The Straw That Stirs the Drink by @ExcitedBobErrey - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Straw That Stirs the Drink by @ExcitedBobErrey

Ray Shero knew that he was getting a steal in the spring of 2011 when he managed to pry James Neal away from the Dallas Stars for just Alex Goligoski.  That much is underscored by Shero somehow bringing back a capable NHL defenseman in Matt Niskanen as well.  And while the logic from Dallas centered around the team desperately needing a puck moving defenseman, the Stars really didn't know what they had in James Neal when they traded him away.  Ray Shero probably didn't fully know what he was getting either, although he certainly saw the trademarks of an elite player.  James Neal went from the 25 goal, 50 point player Joe Nieuwendyk saw his first 3 years in Dallas  to the 40 goal, 80 point powerplay monster Ray Shero envisioned he could be in Pittsburgh.

Craig Patrick knew that he was getting a dynamic future superstar at the NHL Entry Draft in 2004.  The Pittsburgh Penguins had finished with the worst record in the NHL in the 2003-04 season but "lost" the draft lottery and settled for picking Evgeni Malkin with the second overall pick.  "Lost" because even in 2004 Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin were viewed to be head and shoulders above the rest of their draft class.  They were two incredibly talented Russian players projected to be superstars in the league, with some scouts preferring Malkin's game to Ovechkin's.  "Lost" because looking back on the draft now, it's all but impossible to argue that second overall pick prevented Pittsburgh from walking away with the best player.  "Lost" because that second overall pick allowed Pittsburgh to keep all three of its ping pong balls in the league wide 2005 lottery, including the one that had Sidney Crosby's name written all over it.

James Neal was brought into Pittsburgh to be the long sought after "winger for Crosby", but his concussion injury opened the door to Neal playing on Malkin's line, and it didn't take long for the two of them to display an amazing amount of chemistry.  The two of them, along with Chris Kunitz at LW, went on to form the best line by far in that 2011-12 season, with all 3 setting career highs in goals, Kunitz and Neal setting career highs in points while Malkin took home the Art Ross Trophy, Neal and Malkin were named 1st Team NHL All Stars, and Geno took home the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay as the best player in the league.  Even with Kunitz moving back to Crosby's wing for the 2013 season, it seemed certain that the Malkin-Neal combo would be enough to carry that second line to incredible heights all by themselves.

Only, no matter who played at LW, the magic was gone.  And in all honesty, some of the players penciled into that lineup slot were an embarrassment to their linemates.  Eric Tangradi didn't belong in the NHL, let alone playing with the reigning MVP.  Zach Boychuk didn't belong in the NHL, as was proven by his being waived by THREE different teams in the shortened season alone.  Dustin Jeffrey was never going to be played there enough to stick, and Tyler Kennedy's shoot first, ask questions later mentality could land him a rap deal if he ever decided to switch careers.  Beau Bennett easily had the most success out of all the in system options, yet he was still just a first year professional who was attending the University of Denver the year before.  When it appeared the second line would have to do without anyone in Kunitz's gritty power forward type role, Ray Shero shocked the hockey world by bringing in Jarome Iginla, a player who had perfected that power forward role in his Hall of Fame career.  Instead of bringing Kunitz back, Shero went out and brought in an upgrade.

Only, it didn't work out.  Jarome Iginla, a career RW, never really adjusted to playing LW.  The points came for the trio, yet the chemistry, the cohesion, the elite level of play that line produced the previous year still never materialized.  Setting aside whether Iginla should have been playing RW with either Crosby or Malkin (as obvious a yes answer as they come), the three were never able to click, and Malkin and Neal never really recaptured what they had the year before.  Iginla's physicality, his booming slap shot, and his ability to drive the net and finish on the crease didn't matter.  He just was a poor fit, a player who looked lost at times on the ice.  The line's chemistry reached a low point when during a game Malkin actually stole the puck from Iginla as he held it behind the net.  Jarome Iginla just didn't know where he needed to be.

