Today saw the march of the Pittsburgh Penguins (c'mon, puns are good) to the Steel City as team regulars and hopefuls on tryouts report to training camp. Today's activities are the basics: promotional photos, physicals, catching up with the guys, performing fitness tests (there's a grand photo spread regarding these at this link), etc. You know, the easy stuff. Thursday's when the real work begins, and boy-howdy is there some PennDot caliber construction needed on the third line.
This offseason brought the demise of one of the NHL's most consistent third lines. No matter how you felt about them, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke filled important roles for the Penguins as duel anchors on the third line. Heck, the Hockey Gods designed them for it. Kennedy had speed and (at times) added scoring depth. Cooke had the brutal physical presence and nasty grit that every NHL team needs to be successful. Those guys were the third line incarnate. So much so that the revolving door at center after Jordon Staal left didn't seem to phase them. Now they're gone, T.K.'s a San Jose Shark and Cookie's a member of the Minnesota Wild. Oh, and the Penguins are a million over the salary cap, so no Brenden Morrow also.
Who's going to replace them? It's kind of vital. Older Pens fans know the dangers of not having a reliable third line. In those dark days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, if opponents stopped the Penguins top two lines (later in that era, only stopped the first was nessecary), victory was all but guaranteed. Still not convinced? Think of the past five Stanley Cup winning teams. They all had productive third liners that helped them raise the Cup. Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland anyone? Having a strong third line is a sign of a winning team. If this training camp does anything, it has to decide who is going to make up the Penguins third line. Here's the candidates.
Brandon Sutter- Every line needs a center and Brandon can breathe easy knowing he's got his. There is no way Sutter is not going to be on the third line. The first two lines are sent at center wouldn't you agree? And he's much too talented to playing alongside Joey Vitale and Craig Adams. In his first year with the Pens, Sutter started all 48 games and had 19 points (eleven goals and eight assists). Yeah, the third line has it's center. The wingers are the problem.
Harry Zolnierczyk- The import from Philadelphia knows how to throw the body and can be a poor-man's Matt Cooke . . . but that's about all. In forty-four career NHL games, the Brown graduate has only three goals (all in the 2011-2012 season). The third line is supposed have a scoring touch. Ignite a spark when the team's down. Zolnierczyk's playing style doesn't equal that. He's destined for the fourth line. If he makes the big club out of camp that is.
Tanner Glass- Reread Zolnierczyk's brief. Glass has more experience (310 NHL games), but cannot be counted on as a scoring threat. His highest goal output came in 2011-2012 season with the Winnipeg Jets. He netted five of his career fourteen goals that season. Fourth line.
Dustin Jeffrey- Can this be the year Dustin Jeffrey finally fulfills his potential promise? The Penguins have stuck by their 2007 sixth round draft pick admirably, but fact is he hasn't merited that patience. Jeffrey's been all over the depth chart, spot filling in the first and second lines and wasting away on the fourth. He has speed and a nice shot, but like Eric Tangradi, he just doesn't seem to fit into the team's scheme. This is make or break time, Jeffrey. You're a RFA next year.
Jussi Jokinen- Talented, experienced, versatile . . . what's not to like? Jussi has the skill-set and speed to cause matchup problems and he's a positional Swiss Army Knife. You can stick him at either wing and he'll produce or put him at center and make use of his vision (and giving Sutter a rest once awhile). The Finnish native will make the third line a threat, but injuries to the top six forwards might snag him off it.
Jayson Megna or Tom Kuhnhackl?- Surprises make life interesting and the way these two rookie played in the recent prospects tournament in Ontario, who's to say they can't make the team? Kuhnhackl has a monster shot and has a knack for finding open ice, but is a project that's not yet completed. Jayson Megna is willing to get dirty in the corners and his speed and soft hands makes him a breakaway builder. They'll both start the year in Wilkes-Barre, but don't be shocked if one (mostly Megna) makes the Pens roster early on.
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