Early 2013-2014 Grades for Each Pittsburgh Penguins' Line and Defense Pairing
As the Pittsburgh Penguins approach the end of the first month of the NHL season, the team finds itself atop the Metropolitan Division with a 7-2 record and on pace for 128 point season, most since the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings finished with 131 points.
While that pace is most likely unsustainable, it is reassuring for Pens fans to note that, despite the absence of all-stars Kris Letang and James Neal, neither of which has seen the ice yet this season, the team is still in first place and figures to only get better.
Although it is still early in the season and there's a lot of hockey still to be played, let's take a look at how each forward line and defense pairing should be graded thus far.
First Line: Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis
With the team still missing key players such as Kris Letang and James Neal, the Penguins needed their top line to lead the way, and it has done just that.
Led by Sidney Crosby, who has 17 points in nine games, the line includes the Pens' top point scorers with Chris Kunitz (four goals and six assists) and Pascal Dupuis (two goals and seven assists), as all three players are off to fast starts.
In addition to their impressive offensive contributions, the top line has also played a big role defensively with a combined plus/minus of plus-23 and with Sidney Crosby winning 53 percent of the faceoffs he's taken.
Having been unable to generate a net-front presence against the Boston Bruins during the Eastern Conference Finals, each member of the top line has been much better at going to the net and has proven that he can score ugly goals off deflections and rebounds as well as off the rush.
Second Line: Jussi Jokinen-Evgeni Malkin-Chuck Kobasew
While most would have expected James Neal's absence to hamper Evgeni Malkin's play thus far, that hasn't been the case.
Averaging a point per game thus far and standing second on the team in shots behind Sidney Crosby, Malkin has looked every bit the Hart Trophy candidate that Pens GM Ray Shero expected him to when he re-signed him during the offseason.
A big reason for his strong play has been the chemistry he has shown with new linemate, Jussi Jokinen. Tied for second on the team with four goals, Jokinen has been the biggest surprise for the Pens thus far and is responsible for the team's first, and only, hat trick.
With Chuck Kobasew adding grit and speed, and with Beau Bennett jumping in occasionally, the Pens second line has done more than hold its own, which are all Pens fans can ask for until James Neal returns.
Third Line: Tanner Glass-Brandon Sutter-Beau Bennett
When the Penguins were forced to trade away Tyler Kennedy and let Matt Cooke leave in free agency, many wondered if the dismantling of what had for years been the best third line in hockey would leave the Pens lacking toughness and grit.
Fortunately, newly promoted Tanner Glass and budding star Beau Bennett have teamed with Brandon Sutter to give the Pens the strong two-way play that teams look for from their third line.
Having exceeded his point total from last season (one goal and one assist) already, Glass has given the Pens the physical edge they were looking for when they signed him in 2012 and leads the team in penalty minutes (12).
Although he may eventually move up to a top-six forward role, Beau Bennett has shown a physical side to go with his already impressive offensive skills that he displayed at the end of last season and in the playoffs.
Fourth Line: Dustin Jeffrey-Joe Vitale-Craig Adams
Most teams rely on their fourth line to provide physicality and to generate a consistent forecheck, not to generate offense, but the Penguins' fourth line has done just that.
On a team blessed with so many all-world talents, no one would have guessed that Craig Adams would be one of the leading scorers among the Pens' forwards, but he currently stands sixth in points among forwards and has already matched his goal output (3) of all of last season.
In addition to Adams, Joe Vitale has become a more consistent player and a fixture in the lineup. Dustin Jeffrey continues to push for playing time although it may come with another team, as he has often been the subject of trade rumors.
In head coach Dan Bylsma's uptempo system, speed and puck pursuit are the name of the game. The Pens' fourth liners, including reserves Harry Zolnierczyk and converted defenseman Deryk Engelland, have played that game well thus far
First Defense Pairing: Paul Martin-Brooks Orpik
While many expected the Pens to struggle defensively with the loss of Kris Letang to an injury, the group has performed well. This is thanks, in large part, to the outstanding performances thus far of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik.
As the top two players in terms of ice time per game, averaging around more than 24 minutes per game, Martin and Orpik have stabilized the Pens in their own end and even contributed a combined five points in nine games.
With Kris Letang set to return next week, Martin and Orpik may see their ice time diminish, but don't expect their level of play to diminish as well.
Second Defense Pairing: Rob Scuderi-Matt Niskanen
From the time he signed with the Penguins, Rob Scuderi was expected to be paired with Kris Letang to form one of the top defense pairings in the NHL. Unfortunately due to Letang's injury, it hasn't happened yet, but it will soon.
In the meantime, Matt Niskanen has filled in nicely and leads all Pens' blue liners with six points in nine games and is a plus-nine thus far.
For his part, Scuderi has been every bit the player Pens' GM Ray Shero expected him to be and is third on the team with a plus-six despite often being matched against the opponents' top line.
Third Defense Pairing: Olli Maatta-Robert Bortuzzo
Every year, it seems, one relatively unknown player steps forward into the spotlight and exceeds expectations. This year for the Pens, that player is Olli Maatta.
Drafted in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Maatta was seen as a dynamic defenseman who, if given time to develop, could eventually develop into a two-way defenseman reminiscent of former-Pen Sergei Gonchar.
Fortunately, that development didn't take as long as most expected it to. With three points in nine games and displaying veteran-like poise, the 19-year-old Maatta has become a fixture in the lineup and on the second power-play unit and is second among Pens' defenseman in shots on goal with 13.
With Robert Bortuzzo having supplanted Deryk Engelland as the team's sixth defenseman, the Pens' third defense pairing, despite their relative inexperience with just 31 combined NHL games, has been surprisingly consistent and productive early in the season.