You'll be hard pressed to find a line that's been rolled out more consistently than Sidney Crosby between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis over the last few years.
Kunitz has been a top-six fixture since the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him in 2009, while Dupuis played his way onto the top line after being considered a throw-in in the Marian Hossa deal in 2008.
When the Penguins made a splash and acquired Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline in 2013, it was Dupuis' speed and two-way acumen that forced the 12-time 30-goal scorer onto the second line to play with Evgeni Malkin. This particular combination has been about as steady as one can be in the NHL.
A lot of things have changed in Pittsburgh since the 2008-09 campaign; the top line isn't one of them. It's been Dupuis-Crosby-Kunitz as the No. 1 unit with everyone else competing to play alongside Malkin (not a bad gig in and of itself) for awhile now.
That could finally change in 2014-15.
Pittsburgh's newfound forward depth and pressure from younger players could finally break up this familiar trio once and for all. The biggest concern as training camp looms is Dupuis and his speed.
He suffered a torn ACL in late December of last year and didn't undergo surgery until mid-February. Bouncing back from ACL injuries can be tough for a player in their 20s. Dupuis will turn 36 this season. Some forwards can get by without that extra gear, but Dupuis isn't one of them.
He's been a staple on Pittsburgh's top line because of his ability to forecheck the opposition into the ice during each and every shift. If he loses that element of his game even a little bit, then his value plummets drastically.
Johnny Feulner at PensLabyrinth.com recently touched on the Dupuis situation, weighing in like this:
Dupuis, who was playing on the top-line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz before going down with the ailment, is viewed by many to possibly reclaim those same duties, due to the right wing vacancy. Yet, if there’s any iffy feelings about Dupuis’ speed, could he really be effective in that pairing?
Personally, I fully expect Dupuis to be game-ready when Oct. 9 rolls around, but he is older, and there'll be significant rust on his tires when he finally does play. Coming off a major knee injury, it’s extremely possible Dupuis could never be as productive as he was before. And that’s why I think Pittsburgh’s concerned.
The strange thing about Dupuis is that he seems to actually be getting better with age. His career high in goals came 10 years after he entered the league, and Dupuis is only two seasons removed from that 25-goal campaign.
All told, he's scored 52 times in his last 169 contests, which is a few ticks higher than his career average of 0.25 goals per game and right on par with what he's done in Pittsburgh since '09.
Will he be able to hold off Patric Hornqvist, Beau Bennett and even Steve Downie as the season opens in October though? Hornqvist seems destined to play on the second line with Malkin, but what happens if he clicks with Kunitz and Crosby during training camp?
That might be a bit too much net presence for one line, but just imagine Crosby being able to peel out of both offensive corners while constantly having one of those two open for passes in front of the cage. A more likely scenario would see Bennett finally take his spot at Crosby's go-to wing—the role that he's been in line for since the 2010 draft.
Jason Mackey of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently spoke to the 22-year-old forward about staying healthy and gunning for a bigger role for the Penguins this season, and Bennett had this to say about recovering from the wrist ailments that kept him out of all but 21 games last year:
From November through the beginning of July, I didn't do any upper-body (workouts) other than my right arm because I was so hindered. It takes awhile to build it up. Gearing toward the season, Oct. 9, you have two months left, I think I'm in a good spot to add some strength.
Mackey points out that Bennett will have to fight off Hornqvist, Nick Spaling and even Kasperi Kapanen for playing time, but that doesn't seem to have the forward intimidated: "You want that competition. You want a young kid to come in and push you."
If those "kids" are going to push Bennett for playing time, then they'll be breathing down Dupuis' neck in no time.
That's not to say that the veteran definitely won't be able to hold off the charge, but this could be the first season in a long while where Pittsburgh's top line isn't etched in stone on a nightly basis.
All statistics courtesy of HockeyDB.com.