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The Pens’ Forward Depth Is An Oasis, No Longer A Mirage

It sure seems unfair to add Kessel to Crosby or Malkin's line. How will the rest shake out? Photo via

It sure seems unfair to add Kessel to Crosby or Malkin’s line. How will the rest shake out?
Photo via

When Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford pulled off not one but two large off-season trades and made some key signings with what seemed like no cap space, everyone ?s heads took a quick swivel to the Penguins’ depth chart. Suddenly, a team that used to ice Tanner Glass on a regular basis had not one, not two, but three talented wingers to potentially lace up alongside its superstar centers. The team went from probably the worst crop of forwards to the best, according to anyone with eyes. But just who does this list include and where should they all slot in?

The Crosby Line

Sidney Crosby is, without a doubt, the most offensively gifted player in the NHL today. Whether it ?s his speed up ice or making a shot look like a pass to opposing goaltenders, he ?s potent in his versatility. And he ?s been doing it all with largely run-of-the-mill talent. This is not a knock on Chris Kunitz, who is an Olympic Gold Medalist and two-time Stanley Cup Champ, or Pascal Dupuis, who has his own Stanley Cup ring at home. But Crosby hasn ?t played much with highly skilled wingers. This is about to change.

Last year the Penguins brought in David Perron, a skilled left winger who had been playing on a basement dwelling team in the Oilers. In his first week as a Penguin he scored on a 1 goal per game pace before dropping off. And while some people still have Kunitz listed as the team ?s top left winger, those people are wrong. David Perron dropped off for a myriad of reasons whether that be nagging injuries, a new system, or just the pressure of suddenly being on a Cup or bust squad. Make no mistake though, he is this team ?s best left winger. And on the right side? While Dupuis is coming back, there ?s a new name on the block who Head Coach Mike Johnston has already tapped to start the season alongside Crosby. That guy? Just a little American by the name of Phil Kessel, aka Jim Rutherford ?s highway heist of the off-season. With two highly talented and quick wingers, look for this line to be potent in a big, big way.

The Malkin Line

Of course, while Sidney Crosby is the best and anyone who is a voting member of the NHLPA would probably tell you that, this team is lucky enough to have two generational talents at center. Evgeni Malkin, who has missed time in each of the last three seasons due to injury, is just as skilled as Crosby with a big frame to make him an even more imposing presence coming up-ice. So, who does Malkin get? While getting Crosby a great winger is important it ?s also important Malkin gets help. Losing his trigger-man in James Neal was clearly tough on Malkin in the beginning of the season last year. So who does he play with now? How about Patric Hornqvist? The main piece the Penguins got in return for Malkin ?s buddy Neal, Hornqvist crashes the net with a vigor matched by few other NHL’ers. This is a great match since a rough around the edges Max Talbot played with Malkin when the latter won the Conn Smythe in 2009. On his other side? Well that ?s where this gets interesting.

When Malkin won the scoring title in 2012 he played most of the season between Neal and Kunitz, before Crosby returned and Kunitz returned to his line. Clearly Kunitz could be a candidate. But Malkin also produces well with European and Russian players, which is why he loved playing with Ruslan Fedotenko and Jussi Jokinen in the past. In this mold, the Penguins have young left winger Sergei Plotnikov set to make his NHL debut.

The Bottom-Six

In the past few seasons, the Penguins have had a decent pair of forward lines at the top helmed by Crosby and Malkin, but after that they seemed to drop off into a black-hole style abyss where productivity went to die. From Craig Adams to those few months where Deryk Engelland was playing as a forward in the bottom-6, it has been anything but pretty for this portion of the roster, until now.

At the end of last season, the team seemed poised to tab Oskar Sundqvist for the NHL. The big, nasty center is definitely a big part of the team ?s future and after the success of young guys on the Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final team they ?re looking to give him a shot. Then, they traded Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino and added Eric Fehr. All three play center. While this would look like bad news for Sundqvist don ?t get ahead of things here. Fehr has been shelved until around Christmas allowing the team time to test Sundqvist at the NHL level and see what he ?s got. When Fehr comes back, they can send the rookie back to the AHL or make another adjustment as they see fit.

Big names we already know we will probably see in these roles are Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett. Dupuis, coming off of life-threatening blood clots, would do well in these roles especially if that means playing alongside younger player and getting the chance to show them the way. Bennett is on his last-chance contract with the team and looking to add scoring punch to the bottom-six. Look for him to make a difference in big moments this year as long as he can shake the bad-luck injury bug.

Whoever doesn ?t play with Malkin out of Kunitz and Plotnikov will slide down to the third line along with Nick Bonino. Personally, I think that will be Kunitz as I ?m expecting chemistry between the two Russians to trump all else. In this case, this puts two wingers who are comfortable together in Kunitz and Dupuis with a different center, which could help one of the new pivots with their transition.

Rounding out the bottom lines, look for guys like Conor Sheary or Scott Wilson (maybe sleepers like Ty Loney and Jean-Sebastien Dea too) getting called upon ahead of guys like Bobby Farnham. Farnham isn ?t what this system needs and in some cases may hurt more than help. I understand the hockey mentality is that enforcers are important, but the reality is this team doesn ?t need that. I mean, you can ?t hit what you can ?t catch and if this team turns the jets up, there ?s really no need for a big hulking enforcer slowing them down.

All in all, the forward depth is so vastly improved over the last few years that it ?s easy to see this team putting up goals with no problem some nights. It ?s going to be a true ‘pick your poison’ team with regards to goals. There ?s going to be few ways to stop them entirely since they ?ve got such varied skills and options, especially compared to the past few seasons. And while questions remain about durability, chemistry, and player needs there is one thing everyone knows for sure: it ?s certainly going to be fun to watch them.

Leah is a hockey and city life contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. She is a 2013 graduate from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.