In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.

Joshua Neal: Matt, as I open this column up to you, the Penguins are gearing up to take on the Maple Leafs in the first of a back-to-back situation for the weekend. After a stunning and encouraging victory against the Flyers on Thursday, a lot of Penguins fans are riding high. One of the biggest takeaways I had from that game, aside from seeing a wonderful second period performance all around, was the play of Beau Bennett.

This is a kid who some people speculated still wouldn’t be ready for the NHL at all this year. His play at the AHL level bought him a trip to their All-Star game, although he didn’t play due to injury. And we’re being told he still isn’t quite 100% with a wrist injury he is still healing from. But I don’t think we can help but be impressed with the way Beau has played – beyond the statistics, he’s been a visible and positive impact on the Penguins style of play. What do you think of Beau’s performance thus far this year, Matt?

Matt Paul: Bennett’s development at the professional level has to be viewed as somewhat surprising on several levels. For starters, he has been battling a wrist injury that hinders his most useful tools: his hands. Second, he’s a tad undersized, at least with regard to his strength when compared to the competition in the NHL. Third, he went through the NCAA, which isn’t well-noted for producing NHL-ready talent, though it is known for producing quality NHL players.

The common perception when Bennett decided to turn pro was that he would spend at least one year in the AHL, developing his game to fit the professional style, adapting to increased speed and competition, and bulking up. But he’s beat the learning curve and has found a way to force his way onto a crowded roster and, better yet, force his way into what looks to be a permnant role on the left side of Malkin and Neal.

To answer your question, Josh, I’ve been highly impressed by Bennett, not just because he has created some pretty offense, but because he has played some quality all-around hockey. Unlike Eric Tangradi and Zach Boychuk (to a slightly lesser extent), Bennett has been visible all over the ice, playing solid defensively, skating hard, and even using his small frame to create separation. He’s everything he was touted as being when he was drafted.

The question I have for you, Josh, is whether he can keep this up, especially as we enter an extended stretch (1-2 weeks, as of Monday morning) without Malkin?

Josh: I think that’s the true test. When Bennett was initially sent back down about a week ago, when Malkin actually did return from injury, I thought that his cup of coffee was (rather unfairly) over for the year. But in waiving Boychuk, the Penguins opened a spot for Beau in a show of confidence in him to give him the opportunity to continue to produce. It’s nice to see a guy get rewarded for the kind of play he’s put together.

While it’s hard to say he’ll have the same kind of successes without Malkin as he has had, I think the type of game that he plays lends itself to some durability through Malkin’s absence. The book on Bennett had him as a handsy playmaking forward who was lacking strength but had the frame to someday get to that point. What I’ve seen from Beau is a game that doesn’t acknowledge that lankiness or lack of strength. What he lacks in physical strength, he seems to make up for in boldness.

Look no further than the Neal goal in the Philadelphia game last week. Bennett made a nice play to enter the puck into the zone but unfortunately turned it over. But he stuck with the play, lifted a stick, maintained composure, and found Neal with a pretty pass that found its way to the back of the net. That’s just one example though, as Bennett has made a few nifty plays along the boards that really have me excited for how he can work in a variety of different ways in this Penguins’ lineup.

To me, the sky is the limit. My ideal situation is that Bennett develops into a James Neal type player, but with a right handed shot and a bit less size. Is this jaded, or do you think he could be that and more?

Matt: Josh, you nailed it. Bennett is showing elements to his game that go beyond offense, which wasn’t necessarily expected of him, especially this early in his career. His well-rounded play also is what has set him apart from the other players plugged into the left wing spot on the Malkin-Neal line.

There was plenty of backlash from fans when Bennett was promoted to the NHL and placed on the third line. I liked the idea. As you know, I believe a player must earn his ice time. By skating on the third line, he was forced to prove to the coaching staff that he knows how to play the game of hockey and not just create offense. It also gave him time to acclimate to the NHL without the pressure of force-feeding the puck to Malkin, Neal, and Crosby. Once he showed enough, he was bumped to the second line.

Now, as for Bennett’s development, I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves comparing him to Neal. In Bennett, I think we have more of a playmaker than sniper. So, in that sense, they’re definitely different styles of players. Beyond that, I think it’s reasonable to expect that Bennett could grow into a 75-80 point player, scoring 25-30 goals, while providing many more pretty assists.

Josh, Bennett has five points in 11 games to date, which would project to 37 points in an 82 game season (or 21 points over 48 games). Not bad for a rookie. But given that his role has increased from third liner to second liner in the last few games and will now include top power play ice time in Malkin’s absence, could his .45 points per game average increase, and if so, how many points do you think he’ll finish the season with?

Josh: I think that Beau will continue on a similar trajectory as far as scoring points goes. Even without Malkin, I think his time on the power play, especially in 5-on-3 opportunities (he was VERY visible against the Islanders, and scored his first career goal that way as well) will break even. With 20ish games left in the season, I think Beau will round out the season around 15 points.

But I think that judging Beau as a success at this point goes beyond how many points he scores. As far as a player like him goes, I think the more you hear his name, the better. It’s a good sign that he has been able to find his way to the puck, even if he isn’t lighting up the score sheet and may not do so this year. He doesn’t have to be a go-to scorer yet, and that’s a luxury that the Penguins have right now with the way they’re scoring. So if Bennett can find ways to contribute from an energy standpoint, knowing that one day his number will be called upon to be one of “the guys” only increases my excitement.

Anything to close, Matt?

Matt: Josh, that’s what is so intriguing about Bennett. Unlike Tangradi, Boychuk, and others to get a top-six forward role and not stick, Bennett has shown that, even when not producing points, he is a valuable hockey player. He never looks lost on the ice and always seems to be well-aware of his surroundings and what he needs to do.

If I had to guess, I’d put him at 21 points on the season — which is equal to what his current numbers extrapolate to over 48 games. With increased icetime and better linemates, he’ll have an opportunity to be more creative in point production and will see a slight upward trend on his points. But, even if he continues to play as he is and puts up your estimated 15 points, his season will be considered a success.