Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Dupuis may be Penguins' most important player

Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, 10:03 p.m.

Pascal Dupuis may have spent Tuesday night in the basement testing the limits of a stationary bicycle, flooding his basement floor in sweat. Everybody deals differently with disappointment. Dupuis' method is to channel bicycle climbs in the Tour de France, because it is better to sweat than sweat it, to push on than be pushed out.

That's what the Penguins were missing last season.

Well, that and the right fit to the right of Sidney Crosby.

Now that Dupuis is back from his blown out knee, all should get back to normal, right? Except, normal isn't part of the Penguins' makeup anymore. They're about change for the sake of change.

That's why Jim Rutherford is the general manager, Mike Johnston is the coach, there is a frosted-glass wall that divides the dressing room from the hockey operations department and one of hockey's best lines has gone the way of drafting defensemen, stretch passes and open lines of communication.

“I was never good enough to play with Sid,” Dupuis said from a strange feeling Consol Energy Center after the Penguins practiced Tuesday.

The feeling is strange because nobody seems comfortable, which might be a good thing for a franchise that has been passed by (at least) Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston in the NHL's salary-cap era.

Those franchises produce teams that win in the playoffs. This franchise doesn't.

Strange might be what the Penguins need. It has worked for their best clubs.

Strange certainly seems to be what the Penguins are going for with the hiring of a junior coach and the organizing of a management structure that already has fulfilled its promise to produce alliances among its members.

So, strange it is — and that's what it will be to see a second line centered by Brandon Sutter with Dupuis and Evgeni Malkin as his wingers. Johnston said that could happen against Anaheim in the regular-season opener at home Thursday night.

Now, Johnston also said Malkin playing as a right winger won't last. That's wise, because the Penguins' two weakest spots are their two top scoring lines, and until Rutherford trades an asset (Paul Martin) that's not going to change.

Dupuis' role really won't change either, even though the Penguins seem determined to change his position and placement.

He was the top-line right winger. He is the second-line left winger.

He was the guy who kept Crosby happy. He is the guy to keep Malkin happy.

That pretty much makes Dupuis the Penguins' most important player, because an unhappy Malkin — a really unhappy Malkin — will doom this club to the point that a first-round playoff exit would be an accomplishment.

Relax, everybody. Malkin isn't unhappy.

He is aware what has been and is being said about him privately within Penguins circles, and that contributed to some message sending of his own. But Pittsburgh remains the only place he wants to play hockey, the only city outside of Magnitogorsk and Moscow he wants to call home.

Malkin will be fine once he starts playing, but he will perform better if Johnston can find him a new preferred primary playmate.

Kunitz is a better fit as a left winger for Malkin. That's mostly because Kunitz's strengths — a simple, straight-line style blended with short-burst speed and physicality — would transform Malkin back into a look-to-shoot skater instead of the settle-for-setups one he became with James Neal.

However, Kunitz will play with Crosby. These are the Penguins, after all.

That leaves Dupuis for Malkin — and with the challenge of making something new work only seven months after surgery to repair knee ligaments.

“There are echoes,” Dupuis said. “Probably not in this room, where I've proven myself, but probably, definitely, there are people who have said I'm not the player I was. And I'm not playing with Sid right now, so that's where things are.

“We won the Cup, and I was on the fourth line. My attitude's not going to change.”

That's what the Penguins were missing last season, too.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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