Friday, September 30, 2016

This will come as a heartbreak, kids, but Penguins need to break up HBK line

By Mark Madden
September 30, 2016
Image result for hbk line
Bruce Bennett / Getty Images
Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. The HBK line. It had a legendary playoff this past spring. Finished fourth, ninth and 11th in postseason scoring. (Kessel, Bonino, then Hagelin.) Sold a lot of T-shirts. Won a Stanley Cup.
HBK will start the season together.
But that won’t last long.
Regular-season hockey is different than playoff hockey. The priorities are different, too. The Penguins blocked 33 shots in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. That’s not going to happen, say, Nov. 19 at Buffalo.
In the playoffs, everybody wants to win.
In the regular season, the stars want ice time and points.
HBK will be dismantled early in the season, its components distributed among Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Hagelin with one, Kessel with the other.
The superstar centers won’t campaign for that. They won’t have to. It’s simply how things are.
Being on a line with Chris Kunitz (now, not then) won’t maximize anybody’s production. Same goes for skating with the Wilkes-Barre gang.
A month before the playoffs, reassemble HBK.
Less knowledgeable Penguins fans will be outraged by this idea, to say nothing of those who purvey tacky merchandise violating the copyright of the NHL, Penguins and WWE. (Shawn Michaels will be fine with it. He once super-kicked his tag-team partner through a window.)
Whiny voice: “How can you split up HBK?”
But lines get put together and taken apart all the time. To think that HBK, or any line, would stay together for 82 games is silly. Injuries will figure in, also.
This much is certain: If Bonino doesn’t skate with Hagelin and Kessel and his production dips, don’t complain. We know what Bonino can do.
The Penguins start 2016-17 with virtually the same roster that won the Stanley Cup. That’s not all good.
You want young players to win jobs. You want that higher upside. You want to regenerate the energy that sparked the Penguins last season.
Defenseman Derrick Pouliot came to training camp in much better shape and, apparently, is finally focused on augmenting his ample tools with a toolbox. Can he put Ian Cole in the press box or inspire GM Jim Rutherford to deal Olli Maatta?
Uh, probably not. But Pouliot is 22 and a former first-round pick. His talent merits a very close look.
Winger Scott Wilson hurt his ankle March 11 at Columbus and missed the rest of the season plus playoffs. It was the same game Malkin injured his elbow, which kept him out for a month, so nobody noticed Wilson going down.
But, had Wilson not been afflicted, he would have stayed in the lineup through the postseason. He’s a solid bet to get a jersey for opening night.
Same goes for Kevin Porter, who broke his fibula March 3. Porter had zero goals in 41 games, but he’s a good penalty killer. Coaches love that in a bottom-six forward.
At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, can Conor Sheary play well over 82 games, let alone in a top-six role? For Sheary, less ice might mean more success.
At 31, is Eric Fehr closer to the end than he is the middle? Fehr, however, is 6-foot-4, (cue sing-along) and you can’t teach that.
At 39, will Matt Cullen hit the wall, making way for Oskar Sundqvist at fourth-line center?
The goaltending controversy has been pushed back 3-6 weeks thanks to Matt Murray’s broken hand. Or maybe not. Tristan Jarry posted a shutout Wednesday night at Chicago. Let’s make it a three-way dance!
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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