The Pittsburgh Penguins have been blessed with elite playmaking talent over the years at the forward position, so it's no surprise to see their top 6 as arguably the best in the league. When you can slot two of the best players in the world in as your 1A and 1B centers, it makes the top lines fall into place rather easily. Adding one of the better goal scorers in the league, two gritty players who continue to improve their games and achieve career years in their 30s, and a talented young player with great vision and hockey IQ gives Pittsburgh 2 lines that can take over a game.
While the top 6 remains strong, the bottom 6 has continued to grow weaker as re-signing the core has taken a good chunk of the available cap space. Gone are the days of the best 3rd line in hockey, when Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy could play a great brand of possession hockey and provide the defensive responsibility to earn ice time against anyone in the league. A franchise emphasis on drafting defensemen early and an inability to develop forwards taken in the later rounds has left the pipeline unable to fully replace those losses. Add to the fact that the salary cap decrease leaves Ray Shero unable to add capable veterans to fill the holes, and the Penguins will have their weakest bottom 6 in several years, and hopefully their weakest for many years going forward. The following players are all vying for a spot in the bottom 6, and hopefully the competition brings about a higher level of play from lines 3 and 4.
Likely 3rd Line Candidates
Brandon Sutter, C - Ray Shero faced an incredibly difficult decision last summer when Jordan Staal rejected the monster 10 year, $60 million contract proposal, but it might have been a much more difficult situation if his preferred team didn't have a player like Brandon Sutter to offer up in a trade. Sutter might never be able to duplicate Staal's level of offense in the 3rd line center role, but he gives Pittsburgh what it needs for the position. He's still a young player (24 years old) with a great pedigree (11th overall in '07 and the Sutter family bloodlines) and good size (6'3") who can kill penalties, win faceoffs, play defense, and still chip in enough offensively outside of a top 6 role. Most importantly, he still has restricted free agency status and a cap hit of only $2.067 million, or almost $4 million less than what Shero wanted to pay Staal.
Jussi Jokinen, C/W - Jussi Jokinen has found success offensively in the NHL before, having topped 40 points in all but one season after the lockout and even managing a 30 goal year as well. Even with his past history, with the Hurricanes making no secret of their desire to trade him during a horrible stretch of play (11 points in 33 games with Carolina last season) during which the team couldn't find a trade partner, mostly due to the $3 million cap hit he would carry into the 2013-14 season, a price teams didn't want to pay with the cap going down. Jokinen cleared waivers unclaimed, and if not for an injury to Sidney Crosby might have been stuck in Carolina. Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford made great use of one of the new provisions in the CBA - Carolina kept $900k in salary to get rid of the other $2.1 million, while Pittsburgh got someone to fill in for Sidney Crosby and only gave up a conditional draft pick (the conditions of which were not met).
Jokinen filled in well for Crosby too, scoring 7 goals with 4 assists in the 10 games after the trade, cementing his status as a player who could be plugged anywhere in the lineup, wing or center, 1st line or 4th. Jokinen is excellent on faceoffs (53.9% career), one of the best shootout performers in the league, and a capable defender. He's likely to start the season playing wing on the 3rd line, but any injuries in the top 6 could open the door to him playing a larger role in the offense.
Dustin Jeffrey, C/W - Dustin Jeffrey has had an interesting career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He's a player Dan Bylsma has said to be comfortable playing at any spot in the lineup but not actually comfortable enough to play IN the lineup unless injuries force his hand. Part of this has been due to the players ahead of him, as Jeffrey is more suited for a top 9 role than a place on the 4th line and was unlikely to ever unseat Matt Cooke or Tyler Kennedy for a place on the 3rd line. Another reason has been a bit of bad luck - Jeffrey was putting together a solid 2010-11 campaign (12 points in 25 games) before suffering a torn ACL. He was unable to come back from the injury as well as Evgeni Malkin did, and he's managed only 6 points in each of the past two seasons (26 GP and 24 GP).
While he's been unable to find a spot in a crowded lineup, the offseason departures of Kennedy and Cooke leave a gaping hole on the 3rd line, and while Dustin Jeffrey won't be given the spot he should be provided with a legitimate chance to win it in camp. It's hard to know what to expect from Jeffrey, but he has shown promise in the past, and knowing where in the lineup he'll play and earning a permanent spot on the gameday roster could go a long ways towards helping him achieve the consistency in his game he's been unable to reach so far.
