Thursday, March 26, 2015

Time for Penguins to move Downie up to top six

The Penguins' Steve Downie (23) celebrates with teammates as he returns to the bench after scoring in the third period of Thursday's game against the Oilers in Pittsburgh. (Gene Puskar/AP)

Chris Kunitz is done. At least, that’s what evidence dictates: Zero goals in his last 12 games, one in his last 24. He can’t get from Point A to Point B, and he’s got the touch of a blacksmith. Kunitz can’t even catch a pass.
Kunitz is hurting more than he’s not helping. He’s a liability.
When it comes to top-six wings, coach Mike Johnston has tried just about everything. Blake Comeau has worked, kind of. Beau Bennett has the tools, but not the toolbox, not currently. Options are very limited.
So, give Steve Downie a shot.
Johnston would do so very reluctantly. When Johnston discusses Downie, disregard fairly drips from his words.

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Downie leads the NHL in penalties. Some of those have been dumb. He loses his head occasionally. Downie can make a bad situation worse.
But right now, Downie is a better hockey player than Kunitz.
Kunitz and Downie have each played 65 games. Kunitz has very rarely played outside the top six and is on the first power play. Downie has played bottom six, period. Almost zero PP time.
Kunitz has 16 goals and 23 assists. Downie has 13 goals and 14 assists. Kunitz’s centers have been Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Downie’s have been Brandon Sutter and Maxim Lapierre.

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The difference between the stats is negligible, especially given the circumstances. Downie has three goals in his last 11 games, including a nifty pirouette to his forehand to tally against St. Louis on Tuesday.
Downie has skated with elite players before. He spent 2009-10 with Tampa Bay, playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. That’s better than any center-wing combination he could currently have in Pittsburgh. Downie produced, tallying 22 goals and 24 assists.
If trouble befell either star, Downie was there to handle it instantly.
If Downie played with Crosby, Downie’s penchant for mayhem could theoretically put Crosby in more danger. But Crosby couldn’t be in any more danger than he was during last year’s playoffs when Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky and the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal never missed a chance to hit him in the head.
If Downie is on the ice, that doesn’t happen to Crosby. Built-in protection.
What other options are there? Use Kunitz until he totally disintegrates?
Downie skates. He hits. He shoots. Decent skill. He hasn’t yet proven he stinks in a top-six role. The latter might be Downie’s biggest qualification.
Johnston should consider every option. If Dan Bylsma doesn’t get another coaching job, the Penguins are obligated to pay him through next season. The club wouldn’t want two ex-coaches lingering on the payroll.
But Johnston’s credibility is already on the line, even if his employment isn’t. Johnston said after Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to visiting St. Louis that “four or five guys need to pick up their compete level.”
Who does Johnston think that reflects upon?
Downie may not be the answer. But Johnston needs to start addressing some questions differently, and trying Downie in the top six is a good place to start.
Winning a bunch of games before the playoffs isn’t crucial. But finding some form and reestablishing the team’s identity is.
Right now, the Penguins aren’t close to doing either.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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