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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The New Three-Headed Monster by @BrianK_PI

When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, the strength of their team was down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal all centering their own lines. The three center model as it would come to be known was the bedrock for how Ray Shero would attempt to build the Pittsburgh roster, and it allowed Dan Bylsma to cycle his lines knowing he'd have a tough match-up for the opposition regardless of which of his three centers were on the ice. However, it wouldn't last forever, as Staal wanted to play with his brother and take on a bigger role. After Shero was unable to get him to agree to a contract extension, he shipped Staal to Carolina at the 2012 NHL Draft for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and the 8th overall selection (Derrick Pouliot).

Despite some timely goal scoring, Sutter was never able to fill Staal's role on the 3rd line. He wasn't the same caliber player, nor did he have the same caliber line mates surrounding him in the bottom 6. Forward depth was an issue that was clearing plaguing Shero's Penguins towards the end of his tenure, and Jim Rutherford's front office made it a priority to rectify the problem in the 2015 offseason. The Toronto Maple Leafs were looking to clean house, and they viewed arguably their best player as a root cause of the team's issues. Brendan Shanahan and company would ultimately look to rid themselves of Phil Kessel at any cost, but in a fortuitous stroke of luck for Pittsburgh Kessel was able to name a list of 8 teams to whom he'd accept a trade, and the Pens were the only one on the list interested in making a trade. The Pens would Phil Kessel, their 2016 2nd rounder they sent to Toronto at the 2015 trade deadline, and a couple of minor league players for Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling, and 2016 1st and 3rd round picks. Also included in the deal was Toronto retaining $1.2 million of Kessel's $8.0 million AAV.

With Kessel acquired, the focus shifted to moving Sutter out of Pittsburgh, and the team found a willing trade partner in Vancouver GM Jim Benning. The Pens traded Sutter and a 2016 3rd round draft pick for Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2016 2nd rounder, and clearing Sutter's salary also allowed the team the cap space to sign Eric Fehr in free agency. The team would continue to look for ways to optimize their lineup during the regular season, and with David Perron still struggling to fit in with Pittsburgh, Rutherford would swap Perron with another struggling player, Carl Hagelin of the Anaheim Ducks. When Evgeni Malkin would go down with injury at the end of the regular season, these 3 players would combine to form a line that's been one of the team's most effective since.

The thought of the Penguins being able to eliminate the runaway Presidents' Trophy winning team in 6 games with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not providing the majority of the offense might have seemed unthinkable in recent years, or even as recently as a few months ago, but that's exactly what happened. Carl Hagelin (3g, 4a), Phil Kessel (2g, 4a) and Nick Bonino (2g, 3a) were one-two-three in scoring for Pittsburgh during their six game 2nd round series against the Washington Capitals, while Crosby (0g, 2a) and Malkin (1g, 1a) were largely held in check. The 2 points were tied for 9th on the team in the series; 11 players scored goals against Washington while Crosby did not, and yet they're still moving on all the same.

It feels wrong to call it the Kessel line, because it's so much more than just Phil Kessel, but he's the highest paid, highest profile, and most offensively talented player of the three. But arguing over nomenclature loses sight of the fact that whatever you want to call it, the Penguins once again have a deep and talented top 9 that can roll three lines with success. Washington was able to shut down Crosby and Malkin, but their bottom 6 had no answer for what the HBK line was able to do. And to divert attention towards their line means that one of the two generational talents at center is going to see lesser competition and a chance to start making an impact on the scoresheet.

The addition of Phil Kessel essentially gives the Penguins the three-headed monster they've been missing since Jordan Staal left town. No longer are they the top heavy team that never could have survived in this scenario, let alone against one of the top teams in the league, but they'll enter the Eastern Conference as clear favorites to advance to their third Stanley Cup Finals in the past 8 years. The points will come for Crosby and Malkin - if the rest of the roster is able to keep up this level of play when that happens, they might be unstoppable.

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