If the season were to start on time, which it most likely won’t, and the Penguins don’t pull off any last minute moves, which they most likely won’t, they will enter the season short a top six forward. Last year the line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal were one of, if not the most lethal line in the NHL and with the return of Sidney Crosby the Penguins will yet again be one of the top offensive teams in the league.
The question still remains who will be the ever elusive winger the Penguins have been searching for to play with Sidney Crosby. After the 2008 Stanley Cup run the Penguins let the last suitable big named winger, Marian Hossa, slip away and they have yet to find a replacement. Ray Shero was able to miraculously pull off a one-sided trade for James Neal (with throw in, top 4 defenseman Matt Niskanen…okay he’s only top 4 on the Penguins but still…) at the trading deadline in 2011 to be this winger. With both centers, Evgeni Malkin (Torn ACL and MCL) and Sidney Crosby (Concussion) slated to make their returns from injury for the 2012 season Shero had to think Neal would fit perfectly alongside Crosby. As we know Crosby had a tougher time than anyone could have imagined with his recovery and Neal was slated in next to Malkin where he exploded for a 40 goal, 81 point season.
It would seem exceedingly foolish to split up Neal and Malkin now after they both had career years. Kunitz who put up career numbers himself alongside Neal and Malkin during the 2011-2012 season may have the unlucky draw of having to settle for Sidney Crosby as a center once again. The Kunitz, Crosby, Dupuis line has, in the past, clicked at extremely high levels most notably when Crosby had a 25 game points streak from November 5th through December 28th 2011 that accumulated 50 points with 26 goals, and 24 assists for Crosby. During that same span as his main line mates (excluding power play) Kunitz had 19 points and Dupuis had 12. This was really the last time we saw Crosby clicking on all cylinders considering the concussion that would keep him out for the next one and half calendar years came just two games after the streak ended at the Winter Classic January 1, 2012 on a blind-sided hit from David Steckel. (It’s still frustrating to think about…)
If Bylsma does decide to break up the juggernaut line from last year to put Kunitz back with Crosby that leaves a slot on the Neal, Malkin line empty. If not there is a space next to Crosby and Dupuis. Either way that leaves a top 6 winger spot open. Who will fill it? Good question, without an apparent answer. Last year an aging Steve Sullivan filled that top 6 role while Jordan Staal filled Crosby’s role as the center but both have now moved on to Phoenix and Carolina respectively. So what options do the Penguins have? Not many but let’s take a look at the candidates:
Tangradi was drafted 42nd overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2007 entry draft (a similar spot to where James Neal was taken 33rd in 2005). The Penguins acquired Tangradi with Chris Kunitz for Ryan Whitney at the trading deadline in the 2008 season (Yet another huge deadline deal. Shero’s resume at the deadline has been immaculate). You would think this would be ideal for Dan Bylsma. Tangradi is a big power forward with pedigree but has yet to live up to expectations. He has played stints with the Penguins up from the Baby Penguins over the past several seasons. He has yet to look comfortable on the ice in the NHL though and has had major trouble finding the back of the net. As I mentioned earlier James Neal was taken a little earlier in the second round and it took till last year playing with the Hart Trophy winner to truly break out but Neal showed flourishes before that racking up three 20 goal seasons before breaking out with top center Evgeni Malkin.
Would Crosby or Malkin have the same affect with Tangradi? Unlikely to the same level but that doesn’t mean he won’t score 20 goals opposed to Neal’s 40. It’s said a parking cone could score 20 goals on a line with Crosby. Kevin Stevens didn’t show too much promise (admittedly only after his 2nd year in 1990) before Mario Lemieux was his center and he racked up huge seasons and back to back 50 goal campaigns. It’s downright stupid to compare Eric Tangradi to Kevin Stevens, one of the best power forwards ever, but it does illustrate how an all world center can make all the difference to a power forward.
Could Tangradi fill in the points Kunitz had put up? Maybe, probably not, but he would fill the grinder role and open up ice for the two big guns Malkin and Neal, or Crosby. Does Tangradi just need the confidence before he blooms? It’s hard to say. A good camp could make all the difference but with a lockout looming, they won’t have a camp and it may be hard for Bylsma to stomach putting him on the top line without proving himself.
Jeffery has shown promise at the NHL level, mainly in the 2010-2011 season, where he put up 12 points in 25 games. Extrapolate that and he would have had a 40 point season on mainly the third and fourth line. Add Crosby or Malkin to that and we may have ourselves a key contributor. Jeffery also has to be 100% to be considered. He has had knee problems throughout his whole career including last season where he was only was able to muster half the points he was in 2010-2011 in the same number of games but Jeffery has come up with big goals in big regular season games and is noticeable on the ice. Jeffery has a lot of talent and paired with Malkin or Crosby he could take the next step. Jeffery isn’t the big net front presence that Tangradi is but he is a more finesse passer and playmaker which would be more beneficial playing with Neal and Malkin who are shooters. Another plus on his side is that Jeffery has worked hard to get where he is since being a 6th round draft pick in the 2007 entry draft. He doesn’t have the pedigree but does have the work ethic it takes to make it in Bylsma’s system.
Cookie monster’s bad/cheap shotting/reckless days are seemingly (hopefully) behind him and down the stretch he played well with Crosby proving he had goal scoring capabilities. Cooke would also bring grit to either line that would be a welcomed sight. Cooke has the most experience and would be a decent short term solution to the problem. Cooke will never be a big numbers player but could play the same type of role Dupius does, with the Crosby, Kunitz, on the Malkin, Neal line. The first two names were more long term solutions but if Shero thinks he can get a big name winger at the deadline or in the next offseason (which he has not yet been able to do) Cooke might fill in nicely and add on to the career high 19 goal season he had last year. If all else fails with the two prospects Jeffery and Tangradi, I would turn to Cooke over Kennedy…Speaking of…
For the love of god, No. Tyler Kennedy is admittedly, for me, the one player that everyone has to blame everything on. It should be stated that Kennedy is probably the leading candidate to take the position, Kennedy is a previous 21 goal scorer and did so, for the most part, without the help of Malkin or Crosby in 2011 when he stepped up to fill a goal scoring role the penguins sorely needed without their two injured superstars. The problem is not his shooting ability but the fact that he shoots from everywhere, anywhere and at any time without looking to see if that’s the best play. This has worked for him in the past, but he hasn’t played substantially with superstars in the past like Malkin, Neal or Crosby. With Neal and Malkin, who have similar types of mindsets but with infinitely more skill, it would not work. Most likely if Kennedy would be in a top 6 role they would put him with Crosby. Who would you rather have shooting puck with the game on his stick Sidney Crosby or Tyler Kennedy? Yeah me too.
Only time will tell who Bylsma decides upon. It could be a committee of all of them at different points in the season, just turning to the hot hand. Will it make or break the Penguins? No. Will they miss the playoffs because whoever Bylsma picks isn’t up to snuff? No. Could it mean the difference between the first seed and the fourth seed? Absolutely. Could it make the difference in playing Ottawa or Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs? You bet. With the Atlantic as tight as it is, little things could make all the difference in the world. As I prefaced at the start, offense won’t be what drowns the Penguins, but it will be what they rely on, if it were you who would you rely on?