It’s July. But it’s never too early to think about the Penguins’ lines, especially when Kasperi Kapanen showed at prospects camp that he’s got the goods.
The Penguins’ most recent first-round choice has the skating and skill to play in the NHL at 18. Kapanen's class went unmatched in the Penguins’ prospect scrimmage Saturday. Kapanen didn’t produce. That’s because his teammates just weren’t at his level. The varsity will provide Kapanen quality linemates.
Sidney Crosby’s preferred linemates are left wing Chris Kunitz and right wing Pascal Dupuis. If new coach Mike Johnston adheres to that combination, a right wing will have to switch left.
Some can. Some can’t.
Jarome Iginla couldn’t. Beau Bennett has struggled in that regard. Dupuis plays either wing well, but Crosby likes him on the right.
But where will Johnston want Dupuis? What combinations are best for the team?
Dupuis and Kunitz should play left wing on the top two lines. Patric Hornqvist and either Kapanen or Bennett should play right wing on the top two lines. Steve Downie would be a top-six option on the right side.
That puts everybody in proper position, but doesn’t give Crosby what he wants.
To be clear, I’ve never heard that Crosby picked his linemates. He has made his preferences public. Dan Bylsma, the previous coach, acted accordingly.
After Dupuis got hurt last season, Crosby spoke of the advantages that playing with a right-handed shot affords. He should consider those again. Besides Dupuis, every top-six right wing candidate shoots right.
Pair the top-six wings thusly: Kunitz on the left, Bennett on the right. If Bennett’s injured wrist isn’t ready, give Kapanen a chance. Pair Dupuis on the left with Hornqvist on the right. Each line has balance in talent and style.
Neither of the Penguins’ top two lines would be great. Too bad. The highly-paid superstar centers must do their best to elevate. It’s not fair. The Penguins haven’t done right by either when it comes to linemates and protection.
But, after last season, the Penguins are a stink sandwich. Crosby and Malkin must take a bigger bite than most. Big salary, big responsibility.
If Crosby is left in his comfort zone, Malkin goes from skating with James Neal and Jussi Jokinen to skating with Hornqvist and either Bennett or Kapanen, with somebody playing his bad wing. What about Malkin’s comfort zone? One good thing: Malkin should be inclined to shoot more.
Johnston will soon go to Russia to meet with Malkin. I wonder how Malkin reacted when both his linemates departed?
The get-along gang is dead. Johnston has to do what he thinks is right, not what he thinks certain players want.
It won’t be easy. But the Penguins are in flux. Everyone should experience some portion of that change. Past combinations certainly didn’t get the Penguins as far as they were expected to go.
Crosby can handle it. He’s the best hockey player in the world.
But Kapanen may currently have the most intriguing prospects. The son of former NHL player Sami, the Penguins rookie has been around the big time most of his life. Kasperi Kapanen played with and against men in Finland’s top league last season, and has a swagger that may initially rub veterans the wrong way.
Until he scores. And Kapanen will do plenty of that. But will it be sooner, or later?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).