With Sidney Crosby's return imminent, the discussion is shifting to much more important things like, What songs will they play at CONSOL to ruin some of the standing ovations he will get? When will Jeremy Roenick advocate that someone should punch him in the head? Will we ever stop saying the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins* should always have an asterisk?
(Something by My Chemical Romance, April 4th, No)
But the most important question, other than Crosby's health, is who he should play with. There is great consternation about breaking up the Neal-Malkin-Kunitz line, and there are suggestions that Jordan Staal should move up to Sid's wing.
Our position on this is as clear as it is noncommittal: Nothing should be set in stone. If you go into a playoff series against Laviolette's Flyers or Tortorella's Rangers with a mentality of, "these are our lines, we're not changing them, do what you can to try to stop it," chances are they will figure something out by Game 2. You have to be flexible, you have to be unpredictable.
But above all, you have to maximize the return on your players, and that's why steadfast refusal to break up Geno's line, or a plan to consolidate Staal and Crosby just doesn't make sense. A healthy Pens' lineup has an embarrassment of riches, so long as it's used properly. Here are 4 reasons why the Pens should consider breaking up the Malkin line and leaving Jordan Staal alone, along with our proposed lines at the end.
4. The real difference maker is James Neal.
With all due respect to Chris "Hands" Kunitz, the real magic of the Pens' top line is the chemistry between Malkin and Neal. Kunitz is as solid of a winger as there is, and gets more out of his skill set than almost any player in the league. But he is not having some breakout career year. He's on pace for 57 points, less than the 60 points he had in Anaheim in '06-'07 and about the same as the 55 points he was on pace for last year before Sid got hurt.
|But he's just so handsy...|
(As Dejan Kovacevic pointed out in Tuesday's Trib, Neal's scoring pace is slowing -- 3 goals in 16 games. Kovacevic is a proponent of the carve-it-in-stone approach for Malkin's current line, but 3 goals in 16 games is exactly why you don't want to be inflexible).
Much more after the jump...
3. Kunitz-Crosby is what chemistry is all about
Before the Pens traded for Hands in 2009, all you heard was "winger for Sid." You still hear it, now that James Neal appears to be the "winger for Geno," but here's what Sid has done since the Pens have acquired Kunitz: 15 goals in 24 playoff games in '09, 51 goals in '09-'10, and a 64 goal pace in '10-'11 pre-concussion. So what if the "winger for Sid" has turned out to be a guy who helps Sid score 60 goals instead of a guy who Sid can set up to score 40? The bottom line is the same: problem solved.
2. Moving Staal to Sid's wing helps no one
Jordan Staal is a center. A 6'4" pterodactyl who will politely put his shoulder into you, move you aside, and take the puck directly to the net. He will also clear you out from in front of Fleury, eat up space deep in the Pens' zone, and otherwise generally dominate the entire middle of the ice. He's not a winger.
But let's say you experiment with Staal on the wing, and the best-case scenario happens -- he has great chemistry with Sid. This doesn't really give the Pens anything that they don't already have. Instead, it would just consolidate it in on place, and leave the rest of the team worse off.
We know what Crosby is capable of in a best-case scenario -- a 65 goal pace. He did it in 2010 without Jordan Staal on his wing. We don't know what Staal's best-case scenario is, but this year he is playing at a 38 goal pace, and he's doing it with guys like Dupuis, Sullivan, Cooke, Kennedy, etc. We are as big of Staal fans as there are -- he's manhandling The Onus, after all -- but to think he is capable of scoring at significantly better than a 38 goal pace is to dream too big.
So if moving Staal to Sid's wing: a) wouldn't help Crosby do anything he hasn't already proven he is capable of doing without Staal; b) wouldn't result in Staal significantly increasing his scoring over anything he is already producing now; and c) would leave the Pens with Joe Vitale or Dustin Jeffrey centering a line for 12 minutes a night, why do it?
|Google tells me this is a picture of Joe Vitale.|
Neal-Malkin-SullivanLike everything, however, that shouldn't be carved in stone. The main concern with this approach shows why it is such a luxury -- how do you get Staal 20+ minutes a night? Enter Bylsma. Play him on the PP, play him with Sid and/or Geno at the end of periods and after penalty kills, play Sid and Geno together when matchups dictate. But whatever you do, don't carve it in stone.
1. Don't forget who is walking through that door
The Pens aren't getting back an ordinary player. They're getting back the best player in the world, their captain and a guy who, by all indications, is a great teammate. He's not going to disrupt team chemistry by taking away someone's ice time and he's not going to be perceived as a diva if he wants to play with wingers who can keep up with him.
The Neal-Malkin-Kunitz line has seemed untouchable at times this season because of how heavily the Pens have relied on it. But when Sid is back, the Pens won't have to rely on that line to bail them out game after game. And if you make the subtle change of moving Kunitz to Sid's wing, it's not like Geno is going to fall apart. The guy won the Conn Smythe trophy with Ruslan Fedetenko and Max Talbot as his wingers. He'll manage fine with Sullivan and Neal.
If Sid stays healthy, the Pens are like a billionaire deciding which luxury car he wants to bring with him on the 200-foot yacht to the Maldives. But in deciding, there is one thing they shouldn't forget.
Sid is a Ferrari. You don't fill him up with 87 Unleaded.