Kovacevic: ‘Difficult’ roster decisions loom


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Sidney Crosby pulls away from the Flyers' Ivan Provorov Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Sam Lafferty watched up here with us.

Take whatever one will from the Penguins' 7-1 flattening of the Flyers on this Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena -- and there was plenty from which to pick, even beyond the broader sight of the franchise's archrival mired in abject misery for three full hours -- but that's the one that struck me from this press-box perspective.

Because Lafferty belongs up here about as much as I'd belong down there.

And yet ...

"When we have a healthy lineup, we've got a pretty competitive lineup," Sullivan opened his reply to my question after this game about how the gradual return of his half-dozen injured forwards has impacted the competition level for jobs. Meaning, specifically, the circumstance that prompted the young season's first healthy scratch of Lafferty, who's more than proven in his first 10 NHL games -- three goals, three assists, so much more -- that he's more than good enough to stay.

"Our coaching staff's gonna have some real difficult decisions. We had some for tonight's game," Sullivan continued, clearly referencing Lafferty. "And that's a good challenge for a coaching staff. We really like the depth of this group. We feel we can be a four-line team. Every line is participating, and that's what it takes to win in this league. ... And getting some of our guys healthy and back in the lineup, I think, creates some internal competition within our group, an internal push to be at your best."

He paused a moment.

"And so, I think that's a real neat dynamic to watch."

Brian Dumoulin expressed a similar sentiment when I broached the internal competition aspect:

Hey, who'd argue on a night like this?

Seven goals came from seven different players.

Ten forwards produced at least a point, including three each from Sidney Crosby, Dominik Simon, and Dominik Kahun.

All four lines produced at least one five-on-five goal, and three of the four utterly dominated possession, outshooting the Flyers, 26-8.

And overall, within this 8-5 start, they've managed to rank sixth in NHL scoring at 3.54 goals per game, fourth in even-strength shots on goal at 339, fifth in even-strength high-danger scoring chances at 103. This despite missing nearly half their forwards for long stretches: Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann and Bryan Rust have cost a combined 55 man-games lost to injury. And this despite, not coincidentally, a disappointing power play stuck at 23rd in the league at 16.2 percent.

That scenario's a "neat dynamic," all right. But, to further borrow from Sullivan, it's also a "good challenge."

The challenge began getting formally undertaken on this day with returns to Wilkes-Barre for Adam Johnson and Joe Blandisi. The former made an impact early in his stint, and he'll be back, but those, respectfully, were the easy calls.

Then came scratching Lafferty, which had to have hurt. I'm told that management, all the way up to Jim Rutherford, feel so strongly about his showing to date that they view him -- at least in terms of readiness -- as here to stay. And maybe he'd be that, if this weren't the actual lineup Sullivan and staff put together to face the Flyers:


Who's getting bumped out of there for Lafferty?

Teddy Blueger would appear to be lowest on the pole, but he's picked up five points, he's been a lead penalty-killer, he's second only to Crosby in faceoff success, and his 51.79 Corsi For percentage is very high for a fourth-line forward who starts most shifts at a territorial disadvantage, taking a team high 77 defensive-zone faceoffs.

Won't be him.

Won't be Zach Aston-Reese or Kahun, either, now that both have gotten going after flat starts, including another goal for each in this game:

And that's to say nothing of this: Lafferty is now the lone forward left on the roster who wouldn't need to clear waivers to get back to Wilkes-Barre. And since he's 24, he needs to play, not be part of some NHL taxi squad. So he'll almost certainly be sent down soon, if not this week, on that count alone.

But wait: Malkin's likely back Saturday for the matinee with the Oilers. Which means that one of those players I just listed as not coming out for Lafferty will be out for Malkin. Maybe Blueger. Maybe, because wingers are always less essential, one of the other two. Maybe some huge surprise.

So good luck with that, Coach, after a collective showing as complete as the one on this night.

The other potential solution, of course, is a trade. Maybe Bjugstad. Maybe Rust. Both are in a salary range that could bring still-needed cap relief. But I've heard not a whisper suggesting Rutherford's motivated to make any such move and, in fact, I'm not sure what he'd achieve toward the current roster if he did. Barring an immensely unlikely trade of a player for a draft pick -- remember which GM we're discussing here -- another player will come back into the same logjam. And trading a forward for a defenseman would only recreate the logjam Rutherford just relieved by trading Erik Gudbranson.

Might be best to just win and bear it.

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