With the lockout over, burning questions for the Penguins upfront is how the top-6 will shake up after the departure of Steve Sullivan and revamping a third line around the newly acquired Brandon Sutter, following the trade of Jordan Staal on draft day this past June.
Strong indications have been that Matt Cooke will enter camp as the front runner to move up to a top-6 role in a short-term role on a line with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Other internal options who could get early looks include Tyler Kennedy, Eric Tangradi and a longshot candidate being Dustin Jeffrey who if given the opportunity, could be primed for a breakout season.
Despite the loss of Staal, the strength of this team is still down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter, a combination that few teams can rival but losing a player of Staal’s caliber is never a good thing. On the wings the Penguins have a good mix but like a lot of teams, could use another premier goal scorer. From a grit standpoint, the addition of the hard hitting Tanner Glass should make this team tougher to play against. One interesting development with this roster as it is, the team lacks veteran role players outside of the top 11 forwards, unlike last year when they had a veteran like Richard Park to fill that 12th, 13th spot and others in Wilkes Barre such as Jason Williams. The roster this year has more inexperienced part time NHL players on the organizational depth chart in the 12-16 forward spots.
1. Evgeni Malkin
2011-2012 Stats: 50 Goals – 49 Assists – 109 Pts
Buzz: The reigning Art Ross Trophy winner returns to Pittsburgh with half of a hockey season already under his belt, unlike many of his teammates who opted not to play overseas. Malkin had 22 goals and 62 points in 36 games for Metallurg and should have a big year in him. He looks to become the first player to win back to back scoring titles since Jaromir Jagr did it four straight years (1997-1998, 2000-2001).
2. Sidney Crosby
2011-2012 Stats: 8 Goals – 29 Assists – 37 Pts
Buzz: All the Penguins and Crosby first hope for this season is a clean bill of health for the Penguins star center who appeared in just 22 games last season. Crosby is motivated to regain his status as the games best player but talk of him needing a premier winger on his wing will likely continue. Expectations are Crosby will open the season with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis on his wings. As the season progresses, maybe a Beau Bennett becomes an option.
3. Brandon Sutter
2011-2012 Stats: 17 Goals – 15 Assists – 32 Pts
Buzz: Brandon Sutter has big shoes to fill with the loss of Jordan Staal. He’s an ideal third line center and will play a big role in Dan Bylsma’s system but he’s no Jordan Staal. “He’s going to play an extremely big role for our team. Character, work ethic grit he plays with is very important to our team,” head coach Dan Bylsma¬†said at the draft about Sutter. Sutter will anchor the third line and could emerge as a consistent 20 goal scorer in Bylsma’s system

4. Joe Vitale
2011-2012 Stats: 4 Goals – 10 Assists – 14 Points
Buzz: Vitale will enter the season with the inside track to open the season as the team’s 4th line center. He brings speed and a work ethic to the table and is an excellent forechecker.
1. James Neal
2011-2012 Stats: 40 Goals – 41 Assists – 81 Points
Buzz: Neal emerged as one of the premier wingers in the game last season, showing excellent chemistry with Evgeni Malkin, producing a 40 goal, 81 point season. He’s a huge asset on the power play with 18 power play markers in 2011-2012. If he goes back to the player he was when traded to Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be in trouble.
2. Chris Kunitz
2011-2012 Stats: 26 Goals – 35 Assists – 61 Points
Buzz: Had great chemistry with James Neal and Evgeni Malkin but is expected to open this season back on Sidney Crosby’s left wing. Such an important player to this team but playing the style he does, he’s not a lock to stay healthy.
3. Pascal Dupuis
2011-2012 Stats: 25 Goals – 34 Assists – 59 Points
Buzz: Had a career year in 2011-2012 with 25 goals and 59 points but expectations are a little high to expect him to produce at the level he did last year. If he does, that will be a bonus for the Penguins. He’s a player you can plug anywhere in the lineup and is an excellent penalty killer. Projects to open the season on Sidney Crosby’s right wing.
4. Matt Cooke
2011-2012 Stats: 19 Goals – 19 Assists – 38 Points
Buzz: Cooke moving up to a top-6 role? Pre-lockout, indications were Bylsma planned on playing Cooke on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing until someone else proved they could step up in that role. Cooke should be an okay fit as he can make a skilled play and will be a gritty, physical presence with Malkin down low. However, regardless of where he plays on the depth chart, Cooke needs to be more aggressive this season from a physical and agitator standpoint, after being passive at times last season due to what happened in 2010-2011.
5. Tyler Kennedy
2011-2012 Stats: 11 Goals – 22 Assists – 33 Points
Buzz: There’s always talk of Tyler Kennedy moving up to a top-6 role and will be again, likely to get a look, but he’s best suited as a third line winger.
6. Tanner Glass
2011-2012 Stats: 5 Goals – 11 Assists – 16 Points
Buzz: A physical presence who had 246 hits last season and will become a fan favorite. Ideal spot is on the 4th line but because of his ability to skate and being defensively responsible, Glass could get some looks on the 3rd line. Glass also gives the Penguins an option on the penalty kill. He averaged 1:47 of ice time per game on the PK in 2011-2012.
7. Craig Adams
2011-2012 Stats: 5 Goals – 13 Assists – 18 Points
Buzz: Adams projects to enter the season as the 4th line right winger and is a player the coaching staff feels is a valuable component to the team on and off the ice. Adams though is 35 years old and could be looking at his last season in a Penguins uniform. Appeared in 82 games last season but his spot as a regular won’t be set in stone this season.
