After their success in those playoffs, that line stayed together when possible for the next four seasons – matching up against other teams’ top forwards and excelling in that defensive, shutdown type of role. They were tough to play against and contributed offensively when possible.
But when Staal got traded to Carolina before the 2012-13 season, Brandon Sutter
replaced him as the third-line center between Cooke and Kennedy for the majority of the year. And for the most part, that line retained the identity it had built the previous few seasons. But with Cooke and Kennedy departing for other teams this past offseason, that line is going to have a new identity.
Sutter is now the only one guaranteed to play on that third line, and he’ll be counted on to take ownership of it and take the lead with whomever his new wingers are.
“I think last year there was a getting-acquainted period for Brandon coming to a second organization having been the whole time as a pro in Carolina,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “There was getting acquainted to Pittsburgh and our team and how we play, and the players on his line helped him out in that regard. Same thing with the penalty kill – it was players he went over the boards with for the first part of the year were helping him out and getting acquainted with how we want to kill.
“This year, it will be the other way around. Brandon will be the lead guy in that role and on that line and how we play. He may have one or two new wingers on his side. He’s going to have to play the lead with how we play. I think it’s a little bit different type of role. Instead of (getting) adjusted, he’s going to be more of a leader on that line and our team.”
Sutter is fine with that, saying his comfort level with the organization now compared to last year is “night and day.”
“It is much more comfortable in terms of knowing your surroundings and being friends with the guys, stuff like that,” he said. “It is a different feeling and now there are no excuses for being settled in. I feel pretty good, had a good summer training and I am looking forward to getting things going.”
During the first two days of on-ice practices and one scrimmage at training camp, Sutter skated with Jussi Jokinen and newcomer Matt D’Agostini. If the three of them did play together – which Bylsma says they will for at least one exhibition game – they would be counted on to be a different type of third line, more of a scoring one, than the Penguins have had in the past.
“The line with Jussi and Matt wouldn’t necessarily be a straight-up physical line or a checking line,” Bylsma said. “You’re talking about guys that have gotten 40-plus points in this league in Jussi and in Matt. So (they are) guys that can add a different kind of element to a third line. You’d look (for) the crashing and banging from other aspects of our team.”
One of the reasons Jokinen was placed on Sutter’s wing to start camp was their familiarity with each other. The two of them were teammates for all four of Sutter’s seasons in Carolina and were even linemates for about a year. “Playing with him now for five years, I know a lot about him,” Sutter said.
Another reason is Jokinen’s versatility. It’s his biggest strength,as he can contribute on any of the four lines and play any position. Meanwhile, D’Agostini has the skating, the shot and the scoring ability (he potted 21 goals for the St. Louis Blues in 2010-11 and had two 20-goal seasons with Hamilton of the American Hockey League before that); as well as the willingness to go to the dirty areas and grind it out in the offensive zone. That would help him make an impact as a third-line winger.
“I think for a third line the most important thing is keeping pucks out of your own net first and playing sound positional-wise and defensively, then you get your offensive chances from there,” D’Agostini said. “As long as we keep the puck out of our end and play offense we will be good from there.”
They will still have a defense-first mindset and being responsible in their own zone will be the priority. But the best defense may be playing in the other teams’ end, and trying to score while they’re there. Physicality is not a requirement – just intelligent, two-way play.
“Especially if you are playing against the good players and you try to be physical with some of the best players in the league, it doesn’t always work out for you,” Sutter said. “You just have to be smart and positioning has to be good. We are three smart players and I think we can use our bodies in a different way than just running guys over.
"We have some skill too. The first few practices you can see the way Matt can shoot the puck, and Jussi is a pretty good passer and shooter too. It should be a fun group. And definitely when you add some skill, we just want to find that strong two-way game early. You want to create offense and be good, but you definitely want to be strong defensively.”
All of that being said, D’Agostini and Jokinen are not guaranteed to play on the wings next to Sutter all of the time. Bylsma said we could see Tanner Glass and Craig Adams move up and take more of a defensive-type role if need be. But no matter who plays there, Bylsma believes that the identity is going to change from what it was with Cooke and Kennedy still here and new players stepping in. And those players will need to step up.
“I think you talk about a number of players that could be in that third-line role and it may (depend) on who steps up and takes hold of that third line what the third line is going to look like,” Bylsma explained. “If it’s Jussi Jokinen, you’re adding a more skilled player, a guy who’s gotten points and goals and played in a higher-end role in this league. If it might be someone like Tanner Glass who steps up there, it’s going to be a different third line. He played on a third line two years ago in a checking role for Winnipeg.
"As that competition plays out in camp, that third line could look different depending on who steps into that spot and forms that third line.”