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Penguins have work cut out finding line combos

by Chris Adamski /

PITTSBURGH -- A two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner. The NHL's plus/minus leader. One of only two players who did not go consecutive games without a point this season. The third-leading goal-scorer over the past two seasons. A six-year captain in the League. A former 30-goal scorer who has seven in 10 games since joining his team.

Oh, and superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin too.

Let's face it, the Pittsburgh Penguins are loaded up front. And though coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't want it any other way, it does present some challenges when deciding who to include in a game day lineup, and in how to then divvy up the impressive collection of talent into four lines.

It's one of those proverbial good problems to have, but that doesn't mean Bylsma doesn't have some difficult choices to make in filling out the Penguins' line combinations.

"There's chemistry involved with that between players, and [looking at varying] types of players is also a factor," Bylsma said.

"We don't follow a certain script or look for certain attributes, per se, but there are some of that that ties into it."

Bylsma task is maximizing his team's vast potential by finding the best possible chemistry between linemates.

Over the past five weeks, the Penguins added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen via trade, and James Neal and Malkin have returned to the lineup after injury absences. Crosby, who hasn't played since March 30 because of a broken jaw, could be cleared return to game action at virtually any point.

Game 1 of the Penguins' first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the New York Islanders is Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

"The last few weeks there's been lots of different line combinations, and they're going to keep coming more and more," Jokinen said. "In this room, obviously, there's lots of great players. It doesn't matter who you're playing with, it's going to be with some pretty good players."

It's not as easy as merely picking names out of a hat and tapping those players on the shoulder to alert them to go over the boards together. Bylsma must consider things such as the past histories of players, whether they play better on a certain side of the ice or on their forehand or off wing, and who might complement a particular linemate to bring out the best in him.

Like almost any coach, Bylsma also could try to assemble units that might, ideally, include one aggressive forechecker/puck-retriever, one playmaker and one pure finisher. Or perhaps put a forward who is known to do his best work in his own end with another one who might best serve the team turned loose to attack.

"You want to put a different combination of guys together that work well," Neal said. "You don't put three passers together because obviously no one's going to shoot the puck -- but you don't want all shooters because there's only one puck out there. You want a good mix of everything."

Sometimes, though, the best-laid plans for line combinations don't work out -- or a grouping you'd never think would work flourishes.

On occasion, even the best coach or general manager can't put his finger on that intangible on the ice that makes certain players click together.

"You might think these three guys are going to have chemistry for sure, and then for some reason it does not happen," Jokinen said. "And then you just throw three guys together who you didn't think would have any chemistry and they end up having lots of chemistry.

"It's just one of those things. It's tough to say. Some guys have it with some guys, and then other guys you just don't have it. That's pretty weird how it sometimes goes."

Jokinen has seamlessly meshed with a variety of linemates in Pittsburgh after struggling with the Carolina Hurricanes this season. Bylsma must decide what to do with him, particularly once Crosby returns. Even though Jokinen has seven goals and four assists in 10 games with the Penguins, it might be difficult to justify a top-six role for him when everyone is healthy.

If Jokinen is used, to begin games, on the fourth line with Craig Adams and Tanner Glass, he still will be called upon to take a big faceoff or to see ice time on special teams, Bylsma has said.

Bylsma said the coaching staff has made contingency plans for line combinations with and without Crosby, for whom doctors have given no official timetable for a return to game action. Bylsma has used Jokinen in Crosby's place, however, and general manager Ray Shero made no secret about the fact he traded for Jokinen as insurance for an injury to Crosby.

Even with Sidney Crosby's status uncertain for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will have his work cut out putting together four lines from a wealth of talent. (Photo: Joe Sargent/NHLI)

When Crosby is cleared to play, the Penguins have shown they will go with Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Iginla, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz as their "top six" forwards. Bylsma has repeatedly expressed a desire to reunite the Crosby-Kunitz-Dupuis line that was the NHL's most productive before Crosby was injured.

Malkin, Neal and Iginla spent four games together upon Iginla's arrival via a trade with the Calgary Flames in late March and before Neal sustained a concussion April 5. During many recent practices, though, Kunitz has been on Malkin's left wing with Neal on the right. Bylsma said Monday that during the playoffs he won't be divulging his plans.

Iginla and Neal have been playing as right wings. Iginla, a right-handed shot, long has played on the right side. A left shot, Neal was moved to his off wing before last season and responded with a career-high 40 goals. He added 21 in 40 games this season.

During Iginla's Penguins debut March 30, he and Neal switched back and forth. Iginla, though, has seen increasing ice time as a left wing, and the plan going forward is to stay on that side of Malkin and Neal.

"I think his comfort level with playing [left wing] has grown and he's comfortable doing both right now," Bylsma said. "But the scenarios with and without everyone in the lineup, you could possibily see him on either side."

One line you won't see tinkered with -- barring injury -- is Morrow, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke.

"Those three players together bring a certain element to our team that we're going to look to have in our lineup and have as a unit," Bylsma said.

Cooke has been on the Penguins' "third line" since joining the team five years ago. In recent seasons, he'd been the left wing for Jordan Staal and right wing Tyler Kennedy.

Staal was traded to Carolina in June with Sutter the centerpiece of the return. Morrow's arrival from the Dallas Stars in a late-March trade bumped Kennedy down a notch (if he gets into the lineup at all). Morrow's physical, gritty game is more befitting of a third-line role.

"Us three are all guys who can play well in both ends of the rink," Sutter said. "Forecheck is big for us too."

Among those in danger of being left out in the Penguins' game of musical chairs for a spot on the fourth line are Kennedy, rookie standout Beau Bennett, speedy energy player Joe Vitale, and skilled young forward Dustin Jeffrey.

"I don't know exactly what the lines will end up being," Neal said. "But we've definitely got a lot of great players that we'll be able to switch around and see what fits and see what works really good."

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