Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Net Mouth Scramble: New Lines; Surplus D; Ovechkin's Genius Strategy

By Artistry

It's that soft spot in the schedule between the season premiere of "The Bachelor" and the Pens' game against Tampa Bay, and we've got a few things to cover this afternoon.

- It rubbed us the wrong way when Dan Bylsma scratched Chris Conner to make room for Jordan Staal in the Winter classic, as Conner had done nothing but help the Penguins win something like 15 of 18 hockey games since he began appearing regularly in the lineup. Seemed to us Aron Asham should have taken a seat. Now HCDB will apparently place Conner back in his well-earned spot on Mark Letestu's wing, but he's planning to break up the Buzz Line that those two formed with Tyler Kennedy, perhaps permanently. At practice Monday, the Pens went with a second line of Geno Malkin and Kennedy flanking Staal, leaving a third line of Letestu, Conner, and Matt Cooke. Of course, none of this is ever in stone, but it's hard to fathom why Bylsma would want to disrupt two productive lines instead of one, particularly when Cooke is well accustomed to playing with both Malkin and Staal. Rolling out three dangerous lines, if not a prerequisite to winning the Stanley Cup, is certainly recommended. That's why I still believe it's only a matter of time until we see Malkin and Staal both back at center, on the second and third lines, respectively.

- Locking up defenseman Deryk Engelland to a 3-year, $1.7 million deal - which is essentially minimum wage in the NHL - was a no-brainer. Engelland, along with the young guys on the Buzz Line, has been the Pens' most pleasant surprise of the year. His toughness has been a revelation. Nobody except maybe Paul Bissonette had any idea this guy would be knocking out heavyweights with regularity. But more importantly, he can play a fairly sturdy, rugged defensive game.

The Pens now have their top 7 defenseman locked up through next season, and as we discussed here in our Year in Review post, there are more young d-men who will soon be knocking on the door to Consol Energy Center. What does that mean in the short term? Ray Shero is going to be watching the bottom 3 of Alex Goligoski, Engelland, and Ben Lovejoy very closely this month. We've been calling for an upgrade of the third pairing all season. When they get caught out against a quick, skilled third line, they struggle. If it's necessary, and it probably will be, look for the Pens to rent a veteran at the deadline to stabilize that tandem.

- Puck Daddy today offers several theories as to why Alex Ovechkin is on track to score less than 30 goals. My favorite: he's pacing himself for the playoffs. I doubt that's true, but if it is, well, I'm sure it's just the kind of example Teddy Leonsis wants his team captain and $11 million-a-year star to set. Don't over-exert yourself boys. Take it slow. Just ask the 2009-2010 Penguins' how easy it is to suddenly flip a switch and turn on the jets in the playoffs. Then again, the Capitals did just win the Winter Classic. Their work is done here.

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