Matt D'Agostini, W - The Matt D'Agostini signing is very similar to the Zach Boychuk waiver claim last year as Ray Shero is trying to cheaply bring in a player who has shown some potential to contribute in the past. Boychuk was a former 1st round pick who had never been able to put things together at the NHL level, while D'Agostini has had some NHL success. He set career bests across the board in 2010-11 with 25 goals and 21 assists and put up 21 points (53 GP) and 18 points (55 GP) in shortened seasons, but he's also put up incredibly unproductive seasons at the same time, with 4 points in 47 games in 2009-10 and 6 points in 29 games in 2013. D'Agostini has been hit or miss his entire career, and being on a league minimum contract he'll either be in Wilkes-Barre if he flames out or most likely finding himself on the 3rd line if he can rediscover his scoring touch.
Prediction: Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen should have their spots on the 3rd line wrapped up heading into camp, leaving the final wing spot to either Jeffrey or D'Agostini. I'm less than optimistic that D'Agostini has much more success in Pittsburgh than the likes of Zach Boychuk and Cal O'Reilly. I'd have to imagine that Jeffrey is the opening day starter, D'Agostini plays his way down to Wilkes-Barre before the year is over, and this spot on the 3rd line tops the list for trade targets if enough cap space opens up during the year due to LTIR. The longer that Brenden Morrow goes without signing with a team, the more likely I believe he will sign for a cheaper contract with a Stanley Cup favorite. If that's the case then possibly Ray Shero could sign him to a 1 year deal worth $550k with a bonus tied to games played in the neighborhood of $750k. By structuring the contract like this, adding Morrow wouldn't add to the salary cap on the 23 man roster and the bonus could be applied to this year's cap (space permitting) or next year's. While speed would be an issue, Morrow would give a physical edge and scoring ability that would complement Jokinen and Sutter nicely.
Likely 4th Line Candidates
Craig Adams, W - Craig Adams has filled the same role since joining the team off waivers in 2009 and will continue to fill that role as long as he's in the lineup. He needs to continue throwing hits, getting in front of shots, and killing penalties while being as much of a pain in the ass to play against as possible. It will be interesting to see how much Adams has left in the tank, as his game has started to regress a bit and he turns 37 before the end of the season, but he still provides a veteran presence and leadership when he takes the ice.
Joe Vitale, C - That Joe Vitale is one of the few late round Penguins draft picks to make the roster as a forward, having been selected in the 7th round in 2005. Easily the best part of Vitale's game is his faceoff ability, having won 57.1% of his draws during his short career, including 61.1% last season. He provides good speed and energy to the 4th line when he's on the ice, something that was very noticeable when Bylsma inserted him into the lineup in the Islanders series, yet you get the feeling the team is wanting him to take another step forward in his game this year.
Tanner Glass, W - Tanner Glass was absolutely horrible for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. This isn't meant to pile on the whipping boy, because he earned every bit of that description. However, things have gotten so bad with the fan base turning on him that it's possible that he could actually be underrated heading into the regular season. Tanner Glass had his worst season as a professional last year, and you'd have to imagine that the player we saw on the ice in 2013 wasn't the same one Ray Shero scouted before signing him as a free agent. I don't want to use the lockout as an excuse for his poor play, but that he had his worst year in a strike shortened season is enough for me to go into this year with an open mind about his play before tossing him back under the bus. He's never going to be a Mike Rupp or Arron Asham, but he's shown the ability to be able to play the role of a 4th line grinder in the NHL.
Harry Zolnierczyk, W - The departure of Matt Cooke has left the Penguins without a true agitator in the lineup, which the Penguins haven't had much of anyways since Matt Cooke cleaned up his game. While spending time in the Flyers organization is enough to turn anyone's POS-level up a few notches, it's also something Harry Z seems to come by naturally. The fact that I'm listing him here probably says all I really need to about the lack of depth in the bottom 6.
Prediction: The bottom 6 looks likely to be a revolving door throughout the season, with opponents and player slumps factoring heavily into who takes the ice for any given game. Out of these 4 players, expect Craig Adams to play the most games. Joe Vitale probably should play the majority of games but will likely inevitably fall into Bylsma's doghouse. Tanner Glass has already been guaranteed a spot in the lineup for every game against Philadelphia, and Harry Z probably gets into more games than he should just to be an agitator. Ray Shero needs to be creative in addressing the bottom 6 and especially the 4th line, not only in this season but beyond. I wouldn't be surprised to see the team make a few waiver claims for gritty, defensive minded players, trying to strike gold like they did in '09 claiming Craig Adams.