That's not a knock on Iginla as much as an acknowledgement of a vastly underrated part of Chris Kunitz's game.  To fit in on a line with Malkin and Neal, you need to know where you need to be.  Iginla was used to being the focal point in Calgary, the guy counted on to make plays happen, to drive the offense.  Chris Kunitz knows exactly how to be the complementary piece on a star-studded line, having played with great offensive talented in Anaheim before playing with arguably the best offensive talent in the world.  Not many players can read the flow of play when you have creative, dangerous playmakers controlling the puck like Crosby or Malkin, but Kunitz has always shown an innate sense to know what's likely to happen next, how the defense will react, and where he needs to go to capitalize.  His physical play compliments the skill in the dirty areas, and his hockey sense allows him to keep pace when it's time for a bit more finesse.  Chris Kunitz won't be playing on the second line anytime soon, but Beau Bennett has a unique skillset that should allow him to flourish as the second line wing, and his success will free up Malkin and Neal to reach their true potential as linemates again.

There are a few things about Evgeni Malkin and James Neal that stand out from watching them play together.  They both like to shoot the puck relentlessly, so much that they finished 1st and 2nd in the entire NHL in SOG during the 2011-12 season.  Malkin and Neal went from 4.52 and 4.11 shots/game in 2011-12 to 3.19 and 3.40 shots/game in 2013.  Part of the reason can be attributed to lingering injuries, but part comes from having linemates that couldn't keep up and dragged the entire line down.  Having two high volume shooters on the same line isn't supposed to work in the NHL, and it certainly isn't supposed to produce a dominating line in the process.  This alone creates an unusual dynamic that the third linemate needs to know how to handle, yet the different ways each player creates their shots makes this an even more complex task.

Evgeni Malkin quite possibly is the most unpredictable player in the entire league when he has the puck on his stick.  Geno's speed, strength, and stickhandling allow him to flawlessly perform things the vast majority of players couldn't fathom attempting.  While this makes it difficult for the defense to keep track of the action, it also makes it difficult for his fellow linemates to follow along.  When he has the puck Malkin is fully capable of driving to the net, creating his own shot, or making an impossible pass to a teammate in a great scoring position.  He needs to control the play with possession of the puck, and he's also able to influence the play off the puck as well.

The reason why James Neal complements Evgeni Malkin so well despite both of them being high volume shooters is that Neal does his best work when he doesn't have the puck.  Neal has one of the best wrist shots in the league, but another area he excels in is finding soft spots in the defense and allowing himself to become open.  He can feed off the work Malkin does with the puck, knows how the defense is going to respond, and reads the play well enough to know where Malkin is likely to go and where he can best position himself to get a quality shot away.  Neal's ability to bury the puck from such a wide area and his uncanny knack for finding himself open to shoot makes Malkin that much more dangerous.

Beau Bennett has a lot of qualities that should mesh well with the rest of the second line.  He has an unusually high hockey IQ for someone of his age which helps him break down what's happening on the ice, yet it's his creativity that might end up being one of his biggest assets to fitting in with his new linemates.  It's one thing to understand how a play is developing, but it's another thing entirely to be able to see the unusual play that's available, the extra move many won't think of, and be able to read and react off that.  He's flashed that creativity with the puck, and it seems to translate well to his off puck game too, and Bennett's off puck game is going to be the most important aspect of his success.  His passing ability suits him well for when he has the puck, as Malkin will practically demand a pass when he feels he's in a spot to make things happen, and better passing opens up James Neal on more and more plays.

While Bennett won't be able to match the physical aspect of Kunitz's game, he's proven himself to be willing to mix it up and should only get stronger once he's spent a few seasons in the league.  And while it's nice to have someone else who can do the dirty work, Malkin's shown himself to be an absolute terror when he commits himself to forechecking and Neal has the size to win battles along the boards.  The physical, gritty play is a nice quality to have in their linemate, but the ability to think the game on the same level as Evgeni Malkin and James Neal is by far the most important thing their LW needs to be able to do, and it's one of the reasons Beau Bennett has the potential to return the second line to its 2011-12 domination.

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