Following Saturday night’s 6-5 shootout victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh is off until Wednesday before another meeting in Toronto against the Leafs.
The team has returned to Pittsburgh for the next three days as the team gets a few days off to return home in the midst of a five game road trip.
For GM Ray Shero and the Penguins brass, there will be no vacation time or days off in the next 36 hours as the 2011 NHL Trade Deadline is Monday at 3:00 p.m.
As the Penguins ponder another roster move or two, head coach Dan Bylsma has time to mull over some lineup options for the week ahead and moving forward that should include some injured players getting back, like a Chris Kunitz and a possible addition at the trade deadline.
–One of those options I’d expect Bylsma to consider going into Wednesday’s game is breaking up his top line of James Neal – Jordan Staal and Alexei Kovalev, especially if Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy return at somepoint this upcoming week.
Not that the unit has been playing bad by means. What I’m sure will intrigue Bylsma and the coaching staff as they go over tape, is some chemistry between Mark Letestu and Alexei Kovalev late in Saturday’s game.
Kovalev remains a gifted passer and Letestu seems to read Kovalev well and adapt to his play which on one play, for example, led to Kovalev finding Letestu breaking down the center ice for a cross-ice pass in overtime that led to a great scoring chance.
Why break up Neal – Staal and Kovalev?
Kunitz and Staal have always been seen as great fit and if Kunitz returns this week, Bylsma will have the option of giving Letestu a shot at centering Neal and Kovalev, while going with a unit of Kunitz – Staal and either Tyler Kennedy (assuming he’s healthy), Matt Cooke or Pascal Dupuis.
Assuming the Penguins don’t make any more additions and Kunitz, Kennedy get back soon, Pittsburgh still has some difficult decisions to make for the short-term, most notably with Chris Conner and Joe Vitale.
— Conner who was the Penguins likely scratch if Kennedy didn’t come up with an injury, has run his course in my opinion. Talk is once the Penguins get healthy, he’s likely Wilkes Barre bound.
— Vitale is playing extremely well and showing the ability where he should garner strong consideration for a regular roster spot next season. Vitale though would be one of the first players to go down for when the Penguins need to create roster space. Vitale deserves to stick around but he faces a numbers game.
— The sense is Dustin Jeffrey has locked in a roster spot for now.
Here’s my top-4 lines with Vitale and Conner being the one’s out of the mix, via how I see it shaping up.
Kunitz – Staal – Kennedy
Neal – Letestu – Kovalev
Cooke – Jeffrey – Dupuis
Rupp – Talbot – Adams
–*One thing Dustin Jeffrey is very effective at is getting himself in the scoring areas. Something that appears to be a natural ability of his.
There’s some areas of his game that I don’t like at all. However, he’s one of those players who doesn’t possess any kind of offensive skills that jump out but he does the little things that has him in the right spot at the right time.
–* In three games thus far, Matt Niskanen has played particularly well. Dan Bylsma admitted on Wednesday that he expected an adjustment period for Niskanen but that hasn’t been the case yet.
–* One glaring weakness in Brian Strait’s game so far is his ability to read and react to the play at the NHL level. He’s had trouble picking up players in front of the net. Speed of the game has been a struggle at times.
–* Expect a motivated Alexei Kovalev for the rest of the season. His agent Scott Greenspun tells me Kovalev has full intentions of playing in the NHL next season and believes he has a lot of hockey left in him.
Early indications are Kovalev has been a good fit in the locker room thus far. That was a concern from members of the organization.