With most of the Penguins, you know what you get.
Sidney Crosby will contend for the scoring title and MVP. Evgeni Malkin will do the same. Chris Kunitz will complement Crosby. Kris Letang brings a rare skill set to defense. Marc-Andre Fleury will win a bunch of games in goal.
The Penguins have had all that going for them for a while. But over the last five seasons, it hasn’t gotten them anywhere.
For the Penguins to finally step up, some wild cards must come through.
Right wing Steve Downie could be that wild card.
Or, Downie could be nothing. His career has been fraught by suspension and injury. Downie has had knee and shoulder surgery. He was concussed last season. The Penguins got Downie at little financial risk: one year, $1 million.
But, when he’s healthy and at the top of his game, Downie is a rarity: a situation disturber who can play.
In 2009-10, Downie’s first full NHL season, he was on Tampa Bay’s top line with superstars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Downie was ornery enough to protect and talented enough to pitch in.
Downie had 22 goals and 24 assists that season, both career highs. He revisited such heights in the 2010-11 playoffs, when he had 14 points in 17 games as the Lightning made the Eastern Conference final before losing to Boston.
Downie had a simple philosophy when he played with Stamkos and St. Louis: “Just give them the puck and go to the areas they don’t want to go. I go to the corners and the rough areas.” That might work with Crosby or Malkin.
The Penguins are not caked with clear-cut top-six forwards. Put Downie on one of the top two lines. It’s worth the gamble.
Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet was Tampa Bay’s head coach in 2009-10. He micromanaged Downie to a career season. Could Tocchet do it again?
Stats aside, Downie’s presence on a line with Crosby or Malkin would pay psychological dividends. If the opposition messed with a Penguins superstar, Downie would wreak instant havoc. Sometimes he’d get his revenge in first.
As soon as Downie signed with the Penguins, he proclaimed, “I can guarantee there won’t be any liberties taken with [Crosby and Malkin] this year.”
Downie’s edge is invaluable. The nuclear option is must-have in the NHL.
“I don’t go out there to intentionally hurt guys, but I play a hard game,” Downie said. “Only a select few players like to play that way. A lot of times, they find themselves in trouble. But I think I’ve found a good balance walking the line, and not going over it.
“But sometimes you go over the edge. I’m going 100 percent all the time. It might happen.”
But Downie isn’t a goon. At one time, he could really play. See if he still can.
If Downie can’t cut the mustard in the top six, he can still be a good third-liner. He can still play the odd shift with Crosby or Malkin by way of fair warning.
But, regarding Downie and the top six, the worst thing Coach Mike Johnston could do is not find out.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).