Fourth line: Ruutu-Talbot-Laraque. Truth. Ask Johnny Oduya and Danius Zubrus if you don't believe me. As long as the line Ruutu doesn't take dumb penalties, they'll give you 8-10 minutes of reliable energy a night.

First line: Crosby, obviously. Can't put all our eggs in one basket and put Malkin here, so do the next-worst thing (as we'll see in a moment), and use Sykora and Malone here.

Second line: Malkin, obviously. He's the only one of the remaining forwards who scores on a regular basis. OK, now what?

That leaves Recchi, Roberts, Hall, Christensen, Staal, Kennedy, and Armstrong.

Colby is on Coach's shit list, and Kennedy is a recent call-up from Wilkes-Barre, so they're the designated healthy scratches until further notice.

Recchi's scoring comes in streaks these days, but those streaks won't get started on the third line. They're not getting started on the first or second lines, either, but there's still a chance. That leaves Crusher and Staal. Staal worked well with Malkin last year, so maybe that will help lift the sod farmer's malaise.

Second line: Staal-Malkin-Recchi.

Third line: Roberts-Hall-Christensen. Feel free to substitute Kennedy and/or Armstrong as you see fit. It doesn't really matter who of these five is playing, or where. This is the junk drawer of the Penguins' roster: Occasionally useful, but usually clutter.

That was the general line combination last night. By the way, all of this probably changed in practice today, since leaving Malkin without any support killed the second line. Lord only knows who will be on the first line with Sid on Thursday night, but without help from Sykora or Malone, Geno might as well have a neon sign over his head that reads "TRIPLE-TEAM ME".

So why am I dropping this on Therrien's head? Because the Penguins have three games remaining on this homestand, and Therrien will almost certainly change the line combinations for each and every one of those three games. He just can't stop himself. It worked last year, and by God, it will work again this year, right? Therrien's English is serviceable, but I honestly believe that he doesn't know the meaning of the word continuity.

Oh, and he called Marc-Andre Fleury "fragile" in last night's post-game presser. But if I get started on our goaltending situation, this could run longer than a Peter King column, and I wouldn't even get to the tangents about coffee.

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One response

  1. Good post! There are these bursts of inspired play like the 4th line had last night, and they get nothing to show for it, not even drawing any of the penalties they deserved – then the opponent invariably comes back and scores instead (and draws those penalties).
    BTW, SportsCenter this morning actually did replay Ruutu's hilarious yap-yap gesture toward the Devils' bench and his hugely enjoyable hit on Zubrus (twice in a row) – go figure! In fact, I see ESPN still has that video on their NHL page.

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