Two players that did not begin last season with the Penguins are set to start the 2011-12 campaign on the team’s top two lines. James Neal and Steve Sullivan both were acquired with the intention of logging valuable ice time.
Sullivan, a powerplay specialist, is growing older but still has the speed and hands to contribute at a high level–especially if he is playing alongside the world’s best. Neal underwhelmed in his brief time with the Penguins last season, but his talent and history in Dallas suggests that he is capable of putting up 30 goals.
Assuming everyone is healthy, Bylsma’s lines looked like this:
Chris Kunitz- Sidney Crosby-James Neal
Steve Sullivan-Evgeni Malkin-Tyler Kennedy
Matt Cooke- Jordan Staal- Pascal Dupuis
A few combinations at the top stand out to me. The first of these tandems is Kunitz and Neal as Crosby’s linemates.
Sid has developed chemistry with Kunitz. The former Duck is a power forward who can score dirty goals in front or bury the puck from the slot. He has enough skill and speed to keep up with Crosby. Together, the two formed a daunting first line last season.
The problem here is that Neal is basically the same type of player as Kunitz. Both are power forwards who have the ability to create in open space. Admittedly, Neal is more skilled and can adapt if he needed to play a style that required more finesse. But, why cause him to change if there is a perfectly good solution?
Malkin has not posted impressive numbers since losing Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone. In 2008-09 Geno won the Art Ross Trophy without Malone, but Sykora was a major reason why there was no drop off in his play.
Neal is a more talented version of Malone. He has better hands and is a more gifted play maker. If Malone scored 27 goals and post 51 points alongside Malkin then Neal could easily reach 35 and 65.
Imagine how a player like Neal could help Geno’s game again also. It has become increasingly obvious that the Russian superstar is heavily dependent on linemates. Sullivan and Kennedy are not scrubs but neither can match Neal’s potential. In fact, Sullivan is a perfect fit for Crosby. Kennedy, on the other hand, could fill the ‘shooter’ role that Sykora once did on Malkin’s line.
Of course, there is also the possibility that the Penguins abandon the three-center model and place Staal together with Malkin. In Staal’s rookie campaign he scored 29 goals while playing wing. If the two were paired, it is likely that the lanky Canadian would remain as a center while Malkin would switch to wing. I believe this combination gives the Penguins an optimum amount of firepower on the first two units while leaving the third line in the capable hands of Kennedy, Letestu, and Cooke.
There is a reason why I hinted that Sullivan would be the perfect winger for Crosby though. Dupuis has long been paired with Hart Trophy winner. Like Kunitz, his speed allows him keep pace with Sid on fast breaks and outlet passes. Think of Sullivan in the same manner. The former Nashville Predator still has quick feet and would gel with the Penguins captain in much the same way. Only Sullivan has significantly better hands than Dupuis.
Unlike Crosby’s former linemate, Sullivan can finish no. 87′s dishes. He can even create on his own—something Crosby has yet to see on his line. Sullivan’s shot and goal-scoring ability are nearly the perfect match for Sid.
Swapping Neal and Sullivan seems like a rewarding move. Regardless of where the two play though, having Crosby and Malkin back will be the most important changes in the Penguins lineup.