With the injuries the Penguins have suffered at forward, losing Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Beau Bennett for an extended stretch, the bottom 6 has been filled with callups from Wilkes-Barre. Over the past 10 games, the Baby Pens have gotten an extended taste of NHL action with familiar linemates. While they've struggled at times, the group as a whole has started to find their footing a bit over the past few of games as they've combined for 4 goals and 2 assists in the most recent 3 games played. But with Malkin and Bonino set to return the to Pittsburgh lineup Saturday night, two of the AHLers will be bumped from the lineup, and more will follow as the Pens return to full health. While it doesn't necessarily mean who WILL be bumped from the lineup, we list who SHOULD be bumped from the lineup, starting with the most deserving of heading back to Wilkes-Barre at #6.
6. Kevin Porter
Kevin Porter follows in the tradition started by the likes of Craig Adams and Zack Sill of Pittsburgh having at least one completely useless forward on the 4th line. He has just 3 assists in 38 games, and while his 48.6 SACF% would've been slightly below average under Mike Johnston, he played just 8 of his games this year under the former coach, and he's only missed the first game of Mike Sullivan's tenure. Which makes the 54.1 SACF% the team's posted with Porter off the ice really highlight his deficiencies.
Unlike the other 5 players, who are at most 24 years old, Porter will turn 30 next month, and as such he does have a fair amount of NHL experience, but it's mostly on bad teams without much production to show for his time in the lineup. That the Penguins would willingly play such a bad option in their lineup speaks to a soft spot somewhere along the coaching staff, but there's no doubt that Porter should be the first one out of the lineup. He would need to clear waivers to head back to Wilkes-Barre, but at this point it's hard to imagine who would want to claim him, or why it would be all that much of a loss if they did.
5. Oskar Sundqvist
Unfortunately, while Porter should be the first one gone, in reality after playing 30 games straight he likely has much more job security than he actually should. The likely first player out of the lineup is the last one recalled from WBS, and that's Oskar Sundqvist. Sundqvist is in the middle of his first professional season in North America, and so far he's about matched his scoring rates from his time in the Swedish Elite League with the Baby Penguins. He's recorded 1 assist in his 10 games in Pittsburgh, and with a 49.0 SACF% (vs 54.2 SACF% off the ice), it's clear that Sundqvist still has some developing to do. But at 21 years old, he's the youngest of the players mentioned, and his future with the Penguins should be bright as he continues gaining experience.
UPDATE: The Pens have assigned Sundqvist back to Wilkes-Barre shortly after this article was written.
4. Tom Kuhnhackl
It's a close call between number 3 and 4 on this list, but Tom Kuhnhackl just loses out despite finding the back of the net in 2 of his last 3 games. Kuhnhackl has made the second biggest contribution on the PK on this list behind Porter, but like Porter he's also been a drag on the possession, and he has the worst relative possession of the 6 players listed with a 49.2 SACF% on ice vs 56.9 SACF% off ice.
3. Bryan Rust
A case could have been made for either Bryan Rust or Kuhnhackl to be 3rd on this list, but previous experience in the NHL and marginally better possession stats give Rust an edge. Rust is the first player in the countdown to break even in possession with a 50.4 SACF%, but like the others so far the team is better with him off the ice (55.3 SACF%) than on. Another way that Rust stands above Kuhnhackl is in scoring chances. Rust has the better scoring chance numbers both on a team scale (53.6 SCF% vs 48.4 SCF%) and an individual scale (9.7 iSC/60 vs 4.8 iSC/60). But with 4 spots still open after Malkin and Bonino return, both Kuhnhackl and Rust should continue to be in the lineup for the time being.
2. Scott Wilson
The top two spots on this list really separate themselves from the previous 4 players, and when healthy they should continue to receive ice time at the NHL level. Scott Wilson is next up on the list. Wilson has found his scoring touch recently in Pittsburgh, scoring 3 goals in 3 games before being unable to increase the streak to 4 in last night's loss to the Bruins. It could be a sign that things are clicking for Wilson at the NHL level after scoring 22 goals with 14 assists in 34 games played with Wilkes-Barre this season - still leading the Baby Pens in both goals and points. Wilson has also held his own with a 54.7 SACF% this season as compared to 54.4% the Penguins have with him off the ice. As the forwards get healthy and return to the lineup, Wilson should benefit from getting to play with better teammates, which should help put him in a place to better showcase his offensive skills.
1. Conor Sheary
Despite going undrafted, Sheary signed with the Pittsburgh organization as a free agent out of UMass Amherst and immediately started tearing up the AHL. Before being recalled by the Penguins earlier in the season, Sheary had score 91 points in 88 career games with the Baby Pens. The scoring hasn't quite followed yet to Pittsburgh, where he has 3 goals and 2 assists in 26 games played, but his 1.20 pts/60 at 5-on-5 is respectable for an undrafted free agent in just his second professional season, and Sheary has been a great driver of possession as well. The Penguins have a 56.6 SACF% with Sheary on the ice vs 54.0% with him on the bench. Sheary has spent some time on the wing with Crosby and Malkin as well, with 86:06 of his 241:50 TOI at even strength with one of those two players. Sheary has earned the trust of the coaching staff more than any of the other AHL callups, and he will be looking to make the case that he belongs in Pittsburgh full time.