The Pittsburgh Penguins have kicked off the countdown to the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline with a bang. General manager Ray Shero has made three trades, adding a pair of captains and a rugged defenseman to a club that was already atop the Eastern Conference and is currently riding a 13-game winning streak.
We decided to ask a few of our writers to offer their thoughts if they were in Bylsma's position. The task is simple (or maybe not): What should Pittsburgh's forward lines and defense pairs look like if everyone on the roster is healthy?
Even before Bylsma said Thursday he desires to keep the Crosby-Kunitz-Dupuis line together, I was of the opinion that a unit that has combined to produce 49 goals in 34 games shouldn't be meddled with. Bylsma called it "the best line in hockey," and considering it contains three of the National Hockey League's top 13 goal-scorers, it's difficult to argue.
My other primary objective was uniting Morrow with Sutter and Cooke to create a third line without peer in the League. Those three fit a checking-line role to a T, and should be able to match up against other teams' top lines when asked to. But they also have the skill and ability to score at a rate like top-six forwards on most other teams. Natural left wing Cooke, incidentally, is comfortable on the right side.
All season long, the biggest question mark among the Penguins' forward lines was who skated on Malkin's left side. Iginla is a right wing by trade -- but Neal had played exclusively on the left side before moving to the right upon playing with Malkin. The point is, Malkin's presence makes any transition easier. If it's determined Iginla is better on the right, Neal should be able to ease back into playing on the left.
As far as the fourth line goes, I'm about as loathe as Bylsma has been to consider scratching the cerebral and steady Adams. Besides, he and Glass are needed to kill penalties. It's difficult to keep skilled rookie Bennett out of the lineup, but Kennedy has one of the best shots on the team and is more accustomed to a grinder-like role at the NHL level. And that doesn't even consider Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale, who each have contributed this season.
On the blue line, I don't tinker with the Orpik-Martin pairing that has been so effective throughout the Penguins' winning streak. Letang seems to thrive when he's comfortable with a stay-at-home partner -- and with Murray, the righthanded-lefthanded symmetry works. The embarrassment of riches the Penguins are stockpiling allows them to slot Niskanen -- on the top pairing much of the early part of the season -- as a stabilizing force on the third pairing. Similar to Bennett, one of the casualties of the recent trades is that a promising skilled rookie in Despres is an odd man out.
As good as Dupuis has been this season with 15 goals, he's probably better suited playing on the third line. It's not as though he's on a typical third line, as Brandon Sutter is an excellent two-way player who will benefit from having a finisher on his right wing. The Penguins' top line has been sensational this season and I understand the argument to leave it alone, but I don't think putting Iginla there will matter. That line is the best because Sidney Crosby is the best. I'd rather keep players in their more-comfortable positions as opposed to moving Iginla onto Malkin's left side and bumping Morrow to the third line. No matter how you go about things, you're tinkering with a very successful lineup.
Defensively, it's less complicated. Orpik and Letang are perfect together. Martin and Niskanen are a tremendous second pairing. Murray and Engelland are more physical and aren't "puck-moving defensemen," but they can be a bottom pairing that is tough to play against. Murray is also capable of moving up to Martin's spot for an occasional shift, especially if Martin is just finishing a turn on the power play.
Crosby's line has been among the best in the NHL this season, but it is hard to imagine Iginla potentially spending the next two-to-three months on the third line. Dupuis has moved up and down the lineup before, and his speed and forechecking will still be a dynamic asset with Sutter's line.
Kennedy gets bumped to the fourth line, but the guy who really gets squeezed is rookie Beau Bennett, who has played really well at times with Neal. Morrow is more of a drive-the-net, create space kind of player, and when Malkin is healthy he should benefit from that greatly. Bennett has earned the chance to play, but with Morrow and Iginla on board the Penguins are going to need a guy like Adams to draw significant ice time on the penalty kill.
The only pairing that is really set for the Penguins is Martin and Orpik. Murray should get every chance to prove he can still be a top-level stay-at-home guy and give Letang more freedom to freelance. It is hard to argue with the team's record with Eaton in the lineup, but Despres should play most of the time with Eaton subbing in against more physical opponents.
Shero has given Bylsma plenty of options to consider, but putting Iginla on the top line makes sense for a lot of reasons.
Crosby and Kunitz are guys who funnel the puck either to the net or behind the net and then try to get in front. Iginla is similar to those two in that he is powerful enough to win battles in the corners and he's skilled enough to get to the net to score the so-called dirty goals.
It's fair to question if Iginla can skate with Crosby and Kunitz, but the way they play means he doesn't have to worry too much about that. Iginla won't have to change his game at all to play with those two because of the style they play.
It also works because Crosby and Iginla have history together. They played on the same line during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Remember, it was Iginla who set up Crosby for the golden goal in overtime against the United States.
Iginla said he would be open to any role, but he's a natural right wing and he would be able to thrive playing with Crosby. Putting Iginla on the top line means Bylsma would have to remove Dupuis, who has thrived playing with Kunitz and Crosby.
However, Dupuis is the type of player that can adapt to any role on any line. Moving him down the lineup gives the Penguins more scoring in their bottom six and a third line that would be feared for its energy and defensive ability.
Asking Morrow to play with Malkin and Neal on a consistent basis at this point in his career may be too much, but putting him on a line with Sutter and Dupuis means he would be getting 15-16 minutes of ice time per night, likely against the opposition's second or third defense pair.
A third line of Morrow-Sutter-Dupuis would be one of the best third lines in the NHL. Cooke is an easy one to slot in with Malkin and Neal. He's played with those two before.