If the Pens want to make it further than they did last season, their third-line is going to have to step it up.
Understandably their defense — and goalies (cough) — are obvious keys as well, Pittsburgh needs more consistency from the third-line to avoid another Stanley Cup letdown.
One of the main reasons why Pittsburgh was so successful in the past was because they had contributions throughout their entire lineup — not just the top two lines.
Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal established fortitude, that even when the Pens top-six were struggling mightily in occasional contests, they were the trio that helped pick them up when they needed it most.
Unfortunately for the Pens, every one of those players has now moved on, and they’re struggling to find that corporeal group of skaters to back-up the first two lines.
Brandon Sutter has become the centerpiece to re-establishing what they’ve lost, and in cutting him some slack, last season was his first rodeo with the club.
But now that he’s gotten acclimated with the Pens system, he’s going to be counted on more than ever this upcoming year to bolster the third-line with his leadership and production.
While the organization has addressed the need for increased stability along their defensive front — i.e. the re-addition of Rob Scuderi — they now have to bank on their seven-through-nine forwards to seize their responsibilities.
Yes, there’s still the Marc-Andre Fleury dilemma — but if you look at the rest of the league, goaltenders haven’t been as reliable as they have been in the past.
And even though fans are calling for his removal after two consecutive abysmal postseason outings, the organization still recognizes he’s young and they’ve invested too much into him for them to just give up.
The Pens are built to score, and because they couldn’t put points up on the board in their Eastern Conference Final ousting against the Boston Bruins, it really didn’t matter how well the goalies played.
With questions surrounding who’ll play alongside Sutter on the third-line, signs point to rookie sensation Beau Bennett being at least one of his relied wingers for the 2013-14 campaign.
Bennett, who bursted onto the scene with slick goal scoring and matured puck control, is going to also be counted on to help balance out Pittsburgh’s production.
The other winger is still a mystery.
My guess is that the final spot will come down to either Matt D’Agostini or Dustin Jeffrey.
D’Agostini is new, while Jeffrey is probably the best bet to fill the void — being that he’s been in the Pens system his entire hockey career.
Jeffrey also plays on the left side (D’Agostini’s a right winger), which will ultimately factor huge into the final decision because Bennett is going to be skating on the right.
Both D’Agostini and Jeffrey were bounced back-and-forth between the AHL and NHL last season, but each player could potentially thrive given the opportunity to skate with Sutter.
So in looking ahead, the Pens are most likely running Bennett, Jeffrey and Sutter on their third-line opening day — barring a trade.
If you want my opinion, I think the chemistry between these three could propel the Pens to the next level.
All of them are are aged 25 and younger, have room to grow with each other, and possess the capabilities to mold into a very symmetrical pairing.
Their augmentation will be crucial, but if they can work economically throughout the season, the Pens could see better results than last year.
Let’s hope, because Pittsburgh’s cup chances are riding on it.