Even before Jordan Staal's season debut was postponed indefinitely by multiple health setbacks, the Pittsburgh Penguins were planning on moving the 6'4" center from the third line to the second, alongside Evgeni Malkin.
Thus, the reign of Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy as perhaps the best third line in the National Hockey League had reached its end, but the Penguins have stumbled upon another trio that has played a surprisingly significant role in generating their NHL-best 20-8-2 record.
Self-dubbed as the "Buzz Line," the grouping of rookie center Mark Letestu, American Hockey League veteran Chris Conner and fourth-year Penguin Kennedy, has excelled by doing exactly what a third line is supposed to do: play responsible defense, chip pucks deep into the offensive zone and toss in the occasional goal.
In fact, it may be accurate to say Letestu, Conner and Kennedy are behaving more like a third line than the triumvirate of Staal, Cooke and Kennedy did. To be fair, Staal is a top-six talent who was miscast as bottom-six due to the Penguins' embarrassment of riches at center with Sidney Crosby and Malkin.
The third-line assignment might have been fitting in the first couple years of Staal's career (although he netted a personal-best 29 goals in his rookie season of 2006-07 primarily skating with Malkin), but a two-way center of his acumen needs top-six minutes in all situations in order to maximize his value.
The Penguins' organization acknowledged this with its offseason decision to promote the 22-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ont. What the Pittsburgh brass didn't know was how fortuitously the "new" third line would come together.
Letestu, an undrafted free agent who signed with Pittsburgh in 2007 after one season at Western Michigan University, earned a spot on the Penguins' roster with an eye-opening preseason. Trusted to play his natural position of center, the Alberta-native scored seven points in his first seven games this season.
The 5'11" right-handed shooter cooled off significantly, only registering five assists in 22 games before exploding for a pair of goals Wednesday versus Toronto, but his performance never sagged in his own end during the offensive slump. As evidence of his trustworthiness, he has been on the ice regularly with the Penguins' defending slim leads late in games.
Although Kennedy had been a regular contributor for three seasons, he entered training camp amidst whispers that he may lose his spot in Pittsburgh due to declining production. A fourth-round selection in the 2004 draft, the 24-year-old Kennedy followed up a 25-point regular season in 2009-10 with a pointless postseason.
Jokingly nicknamed "Shooter" by Cooke last season, Kennedy has responded to doubts by rediscovering the simplicity in his game, firing at every opportunity and skating primarily in straight lines. His 13 points have him on pace for 36, which would be a career best.
While Kennedy is the most seasoned NHLer on the "Buzz Line," Conner is the old man. At 26, the left-handed right winger dressed in 71 games for the Dallas Stars over three seasons before joining the Penguins last year, although he continued to function mainly as a top-level AHL talent just as he had in the Dallas system.
Staal's continued physical woes and Mike Comrie's failure to find his game gave Conner the opportunity he was seeking. He played his first NHL match of the year Nov. 12 against Tampa Bay; coincidentally, the Penguins haven't lost in regulation since then, going 13-0-1 with the 5'8" Conner in tow.
With Staal likely to reunite with Malkin on the Penguins' second line upon his return, it is nearly certain that the chemistry generated by Letestu, Kennedy and Conner will be allowed to continue to percolate.
It seems that even with Crosby and the Penguins on remarkable runs of excellence, an unlikely line is creating some "buzz" of its own.
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