The way Ron Hainsey sees it, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the vanguard of a disturbing new trend in the NHL – at least for defenders.
They can literally come at you in waves – as soon as Sidney Crosby and the first line are done buzzing around your end of the ice, out come Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist. Then it's Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan.
"It's hard to number them. I don't really attempt to number them," Hainsey, who plays with Morgan Rielly on the Toronto Maple Leafs' top defence pair, said Friday of the Penguins' top three lines. "There's a few now. Us, Winnipeg's got three big lines. I wouldn't be concerned about numbering them, though. I would just be concerned about all of them.
"Seems like the top teams, Nashville, Vegas, Winnipeg, Tampa, Boston, they're spreading it," said Hainsey, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins last spring. "These guys, Pittsburgh, they're spreading it through three lines if not down to the fourth. It seems to be the trend. Winnipeg picking up [Paul] Statsny now. The third line, Statsny, [Nikolaj] Ehlers, [Patrick] Laine, if you numbered them. That's the trend out there. These deep-forward teams are hard to handle."
Actually, injuries have disrupted some of those teams. Auston Matthews was limited at practice again Friday so the top Leafs centre will miss Saturday's game against the Penguins, his sixth since sustaining a shoulder injury. In Winnipeg, Jets centre Mark Scheifele is back on the shelf with a shoulder problem and the Boston Bruins are still without their No. 1 centre, Patrice Bergeron, who has a broken foot.
But unfortunately for the Leafs, they have to face the full complement of Penguins firepower when they end a four-day break in the schedule Saturday at the Air Canada Centre. The addition of Brassard as the third-line centre last month in a trade with the Ottawa Senators gave the Penguins the most depth down the middle in the NHL.
The Penguins' top line may have two relatively young wingers flanking Crosby in Jake Guentzel, 23, and Conor Sheary, 25, but they mesh well with the superstar. And as Hainsey says, how can you assign those lines numbers when the alleged No. 2 centre, Malkin, has 84 points and was second in the NHL points race before Friday's games?
Malkin is a frontrunner to be one of the three finalists for the NHL's most-valuable-player award, the Hart Trophy. Someone mentioned to Leafs head coach Mike Babcock that Malkin may finally be getting his due after playing second-fiddle to Crosby for all these years. Babcock brought up the three Stanley Cups won by the Crosby-Malkin teams.
"Does he get as much as he might if he were by himself?" the Leafs coach said. "No. But he wouldn't win as much if he were by himself. So, do you want the credit or do you want the wins?"
Teams with the luxury of being able to spread their elite offensive talent over three lines obviously create headaches for opposing teams. The pain starts with the coach, who has to figure out how to check each of those lines.
"It's only going to be a trend for the fortunate," Babcock said. "If you got three centre men that's what you do. If you don't, you probably can't do it. Centres are the hardest guys to acquire, without any question.
"When you get real good ones you want to surround them with the best people you possibly can. There's no question it creates match-up problems with teams deep down the middle."
Aside from the physical task of trying to skate with Crosby, Malkin and Brassard, not to mention Kessel, it is mentally wearing seeing those lines relentlessly come over the boards.
"It is difficult at times," said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, who will spend his time Saturday playing against either Crosby or Malkin. "At the end of the day nobody really enjoys playing defence, especially if you're an offensive player and you like to play with the puck. We want to hang on to the puck as much as possible and force them to play in their own end. [Depth] is the hardest thing to control and match up against."
The difficult thing about defending Crosby and Malkin is that each has to be dealt with in a different way.
"Geno [Malkin] is big and likes to skate through the neutral zone," Kadri said. "Sid is much the same but Sid is more bottom-of-the-circles dangerous. He spins off guys, uses his strength to get to the net, really intelligent that way.
"Geno is obviously good off the rush and in transition he's unbelievable. It's two different looks, that's for sure. You've got to rely on other guys to be in their position and take away lanes they have and force them to throw the puck down the walls."