Improving The Bottom-Six is Crucial to the Penguins Success
by Rich Miller (@PensBender)
The Pittsburgh Penguins have arguably the best two top lines in hockey. Having two of the best players in the world centering said lines certainly doesn’t hurt that argument. It’s a very realistic possibility, assuming that everyone stays healthy, each member of the Penguins top-six could score over 60 points this season, including Beau Bennett who is emerging as a star-in-the-making this preseason playing on the left side of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.
Forwards seven through twelve, however, are a much different story.
There isn’t much certainty outside of Brandon Sutter centering the third line, who himself is coming off a relatively inconsistent season. To his credit, Sutter is having a tremendous preseason, looking quicker, more conditioned, and employing a much improved shot. Exactly who will be skating alongside of him this season remains to be seen, the Penguins currently have veteran Jussi Jokinen and newcomer Matt D’Agostini penciled in, but this could quickly change given the current cap situation.
The fourth line would then presumably be some combination of Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, Dustin Jeffrey, Harry Zolnierczyk, Zach Sill and Adam Payerl. Adams and Vitale figure to be mainstays on the penalty kill; this theoretically leaves one spot for the aforementioned up for grabs.
Although scoring goals should not be a problem, for the Penguins to reach their annual goal of winning a Stanley Cup this season, they will need much more productivity and consistency from their bottom-six. Last seasons third line lacked an identity; the loss of Matt Cooke will likely compound this problem. The fourth line struggled to be anything besides mediocre.
Head coach Dan Bylsma, much like other coaches around the league, has historically favored matching his third line against the opposition’s top players. He has had great success with this strategy in the past, for example the line of Cooke-Staal-Kennedy from two seasons ago immediately comes to mind. Last season, Cooke returned to his usual antagonistic self, however Sutter didn’t exactly fill the void Staal left, and Kennedy regressed himself completely out of the lineup by the time the playoffs began.
This season’s version needs to be better, that much is certain, but almost more importantly, they need to find that identity. If they are going to shutdown top-lines, then they will need a much more focused, concerted effort from all three forwards. Early indications are that the line is heading in the right direction. Although physicality is anything but Jokinen and Sutter’s strong suits, they are solid positional players who play a smart, fundamentally sound game. D’Agostini adds to the versatility and has upside as a scorer, but only time will tell how he handles having more defensive responsibilities. The goal for this line should be to find cohesiveness as the season progresses. If they can handle their defensive obligations while providing occasional secondary scoring, and do so consistently, the chances of raising the Cup once again this season rise exponentially.
Given the performance of the fourth line last season, noticeably awful on most nights, improvement should inevitably be conducive. Craig Adams is one of the best penalty killers in the league, however his skill-set beyond that is limited at best. Joe Vitale, though undersized for a prototypical fourth liner, is excellent on face-offs, and as mentioned, will have an opportunity to make an impact on the PK this season. His improvement will be vital.
GM Ray Shero and staff will have to make a decision in regards to Tanner Glass. Glass was brought to Pittsburgh last season to add toughness to the lineup, and although Glass did provide that element to the team, he brought bad penalties and systematic lapses with him as well. Not to mention an anemic scoring touch that mustered a mere two points in 48 games and cap hit of $1.1 million. Rookies Zach Sill and Adam Payerl have turned heads this preseason, bringing a similar game as Glass to the table with more scoring potential and much more economical price tag.
One thing is certain after the disappointing playoff exit last season at the hands of the Boston Bruins. As talented as the top two lines are, the Penguins cannot solely rely on them to produce. The bottom-six doesn’t have to be good early, but must show continual improvement as the season progresses. And when the playoffs inevitably roll around, they will need consistent contributions from the entire lineup, top to bottom, if they have any shot of winning the Stanley Cup.