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30 in 15: Jokinen provides versatility for Penguins

by Wes Crosby continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Jussi Jokinen's role within the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup remains undetermined with just a few days remaining until they open their regular season.

And that is just how the Penguins want it.

The vagueness surrounding Jokinen's position makes Pittsburgh's opening-day line combinations, past that of Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis on the top line, difficult to predict. He will most likely spend the season cycling through several spots on three of Pittsburgh's lines, keeping opponents guessing entering each contest.

Jokinen, an eight-year veteran, has consistently adapted to his surroundings. That continued this preseason, as he played wing on two lines, while competing with second-year forward Beau Bennett for a spot next to Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.

"I think every guy wants to play on the first line," Jokinen said. "If you ask me, that's where every hockey player wants to play, on the first line or top six, and have offensive chances and play a little bit more."

The 30-year-old forward played alongside Malkin and Neal during the Penguins' preseason game Sept. 21 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and left the Consol Energy Center crowd energized despite Pittsburgh's 5-3 loss.

Facing a 3-0 deficit early in the second period, Jokinen scored three goals in 8:28 to tie the game with a natural hat trick. Even before his second-period outburst, Jokinen seemed to fit with Malkin and Neal – who finished with two assists each - creating several first-period scoring chances.

"I think some guys you just fit in with right away," Jokinen said. "Obviously, Geno [Malkin] and [Neal] have played together the last three or four years and I just tried to fit in. I think those two guys are great to play with.

"I think if you're playing with Brandon Sutter or [Tanner] Glass or [Craig] Adams, you have to be smart. They're all different kinds of players, so you need to be able to change your game a little bit."

Jokinen outperformed Bennett during the preseason, but the 21-year-old's upside makes Bennett the likely choice to play next to Malkin. This shouldn't be much of an issue, as Jokinen's versatility should allow him to fit in well within the bottom six.

The Finnish forward admitted he is most effective playing an up-tempo style, skating in open ice to create scoring chances – which has led to a bulk of his 357 points in 579 career games. But he is competent on checking lines, neutralizing the opposition's attack and controlling the puck until his team's top lines are prepared to step back on the ice.

"Jussi can play just about any position on the ice and any special teams position on the ice," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We haven't played him at center yet. We're not playing him at center yet because we want to see him on the wing. We have seen him on the wing with [Brandon] Sutter. He's a guy who's played with very skilled players throughout his career and has played very well in Dallas and Carolina.

"You put people in situations where you might see them throughout the year."

"He's smart and he can play against other teams' better players. He's good defensively, but he's got some pretty good vision and ability too, so he can go and play top-line minutes."
-- Penguins F Brandon Sutter on Jussi Jokinen

Jokinen was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes on April 3 last season and helped maintain the Penguins' strong work in the faceoff circle – winning 55 percent, second on the team behind Joe Vitale – while Crosby recovered from a broken jaw. But he exceeded Pittsburgh's expectations by scoring 11 points (seven goals) in 10 April games.

"When I came in last year, Sid was going to be out the rest of the regular season, so I played pretty much the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs at center," Jokinen said. "I think this year, if everybody's healthy, I'm probably going to play wing and then if there are some injuries, maybe I'll play a little in the middle too.

"It's a long season and it depends on how healthy our team will be. But, [concerning] who I'm going to play with, there are a lot of good players on this team."

Brandon Sutter, Jokinen's teammate for four years in Carolina, will be the Penguins' third-line center entering the regular season for the second consecutive year. Jokinen's most logical destination, assuming Bennett earns the position on Malkin's line, would be on one of Sutter's wings. It is something Sutter would welcome.

"He can play a little bit of everything and me and him have played together in the past," Sutter said. "I think he's a good guy to play with. He's smart and he can play against other teams' better players. He's good defensively, but he's got some pretty good vision and ability too, so he can go and play top-line minutes.

"He's definitely a well-balanced player and he's a good guy to have in our lineup."

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