Inking the Pens Starting Lines


Jun 5, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma reacts to being swept by the Boston Bruins in game four of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden. The Boston Bruins won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

With all eyes anticipating January 19th, the Pittsburgh Penguins are set to begin their quest at re-claiming the cup.

But with players coming and going, one has to wonder–what will the lines be?

And now that the season has been shortened, decisions will be made sooner rather than later.  This a test to the team; however, it also is a test to the coaching staff.

The Penguins have a lot of options.  Those options were made available to the team as a result of trading Jordan Staal to Carolina.  Yes, it was a reluctant deal to make, but GM Ray Shero felt that giving up Staal for what he was receiving would only bolster the roster.  While Staal provided that long wingspan and excitingly-saucy wrist shot, he became expendable when the team sought to improve defensively.

The team no longer has Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham, Brent Johnson, Zbynek Michalek and Jordan Staal.  So both the offense and defense is going to look moderately different.

Breaking down the offensive units, first question to ask is–who is going to play alongside Sidney Crosby?  Head Coach Dan Bylsma has already come out and said that he will try returning Crosby to his pre-concussion linemates of Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.  Kunitz crashes the net and is exactly the type of player Crosby needs while Dupuis showed last season that he was able to shoulder some of the load.

Dupuis is a registered right wing, while Kunitz is a left.  Wouldn’t Kunitz fit well on the third line with young, newly-acquired center Brandon Sutter?  That way Crosby can keep Dupuis, to which he has thrived specifically with Crosby,   and can finally take AHL forward Beau Bennett, “under his wing.”

Bennett, the Penguins 2010 first round pick, is currently leading the organization’s AHL team with 23 points in 28 games.  There has been speculation that this would be the year that Bennett might finally get the call and why not?  He’d be learning from the best!  Not only that, the Pens would wisely be prepping for the future.

Pittsburgh needs to look at the bigger picture.  Kunitz is signed through the 2013-2014 season and Dupuis signed a two-year deal this past March.

As these next two seasons play out, Kunitz and Dupuis will be older.  Wouldn’t the team want to see Bennett get experience playing alongside Crosby now rather than when they probably lose one or both at the end of their contracts?  That way, Bennett would already have a couple seasons under his belt with Crosby, should they leave.

The second line is a little more certain.  It will first and foremost undoubtedly be anchored by reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin.  That also means James Neal, who became Malkin’s go-to man, will sequentially be penciled in.  The other side of the two is the real question mark though.  We know the Pens had flip-flopped their lineup sporadically last season due to the various player injuries, but why not use Dustin Jeffrey here?  Showing sneaky scoring ability, Jeffrey potentially could’ve thrived last year had he not sustained a concussion.  Might this also be added–the wing is just 24 years of age.  They’ve already tried most of the other options (Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, etc) and they hardly lasted, so why not.

Newest acquisition Brandon Sutter, will seemingly take third line center duties.  This is the make or break line right here.  If Sutter can manage to play his game and not worry about trying to replace what Jordan Staal brought to the table–it’ll all be fine.  As mentioned previously, here is where you give him grinder Chris Kunitz.  Throw the young center in between him and Tyler Kennedy, the line looks just as good as Staal’s once did.  Then at this point, it would be all about execution.  One of the reasons why Pittsburgh’s been successful has been because of their third line.  So if the third line can play efficiently as before, it’ll only maintain that stability for the rest of the lineup.

One thing that’s unique about the Pittsburgh Penguins is that they have an abundance of young players with a lot of experience already.  So when you put a Beau Bennett with a Sidney Crosby or a Dustin Jeffrey with an Evgeni Malkin, you know that you are trying to build a chemistry that will be set in stone for years to come.  Or you’re just trying groom them to grow into the NHL at least.

As for the final line, it seems like a toss up.  They could choose between either Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, Matt Cooke, Eric Tangradi and/or Tanner Glass.  If I were a betting man, it very well could end up being Adams, Cooke and Vitale.

Then, there’s the defense.

The six defenseman that coach Bylsma chooses will be utterly vital.  A huge reason as to why the Pens didn’t march further in last years playoffs was directed towards this portion of the team.

Honestly, it was hard to believe too, after the team penalty kill was ranked number one in the entire league last season.  It only took a couple playoff contests to recognize their weaknesses because when the Flyers were easily penetrating neutral zones and scoring profusely off of a laid-back forecheck, even three goal leads weren’t safe.

We know that Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and most likely Deryk Engelland, already are lock for four of the slots–but what of the other three?

The other players currently on the roster down as defenseman are Ben Lovejoy and Paul Martin.  Martin didn’t play up to expectations and his salary is a luxury that the organization might have regretted handing him in the first place.  Currently, Martin makes the fourth most money on the team, behind only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.  This isn’t to say the organization should dump him after an abysmal 2012 campaign, but it might strongly be considered with the team already containing two of the games elite (and most expensive).  As far as Lovejoy, he has yet to play a full season in the NHL.  This isn’t to say he wouldn’t be able to deal with it, but the Penguins need someone who’s going to re-energize the whole defensive group immediately.

Sure the Penguins would’ve liked to acquire an all-purpose defenseman, but what about bringing one up?

Pittburgh has drafted a defenseman in the first round four out of the last five times.  Simon Despres, Joseph Morrow, Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maata all could potentially join the Penguins defensive fleet.

Despres, who was the 2009 first rounder, already has a little experience playing in the NHL last season.  Morrow was the Pens 2010 choice, currently playing in the AHL and has already had experience playing with Pouliot, the Pens 8th overall selection this past entry draft.

Pouliot is highly regarded as the Penguins most prized defensive prospect due to him being the main reason they were able to depart with Staal.  His spectacular two-way game, youth, and savvy play very well could land him a roster spot.  Fans could possibly see him and Morrow playing together in one pairing or they could try tying Pouliot with Maata, who was drafted in this past first round after Pouliot.

Either way, the Pens should ultimately start Pouliot right away.  The defenseman is currently playing for the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) and has posted 37 points (8G, 29A) in just 37 contests.  Pittsburgh has to be drooling over the fact they can put him on a power-play with Letang, Malkin, Crosby and Neal.

But with a lot of questions still needing to be answered, the Penguins must not lose focus.  They’re a lot of people picking the Penguins to win because of the fire power they possess; however, nothing is won on paper.

Whatever they decide to do, it’ll be interesting to see what the all-around pairings are for this upcoming January 19th.

Specially with the opponent rumored to be Philadelphia that day.