The Biggest Question for Each Pittsburgh Penguin Line in 2014
The dog days of the hockey offseason are in full swing, and coaches, writers and fans are beginning to buckle up for another year filled with predictions, hopes and disappointments.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had a busy summer trying to avoid the latter. This was in thanks to a great deal of moves triggered by first-year general manager Jim Rutherford.
When October hits, fans can expect to see at least four new faces on the forward lines. Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling will all don the black and Vegas-gold jersey in hopes of accomplishing Rutherford’s new vision for the team.
Even with these additions, an air of uncertainty still surrounds the offense heading into training camp and beyond. Here are the biggest questions surrounding the four lines as the 2014-15 season draws nearer.
Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Beau Bennett
After Pascal Dupuis went down in late December due to a torn ACL, finding the right replacement for the 35-year-old right wing proved to be a difficult task for then-head coach Dan Bylsma. We saw everyone from Lee Stempniak to Evgeni Malkin at the position, but no one could fill the role the way Dupuis could.
Dupuis’ injury is still affecting the team to this day. It’s doubtful he will ever be able to complement Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz like he used to. Most likely he will play the rest of his career on the third line, which obviously leaves a vacancy open on the first.
Throughout the offseason (and even before), it was speculated that Beau Bennett was going to get the opportunity to play on the peripheral of Crosby for the upcoming season—barring any setbacks from his recent wrist surgery.
The wrist injury, as well as others, have stunted the early part of Bennett’s career. In two seasons, the 22-year-old has played only a combined 47 games. It’s a lot to ask from someone who hasn’t been in the show for very long.
So why would head coach Mike Johnston even consider Bennett for the role?
Bennett has a remarkable array of talents that coaches love to see and teammates love to work with. He’s a playmaker and seems to know every which way to guide the puck. That's what got him picked in the first round of the 2010 NHL entry draft in the first place.
Knowing this, it’s easier to understand why the team could put so much trust in a player with little NHL experience.
Can Bennett live up to the hype? Only he can answer that now.
Steve Downie-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist
You don’t have to follow the Pens religiously to see what has fans so worried about when they talk of the second line.
Malkin lost both of his linemates, Jussi Jokinen and James Neal, to free agency and via trade this offseason.
This line was easily the most consistent of the four, with each player scoring 21 goals or more and having around the same plus/minus rating (all within the plus-10 to plus-15 range). Despite this, Rutherford decided to let Jokinen walk while dealing Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Hornqvist and Spaling.
Hornqvist will most likely take over Neal’s spot on the right side of Malkin, while Downie, an ex-Flyer, could fill in for Jokinen on the Russian’s other side.
While Hornqvist isn’t much of a downgrade from Neal in terms of scoring, don’t expect Downie to be an exact replacement for Jokinen either. The 27-year-old Downie scored only four goals last season, but he provided his former team with a sense of physicality that the Pens can take advantage of.
It will be a difficult task to copy the same success this line contributed last year, but it seems Rutherford knows what he’s doing. Come midseason, I think we will get a good idea if his experiment has been a success.
Nick Spaling-Brandon Sutter-Pascal Dupuis
Now that news has broke that Brandon Sutter has signed a brand new two-year, $3.3 million contract, via NHL.com, to stay with the Pens, the club's third line is complete.
The biggest question surrounding this line is whether or not they can live up to the hype.
The Pens did a nice job building for depth this offseason and could have one of the best third lines in the league. The squad is going to get a lot of production from Nick Spaling and Sutter as they learn under Dupuis.
Like I said earlier, Dupuis isn’t going to be to be that top-line player he once was, but that’s OK. At 35, you’re expected to be at the end of your career arc, but even despite his age and recent injury, he could still put up another 20-plus-goal season.
For Spaling and Sutter, they are entering the heart of their careers, which has many wondering if they can step on the throttle to do even more than what they accomplished in the past.
Spaling is a versatile winger and has shown in his stats that he still has a decent amount of upside.
Sutter is better than his 32 points (13G, 19A) show. Look for him to finally break out as the anchor of this line.
This line is special and will accomplish much this upcoming season.
Blake Comeau-Marcel Goc-Craig Adams
The bottom three of the forward heap are no doubt an improvement over last year’s mess of a fourth line.
Bringing in Marcel Goc at the trade deadline didn’t do much in terms of productivity due to his late season injury last year, but there are high hopes he can still play as well as he did with the Florida Panthers, the team he was traded by.
Comeau, while inconsistent, is the youngest of the three forwards and can provide a high-energy type of game to complement the other two's veteran instincts.
While the skills required to play on the fourth line are usually disregarded in today's NHL, they are still necessary to the game. Goc, Comeau and Adams are good enough to provide the insurance and sometimes even clutch goals that last year’s fourth line could not.
Don’t think this group will just fly under the radar. While it’ll take some time to adjust to their new surroundings, their time to shine will come soon enough.