Lacing Up: Thin on the Third Line?
Joshua Neal: Matt, I know you were probably right there with me as we listened to Doc Emrick repeatedly refer to Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy as “the best third line in hockey.” While 2009 doesn’t seem all that long ago, time moves faster in the world of hockey – and even faster when money is involved. Just four seasons removed from their role in helping the Penguins hoist the Stanley Cup, all 3 of those players are in new cities and on new teams.
Sure, the Penguins got a bona fide third line center back in trading Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter. But Matt Cooke was lost in free agency to the Minnesota Wild, and Tyler Kennedy was sent to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a pick in this year’s draft. Say what you will about the Penguins past and present, but color me concerned for the third line’s depth in the upcoming season. Matt, do I have reason for concern?
Matt Paul: Do you have a reason for concern? Sure. Will this team be successful during the regular season regardless of its third line? Absolutely. Training camp hasn’t started, the Penguins still need to trim some salary fat to become cap compliant, and Ray Shero could work some preseason trade magic to amp up his third line. My point is that we’re not aware of the larger picture and what we see as the third line today easily could be dismembered and recreated next week.
The fact is, even if it isn’t, the Penguins have enough talent in the top-six and a strong enough defense corps to be successful for the first 82. The playoffs, however, are another story — but that’s why the trade deadline is so popular. Playoff bound teams have an opportunity to fill gaps, correct mistakes, and strengthen themselves.
So, while its fine to be concerned, let’s not take it too far. With that being said, what is the structure and function of this line, as you see it?
Josh: Point well taken, Matt. Perhaps the attention to the third line’s importance from a personnel standpoint was actually holding the Penguins back in some ways. I am one of the biggest Jordan Staal fanboys you will ever meet, but to pay a third line center the kind of money he was commanding just didn’t make sense, especially with Malkin and Letang’s contract years upcoming.
To me, the structure of the third line and the cog to its success starts at the center position with Brandon Sutter. Many were underwhelmed with his performance this past year, but I thought we got a lot of good hockey out of him. He’s a hockey player’s hockey player, and his value goes beyond the stat sheet. If he can improve in the faceoff dot and continue to dog the top offensive players in a stacked new division that will see him facing both Staal brothers, Nicklas Backstrom, Claude Giroux, John Tavares and company, then the Penguins will fare well.
Who could possibly fill the spots beside him? Well, if we figure on Crosby, Kunitz, Dupuis, Malkin, and Neal being 5 locks in the top 6, it leaves relatively slim pickings on the Penguins’ roster as it stands. That means that (barring an unforeseen trade) either Jussi Jokinen or Beau Bennett will surely be one of those third liners riding alongside Sutter. Matt, who would you rather see it be, and why?
Matt: I think we’ve dipped into this conversation here and there on FF in the past, but it’s becoming more relevant now, as the season is just a few weeks away. Personally, as the team is currently constructed, I like the idea of playing Bennett on the third line, with Jokinen playing on the second line — at least for the early part of the season.
Bennett has an incredibly bright future, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be force fed to play on a scoring line. Many will disagree with my sentiment, suggesting the Penguins need to move it along and get him acclimated to a scoring role. My opinion, however, is that we’ve grown spoiled by quick-developing prospects, and Bennett should be given an opportunity to learn a defensive/grinding game, which will help him grow into a more well-rounded player in the long run.
What are your thoughts on this situation, and who do you see on the other wing?
Josh: I certainly don’t think it will hurt Bennett to play on the third line, especially if Jokinen can provide some playmaking on James Neal and Evgeni Malkin’s line. I think that long-term, Bennett is easily a top-6 forward on this team, but his development could be greatly helped by honing in on the defensive aspects of the game that often times get glossed for quickly developing prospects.
That being said, we seem to have reached an agreement that Sutter and Bennett (who showed some good chemistry last year in their limited time together) will be on the third line. Personally, my vote for contestant #3 would be Matt D’Agostini. He’s a former 20-goal scorer with wheels, a guy who does not shy away from contact or from dropping the gloves. He is certainly no Matt Cooke, but he plays a versatile game that might find him being the crasher and banger on the third line alongside his two more finesse-oriented teammates.
With a third line of Sutter centering Bennett and D’Agostini, some of the grit of Cooke and Kennedy are lost, but there is perhaps an upgrade in speed and skill. But that’s all on paper, Matt. Bennett was impressive as a rookie but hasn’t gotten enough time to say what kind of impact he could have. Sutter was a centerpiece of a trade for Jordan Staal, and has some development of his own to do. D’Agostini is coming off a few seasons of disappointment after a career year. Is this a recipe for success? Can these guys all hit their stride at the same time? Or perhaps you have another player in mind to play alongside Bennett and Sutter?
Matt: Therein lies the problem. I have no other ideas for the third player on that line, which means we’re liking looking at more of a scoring third line than a checking third line. As I said above, it will work in the regular season, as the Penguins can and will outscore most, if not all teams in the league. But when the going gets tough and the playoffs roll around, can that third line be successful? The answer, at least on the surface, is no.
But again, they play 82 games in a season for a reason. We’ll likely see plenty of combinations on that third line, and it’s very likely we could even see an external player find a final home there. There’s plenty of time to experiment and adjust before the truly meaningful games. That said, if D’Agostini is the crasher and banger on the third line, it’s a weak line. In general, this team needs more grit, and I’m hoping that gets addressed in the process of clearing cap space.
Any last thoughts, Josh?
Josh: As camp approaches, and the Penguins look to trim salary – I think that Matt Niskanen is going to be the odd man out. Unfortunately, the Penguins lose a pretty good defenseman who provided a solid two-way game to a team whose defense was very up-and-down in the interim period.
If history is any indication, Ray Shero likes to have at least one stereotypical “tough guy” in the lineup. Is that Harry Zolnierczyk? I highly doubt it. Is it anyone on the roster right now? Probably not. While the seemingly inevitable deal of Niskanen is by and large a salary dump, I would expect Ray Shero to do it in return for some of the guys we are thinking about as the Cookes and Rupps of old.