It’s another off-season for the Penguins where Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby don’t have enough talent around them in the top-6.
Things are not as bad as two years ago when Malkin had tryouts on his left wing following the lockout with the likes of Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey, Zach Boychuk, Tanner Glass, but the top-6 remains an area of concern for Penguins following the subtractions of Jussi Jokinen and James Neal this off-season.
What the Penguins have is a lot of what if scenario’s in their top-6.
LINEMATES AROUND SIDNEY CROSBY
1. Chris Kunitz – Kunitz continues to play at an extremely high level, scoring 35 goals and 68 points last season. Kunitz posted a 2.15 P/60 and 52.2 CF%. His skating remains very strong but the concern with Kunitz is the wear and tear. He will be 35 in September and has played such a grinding style in his career, he could hit a wall at any point. Expecting a few more 30 goal seasons out of him at his age might not be realistic but the Penguins should get at least one more impact season from Kunitz.
Here’s where things get real dicey for the Penguins:
1. Pascal Dupuis – 35 years old and coming off major knee surgery for a player who relies heavily on his skating. The concern with Dupuis, he started showing signs of regressing prior to his knee injury this past December. Dupuis had an excellent year in the lockout shortened season, posting 20 goals, 38 points and 2.67 P/60 at even strength. This past season, he dropped to 7 goals, 20 points in 39 games. Sidney Crosby loves playing with Dupuis and because of Dupuis history of playing at a high pace, he’s going to get every opportunity but the Penguins are much more likely to get back the player from last season, 15 goal pace over 82 games, than the 35 goal pace Dupuis had in 2013.
2. Beau Bennett – Three major wrist surgeries since being drafted by the Penguins, including two wrist surgeries on the same hand within a six month period this year. They don’t call him Beau brittle for nothing. Whether Bennett can evolve into a player the Penguins can count on in the top-6 remains an absolute mystery as he heads into his third professional season. There’s also no guarantees he’ll be fully healthy for the start of the season after wrist surgery in May, an injury that can take over a year for a player to gain back full strength in the wrist. The possession numbers (57.8%) were great in limited action (21 games) and he possesses excellent playmaking ability that makes him an ideal fit with Crosby due to his ability to find Crosby in space, but Bennett has a ways to go in proving he can be counted on as a regular contributor.
3. Steve Downie – He had a horrid season in Philadelphia with 4 goals and 24 points in 62 combined games with the Flyers, Avalanche, though, the possession numbers were solid for a 4th line player. It’s been a long time since Downie’s 22 goal season in 2009-2010 with Tampa Bay but Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet strongly believes in Downie and those close to Tocchet say Tocchet see’s some of himself in Downie. There’s at least some level of intrigue about Downie evolving back into the player he was that one season in Tampa Bay where he played very well next to Steven Stamkos. It’s a longshot that Downie could be a regular with Crosby as his skating has regressed since a torn ACL and hasn’t been a productive player at the NHL level for 3-4 years now but he is only 27. This isn’t some 36, 37 year old player who is out of his prime.
LINEMATES AROUND EVGENI MALKIN
Evgeni Malkin has seen the talent around him shrink with Jussi Jokinen signing elsewhere and Pittsburgh shipping James Neal to Nashville.
1. Patric Hornqvist – Like Chris Kunitz on Sidney Crosby’s line, Patric Hornqvist is going to be locked in on Evgeni Malkin’s line. Scouts contend Hornqvist does not project to fit well with Sidney Crosby as he doesn’t play at a “high enough pace” one scout said. Hornqvist could take Malkin some adjusting after playing with a much different player in Neal but the intrigue with Hornqvist is that he could be Malkin’s version of Chris Kunitz with less of a punishing hitting style. Unlike Crosby, Malkin needs someone who does some of the garbage work in the offensive zone, winning puck battles down low and being a presence in front of the net. Hornqvist could be that player.
1. Beau Bennett – Bennett’s versatility and past history of playing with Malkin makes him a top candidate by default, despite being a better fit on the right side. Hornqvist can play both wings but is also better suited for right side.
2. Nick Spaling – The Penguins would be reaching here but the Penguins see scoring upside from Spaling as some in the organization feel he could emerge into a 17-20 goal scorer with better offensive opportunities. Spaling’s ability to play a 200 ft game, commitment to defense, could also make him an attractive line mate with Malkin, team sources say.
3. Kasperi Kapanen – Scouts outside of Pitsburgh I’ve spoken with in the past week laugh at the suggestion that Kapanen could be ready to play in the NHL this year just because he’s played against men, but the man in charge, Jim Rutherford, went on record last week saying he feels Kapanen could earn a roster spot. Kapanen has struggled mightily against top competition, several evaluators contend.