This offseason has been something completely foreign to the Pittsburgh Penguins and their loyal fanbase.
During former general manager Ray Shero’s tenure, playoffs were not a privilege, but an expectation. Given the massive amount of talent on the roster, fans expected a dynasty of dominance in the postseason. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and after the Penguins won the cup in 2009, their postseason history is littered with one disappointment after another.
Now, the Penguins will begin the 2014 season with a new GM, coach, and a vastly changed roster. Soon after taking over, new GM Jim Rutherford began redesigning the roster, and changing the Penguins’ development philosophy.
Without any further delay, let’s take a look at the most effective lines new head coach Mike Johnston could deploy.
First Line: Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Steve Downie
I truly believe that Pascal Dupuis’ time playing aside Sidney Crosby is over. Dupuis is 35 and coming off a serious injury, while I’m sure Dupuis is working as diligent as ever to come back, he will not be the same player he was before the injury. Period.
Almost every Penguins fan can expect, actually bet on, Chris Kunitz reclaiming his spot on Sidney Crosby’s left wing. While I was watching the regular-season it was obvious Kunitz faded towards the end of the season. I think that Kunitz’s lack of production can be attributed to his age, playing in the Olympics, and a lack of a reliable right wing on the top-line.
However, a rested Kunitz can still be effective, especially when you add a player like Steve Downie to the first line.
Downie has been labeled as somewhat of a “bad boy” in the league, and the Penguins have been missing a physical presence like him since the departure of Matt Cooke. Placing Downie on the top-line would not only give Crosby protection on the ice, but also allow Kunitz to shoot the puck more instead of going to the net consistently.
Second Line: Beau Bennett – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Rutherford inherited without a doubt one of the most talented second lines in all of hockey; yet, only one player from last season is still on the roster. Evgeni Malkin is arguably one of the most talented centers in the National Hockey League, but he has always played second fiddle to captain Crosby. There is little doubt that ownership favors Crosby over Malkin, given former superstar and co-owner Mario Lemieux’s close friendship with Crosby.
Malkin’s good buddy James Neal was shipped to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, and his other linemate Jussi Jokinen was lost in free agency. Watch for Hornqvist to replace Jokinen on Malkin’s right, while the promising Beau Bennett will be given a chance to prove he can not only stay healthy, but finally become the top-six forward the Penguins envisioned he could be.
I could easily see Hornqvist replacing, if not surpassing, Neal’s production if he develops chemistry with Malkin. The great part about the addition of Hornqvist is that he is under contract through the 2017 season – per Cap Geek. As long as he is not traded, we could see Hornqvist flanking Malkin for seasons to come.
Bennett is the question mark and is undeniably talented, but has shown to be brittle and inconsistent. Only time will tell if he will prove doubters wrong this season.
Third Line: Nick Spaling – Brandon Sutter – Pascal Dupuis
One Penguin that hopefully will be under contract for the forseeeable future is third line center Brandon Sutter.
He was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes two seasons ago, and until recently, has looked completely average. Sutter finally had a breakthrough performance during the last postseason, and is going to command a raise when negotiating his new contract.
Most likely joining Sutter on the third line will be Nick Spaling on his left and Dupuis on his right. Spaling is a versatile forward who can play all three positions, as well as contribute offensively. Penguins fans know Dupuis and the speed he brings to whatever line he plays on, but his physical presence has been underrated for quite sometime.
Scoring from the third line has been missing during the last few seasons, but this is no longer the case. With Dupuis and Spaling on Sutter’s sides, this could be the most explosive third line the Penguins have had in years.
Fourth Line: Blake Comeau – Marcel Goc – Craig Adams
Adams has been known as a fierce penalty killer, but age has started to catch up to him. Look for this coming season to be his last in a Penguins’ sweater.
Goc was acquired from the Florida Panthers last year at the trade deadline in an attempt to load up for the Stanley Cup. During his brief time with the Penguins, Goc looked out of place and was eventually injured and missed significant time. Given a full offseason and strong linemates, Goc should provide the Penguins with an inexpensive and reliable fourth line center.
The last spot should be filled by Blake Comeau, the former Columbus Blue Jacket who signed as a free agent to a one-year deal. Comeau is a skilled player that the Penguins signed to provide toughness and bottom-six scoring. If you give Goc and Comeau a full season to develop chemistry, the Penguins’ fourth line could be surprisingly productive.
Spare Forwards And A Potential Change On The Power-Play:
Recently re-signed forward Jayson Megna could easily see playing time with the Penguins this coming season. Given the injury history of some of the Penguins’ players who are projected to start, Megna could see time performing on either the third or fourth line.
Despite a lack of NHL experience, Megna was able to produce five goals and four assists in 36 games played last season with the Penguins – per NHL.com. His numbers were hardly those of a superstar, but considering his lack of ice-time and position on the third and forth lines, nine points is quite respectable.
The dark horse to make the Penguins’ roster is 17-year-old forward Kasperi Kapanen.
Kapanen was the Penguins’ 22nd overall selection in the first round of the 2014 NHL draft, and was thought to be unattainable by management. Despite his young age, Kapanen has been playing at the professional level in Europe for the last two seasons. To be blatently honest, his statistics were nothing to brag about before the draft, but the kid can flat out play. When you take the time to watch his film almost all of goals show his immense talent, take a look below:
If Kapanen can make the roster at such a young age, he will need to prove to the Penguins that he can be consistent and produce at the NHL level. Before you say that this will never happen, look at Olli Maatta, who went from not being expected to make the team to starting on the Penguins’ blue-line.
Changing the Power-Play?
One of the biggest criticisms of former head coach Dan Bylsma was his inability to adjust and experiment.
Given the massive roster turnover, and Rutherford’s wish to spread out scoring, he could convince Johnston to make a few changes to the power-play. Bylsma’s formula was to have as many forwards on the ice as possible (4), with one defensemen, usually Kris Letang. This formula not only proved ineffective at times, but also a risk defensively, given Letang’s sloppy play and tendency to turn the puck over.
If Johnston really wants to follow with Rutherford’s vision, he will make a few changes to the Penguins’ two power-play lines. First, playing two defensemen on the power-play, given the Penguins’ ample depth of puck moving offensive defensemen this should be no problem. Watch for the top unit to feature Letang and newly signed Christian Ehrhoff, while the second unit will showcase Maatta and veteran Paul Martin.
The second change that will happen to the Penguins’ power-play is spreading out the “Two-Headed Monster” of Malkin and Crosby. Crosby will return to the top Power Play and Malkin will shift to the second Power Play with his respective wings. This strategy not only spreads out the scoring, but it doesn’t ask Sutter to play a style of hockey in which he does not excel at. These pairings really should not be considered one and two, but one-A and one-B.
Regardless of how these lines will be played, the Penguins look to have a much deeper group of forwards moving into the 2014 season.
Ultimately, they must find balance. Every line must be effective.