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Storylines: Top-Six Role

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins will have a lot of competition heading into training camp for roles on the team. One such open spot is among the team’s top-six forwards.

Last season the team’s top two lines consisted of Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis. With Sullivan’s departure, signing with Phoenix during free agency, there is a job opening.

Head coach Dan Bylsma will reunite the former combo of Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis, meaning Malkin and Neal need a new partner.

Here is a look at some of the contenders for a slot among the Penguins’ top-six forwards.

2011-12 Recap: Kennedy battled through a concussion and high-ankle sprain, which limited him to only 60 games played, to still hit double digits in goals (11) for the fifth straight season and post 30-plus points for the third time in his career. He finished second on the team with three postseason goals.

Takeaway: Kennedy has a lot to offer as a top-six forward. His speed creates matchup problems for the opposition. His motor on rushes forces defensemen to take bigger gaps and wider angles to compensate, creating more open ice for Pittsburgh’s highly skilled forwards to do some damage.

Kennedy isn’t shy about getting the puck on the net either. He will shoot, and shoot often. Kennedy has averaged 2.7 shots per game in his career and that is while playing in a third-line role with limited ice time. Due to injuries to the team in 2010-11, Kennedy was given an expanded role, more ice time and power-play time. Kennedy flourished, setting career highs in goals (21), assists (24), points (45), power-play goals (7) and shots (234). Seeing more ice time and playing with the Penguins’ elite group of forwards, Kennedy could find himself once again being a 20-goal player.

Kennedy also adds a defensive element to his lines. He has been matched against the opposing team’s top forwards in a shutdown role over the past four seasons. Kennedy, an underrated defender, provides a solid two-way presence.

2011-12 Recap: Tangradi split the season with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the Amerian Hockey League. He recorded 15 goals and 31 points in 37 games with WBS, and was particularly effective in the playoffs where he notched nine points (4G-5A) in 10 games. Tangradi played 24 games and two postseason contests for Pittsburgh.

2012-13 Season: Tangradi has looked good in the first half of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's season, posting 10 goals and 18 points in 34 games. He's been especially impressive on the power play. Tangradi has provided a valuable net-front presence and leads the team with six man-advantage scores.

Takeaway: Tangradi has always been an impressive physical specimen with his solid 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame. And he’s learned more and more how to use his physical makeup to his advantage, using his big body to win battles along the wall, protect the puck or throwing checks.

Tangradi is in the best shape of his life. A grueling summer workout program lowered his body fat while maintaining his power and strength.

Tangradi has developed his game to include a net-front presence on the power play. As stated above, he leads WBS will six man-advantage scores, all within 10 feet of the net. He scored five of his 15 goals with WBS in 2011-12 on the man-advantage. Tangradi also saw some time on Pittsburgh’s power play last season, a role he hopes to fill this season.

2011-12 Recap: Bennett got off to a strong start with the University of Denver, scoring four goals and 13 points in the first 10 games of the season. Unfortunately, a wrist injury ended his sophomore season prematurely, but Bennett’s wrist has since healed.

2012-13 Season: Bennett made the jump to professional hockey this season. The early portion of the campaign was an adjustment period. Not only was Bennett adapting to the speed and competitive play of professional hockey, but he was trying to refine his game after a 10-month absence due to his surgery. Bennett has developed into one of WBS's best forwards, leading the club with 24 points (6G-18A) in 30 contests.

Takeaway: Bennett, 21, has the skill set and ability to be a top-six forward in the NHL, whether it be this year or down the road. He has sick hands and an ability to work the puck in tight traffic to make plays. The Penguins think so highly of Bennett’s skills that they made him the 20th-overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft in Los Angeles.

Bennett’s puck skills and hands could be a perfect compliment for all-world playmakers Crosby and Malkin. He’ll have to adjust quickly to the level of hockey played in the NHL, but he’ll only get better as he learns and adapts. He’ll make the usual rookie mistakes, but his upside could make the Penguins offense even more explosive than it already is (if such a thing is possible).

2011-12 Recap
: Megna led all University of Nebraska-Omaha freshmen in scoring with 31 points on 13 goals and 18 assists. He was also named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team in his only collegiate season.

2012-13 Season: Megna transitioned from college to professional hockey, playing in 19 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He had an early setback with a high-ankle sprain. After Megna recovered, he was able to learn the system and gain valuable game experience.

Takeaway: Megna may be the ultimate sleeper pick. While other names may jump out as more prominent, don’t underestimate Megna. The Penguins were so impressed with his showing at the 2012 prospect development camp that the club signed him to a two-year contract.

Megna, who would move from center to wing to be in the top-six mix, has great vision and a lot of high-end speed and skill. His speed will open up ice and opportunity for the Penguins’ other elite forwards and his skill set should help create more scoring opportunities for all.

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