8. Eric Tangradi
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 10 Goals Р7 Assists Р17 Points
Buzz: Is this the year Eric Tangradi finally becomes a regular in the lineup? In Wilkes Barre, Tangradi continues to show signs of finally getting it. He’s playing with more of an edge, driving to the net and learning to use his size to his advantage. He currently has 10 goals and 17 points in 33 games. Coaches and GM’s have felt that players currently playing whether it would be overseas or American Hockey League, will have a big advantage over others who are not. What still frustrates the Penguins I’m told is Tangradi’s suspect play in the defensive zone. He’s a minus-9 in Wilkes Barre and it’s been an issue in the NHL. However, look for him to open the season in Pittsburgh on the 4th line with opportunities to move up on the depth chart.
9. Dustin Jeffrey
2011-2012 Stats: 4 Goals – 2 Assists – 6 Points
Buzz: Jeffrey fell out of favor with the coaching staff last spring but if he’s given an opportunity for playing time, Jeffrey could make an impact in this lineup, even in a top-9 role. He’s versatile, can play wing or center and is a wildcard in this group. Baring any outside moves, should be among the 13 forwards and playing overseas should help him.
Beau Bennett
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 6 Goals – 17 Assists – 23 Points
Buzz: The Penguins plan had been to have Bennett spend an entire season in Wilkes Barre with hopes of him pushing for roster spot in 2013-2014, and that likely remains the plan, but when speaking to folks in the know last week, I was told you have to mention Bennett as a candidate to see NHL time at somepoint this season, even though it might still be regarded as unlikely. He’s still learning the game but has really impressed the Penguins brass and appears farther along than the Penguins thought he would be. Longshot but possibility to be brought into camp.
Benn Ferriero
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 4 Goals – 14 Assists – 18 Points
Buzz: I’m hearing he has not made a great impression in Wilkes Barre with 4 goals and 18 points but is a depth forward, part time NHL player with the ability to fit in Dan Bylsma’s system. Has 12 goals in his last 68 NHL games. Pre-lockout there was some buzz about him and here was my writeup from September: “The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Ferriero signed a one year deal this summer with the Penguins worth $700,000 at the NHL level. Ferriero had 7 goals in 35 games last season for the Sharks and was third on the team with four game winning goals. Ferriero has 12 goals in his last 68 NHL games. The word on Ferriero is that he has a knack for scoring a critical goal but what makes him a potential sleeper this upcoming season is that he fits the type of style that Dan Bylsma seeks from role players as the scouting report on Ferriero is that he’s a hard worker with good skating ability who skates hard and that he plays a gritty type of game on the forecheck and in around the net. From those I’ve spoken with, the Penguins feel the main thing that has held him back is that he hasn’t been able to establish himself as an everyday NHL regular.”
Phil Dupuis
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 2 Goals – 9 Assists – 11 Points
Buzz: A part-time NHL player in the past who’s versatile and could plug a 4th line role on a callup basis. Averaged 2:26 of ice time per game on the penalty kill in 30 NHL games for Maple Leafs in 2011-2012. Over 50 percent in the face off circle.
Steve MacIntyre
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 0 Goals – 0 Assists – 0 Points
Buzz: I have to mention him just because an enforcer always finds his way on Ray Shero’s NHL roster.
Trevor Smith
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 11 Goals – 10 Assists – 21 Points
Buzz: Plays a first line role in Wilkes Barre but not regarded as an NHL player. Has appeared in 23 career NHL games. Unlikely to be invited to camp.
Paul Thompson
2012-2013 Stats (WBS): 9 Goals – 6 Assists – 15 Points
Buzz: Still dealing with some consistency issues but has the look of an NHL player who could get a cup of coffee in the NHL at somepoint this season. However, probably won’t garner much consideration when the season begins and likely won’t be invited to camp this week. A well rounded two-way player, though, to keep an eye on.
Matt Cooke – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Analysis: It would be a pretty big surprise to see Bylsma start the season with Chris Kunitz on Malkin’s wing. Matt Cooke remains the top candidate in what the Penguins hope is a short-term plan. Tyler Kennedy might get a look, while there’s been intrigue about putting together a big line of Eric Tangradi – Evgeni Malkin and James Neal but whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen. With every game going to mean a lot to playoff positioning, there’s not going to be a lot of time to explore scenarios.
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Pascal Dupuis
Analysis: This is a no brainer and expected line combo.
Tanner Glass – Brandon Sutter – Tyler Kennedy
Analysis: If Matt Cooke is indeed moved up to Evgeni Malkin’s line, Bylsma will have a few options to go with on the left side. Tanner Glass will give the Penguins a physical fore-checking presence who will open space offensively and also be defensive responsible when this line has to play a shutdown role. But, if Bylsma’s looking for a bit more offense, he figures to go in the direction of Eric Tangradi (but is he responsible defensively enough in that role?) and Dustin Jeffrey would be an intriguing player to look at in that spot. Meanwhile, if Tyler Kennedy were to become a fit with Malkin, a Tanner Glass – Brandon Sutter – Matt Cooke third line would be a gritty, tough unit to play against.
Eric Tangradi – Joe Vitale – Craig Adams
Analysis: This would be a solid line with speed down the middle in Vitale, size along the wall and in around the crease in Tangradi and a gritty veteran in Craig Adams.