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Camp Storylines: Top-Six Opening

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Going into Pittsburgh’s 2013 training camp, there appears to be one open spot in Pittsburgh’s top-six forward lineup: on the left wing next to center Evgeni Malkin and right wing James Neal. So on Tuesday we asked Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma if he had anyone in mind to skate alongside the linemates of two seasons.

“I think immediately, a few people fit into that role,” Bylsma replied. “Jussi Jokinen is a guy who’s played alongside some very good players in his career with the different teams he’s played for (like) Mike Modano (and) Eric Staal. He’s been able to play with the very good players. So you’ll see him have an opportunity there.

Beau Bennett is a guy who was there at times last year and really got his feet underneath him last year at the NHL level. He’s going to get a great opportunity as well to be in that position in a top-six role.”

Neal also singled out Bennett as someone who could gel with him and Malkin, saying, “We’ve got lots of options. But Beau is coming in his second year and he’s been around and sees how things work. I’m sure he’ll get a good chance to play. He looks great, (from) skating with him and watching him right now. So I’m sure he’ll be there. But you never know.”

Here’s what Bennett and Jokinen had to say about potentially playing alongside Malkin and Neal…

Tuesday wasn’t the first time Bylsma had said Bennett could be a top-six forward during the 2013-14 season. And Bennett is aware that the coaching staff believes he is capable of being a regular there in his second NHL season. But the 21-year-old sophomore also knows he has to work for it, earn it. And if he gets it, he has to produce in the role.

Beau Bennett

“Every night is an opportunity and you’re not guaranteed to play there every night,” Bennett said. “So I just want to go in, make the team and make an impact right off the bat. We have a lot of good centers in the organization, so it’ll be a pleasure to play with anyone I’m allowed to.”

Evgeni Malkin isn’t the only superstar center the Penguins coaches see the up-and-coming Bennett playing with – Bylsma also said he could get an opportunity to play alongside captain Sidney Crosby at some point.

“We may see him in different spots. We may see him play next to Malkin at times, may get an opportunity next to Crosby on the right side there,” Bylsma said. Which makes sense, since the right-handed Bennett is actually a natural right wing – and had never played on the left side before coming to Pittsburgh.

“Last year was big in the fact that I got pretty decent on the left wing having not ever played at that,” Bennett said. “And I’m still comfortable on the right, so it’s been good.”

But if Bennett does play on the left side, he said it has its advantages. What are they?

“Left side, the perks to playing there is because it would be with ‘Geno’ and ‘Nealer,’” Bennett laughed.

Yeah, we figured. Anything else?

“And coming in, you can have a lot more options. You come in and you can cut to the middle and you’re on your forehand or you can drive wide on your backhand. The only harder thing is getting the puck out because you’re on your backhand and it’s harder to make strong plays. When you don’t, it doesn’t look good.”

From the games Bennett skated on Malkin and Neal’s line last year, he feels he knows how to best complement the two of them and the way they play.

“Not getting in their way is a big thing,” Bennett smiled. “They’re pretty free-wheeling. They’re all over the place. It works perfectly. I just want to fill in the lanes, be responsible, get them the puck when they’re open and hopefully not mess up when they give me the puck. That’s the key.”

Bennett is one of those players that has the ability to slow the game down with his hands, his skill and his hockey sense. He is cerebral and creative, which are all qualities that will serve him well on a line with Malkin and Neal – especially in the offensive zone.

“He’s got a lot of skill,” Neal said of Bennett. “He’s smart, he can shoot the puck and he’s a great passer. So it looks like he got a little stronger over the summer and with that maturity, you’ll see him step in and kind of be himself.”

Unlike Bennett, who joked that he’ll always be considered a rookie while he is the youngest guy on the team, Jokinen is a veteran in this league – having played over 600 NHL games in eight NHL seasons with Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina and now Pittsburgh.

Jussi Jokinen

The main reason he has been able to craft such a long career, Jokinen says, is his ability to fit in any role, on any line and at any forward position.

“To be able to play a long career in this league, you need to be versatile, I think," he said. “That’s one of my strengths.”

In turn, versatility requires hockey sense – the ability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the players you are playing with as well as the responsibilities of your role and to adapt your game accordingly.

Jokinen has that – the hockey sense to succeed on the first line, fourth line and everything in between – which is something Ray Shero said he liked about the Finnish forward when he acquired him at last season’s trade deadline.

That paired with his own skill is why he could thrive playing alongside star players like Malkin and Neal.

“Those two are great players and obviously that would be a really good spot for me to play,” Jokinen said. “It would be an honor to play with those two. So hopefully I have a good camp and get a spot to play with those two.”

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