Monday, July 06, 2015

With everyone on the right, who's left at left?


The Phil Kessel trade was good for the Penguins.
The Penguins’ deployment of wingers remains a question mark.
In a conversation on my radio show the day after Kessel’s acquisition, coach Mike Johnston went against my grain pertaining to roles for several of his wingers.
I’m first-guessing, not second-guessing. Johnston may be right. He may adjust his thinking between now and the Penguins’ opener on Oct. 8. More roster alterations may transpire.
Johnston still sees Beau Bennett as a player versatile enough to move up and down the depth chart, and from side to side. GM Jim Rutherford echoed those thoughts in another interview.
But Bennett can’t play left wing. He can’t catch passes coming up the boards on that side of the rink. At left wing, Bennett is a liability until the offensive zone is gained. Bennett’s finesse-first style isn’t suited for third- or fourth-line duty, either.
It’s increasingly likely that Bennett’s time in Pittsburgh will come and go barren of positive results, skewed by injury and misuse. A wasted first-round pick.
Johnston sees Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and David Perron as right wings. That’s despite Perron’s preference for left wing and upgraded performance when playing there.
If Johnston sticks to that notion, one of those three will be miscast as a third-liner -- most likely Perron, thereby further diluting his chances of success.
Johnston feels Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz can still contribute as top-six wingers.
Dupuis might still have the speed, and actually has the legit versatility to flip from side to side.
But major knee surgery and blood-clot problems have limited Dupuis to just 55 games over the last two seasons. The former problem is often conquered. The latter, not so much. At 36, Dupuis is a question mark on numerous levels.
Kunitz, 35, had three goals in his last 38 games this past season. His grit remains. His touch and speed have dwindled. Seeing Kunitz as a solid third-liner is reasonable. Seeing him as a top-six is a leap of faith.
Leaving Dupuis and Kunitz in the top-six mix also provides temptation for Sidney Crosby -- too often held prisoner by his dislike for change -- to retreat to his comfort zone of centering two wingers he shouldn’t center anymore.
The wild card: Russian newcomer Sergei Plotnikov. Johnston says he’ll get a top-six look. But Evgeni Malkin doesn’t want a Russian winger. Malkin needs a good winger.
That might be Kessel. Johnston was vague about who would center Kessel, but early scuttlebutt says it will be Malkin. Crosby and Hornqvist will be left together to work down low. Malkin will tee up Kessel.
My preferred combinations for the top three lines would be (left to right): Perron-Crosby-Hornqvist, Plotnikov-Malkin-Kessel, Kunitz-Brandon Sutter-Dupuis. If Plotnikov lacks, put Dupuis in that spot. Bennett skates on Sutter’s right.
But that’s not what will happen.
Some potential remedies between now and training camp:
* If Bennett isn’t going to play top-six right wing -- and he’s not-- trade him. That’s best for the team, and for Bennett. The Penguins have zero faith.
* Trade Perron for a draft pick. The Penguins could certainly use a few of those. PR problem: If you can’t obtain a first-round pick for Perron, the swap to get Perron looks absurd. Like Rutherford traded a first-round pick for a second-round pick, or worse.
* Trade Kunitz. If Kunitz isn’t a Penguin, Crosby can’t want to play on a line with him. Logistics problem: Kunitz has a limited no-movement clause. That enabled Kunitz to keep himself out of the Kessel trade. Why did then-GM Ray Shero give a non-elite talent like Kunitz a no-movement clause?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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