Talented Bennett is work in progress for Penguins

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 6:06 p.m.

If there's one thing in hockey that has dragged on longer than the NHL's current labor dispute, it's the Penguins' never-ending quest to develop a homegrown top-six winger to play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Could 2010 first-round draft pick Beau Bennett be the man to break the drought?

Frankly, the odds are against him.

There were 70 wingers who scored at least 20 goals in the NHL last season. Twenty-nine of them were stars who skipped the AHL entirely or had only a cup of coffee in the minors. That leaves just 41 NHL players who could be accurately described as AHL-developed top-six wingers.

But there are signs Bennett could buck the trend.

The 21-year-old rookie is the most creative offensive player to come through Wilkes-Barre in years. He has great vision and hands and plays the game with a flair that has its roots on the roller hockey rinks of his native Southern California.

“A lot of the best offensive players, they're one step ahead,” Baby Pens coach John Hynes said. “They feel pressure as it comes, and they know how to make the quick-release plays. That's what he can do.”

So far, he's done it more than any other player on the Baby Pens roster, leading the team in scoring with 16 points in 20 games going into this weekend.

So settle the lockout, stick the right-handed Bennett on the left side of a line with Malkin and James Neal and drop the puck, right?

It's not that simple.

“It's tough to put a timetable on,” Hynes said. “From what we've seen so far in his development curve, he's elevated his game at the American Hockey League level to be able to execute his skill set. Whether that can translate directly into the National Hockey League this year, the way he's developing, it looks like he's on track to be able to do that, but the proof would be when he actually gets in those situations.”

For now, the Penguins are focused on shoring up the weak points in Bennett's game so that he'll have the best chance to succeed once he gets to the NHL.

He needs to add strength to his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame, work on his acceleration and deceptiveness with the puck and develop consistency in his own end.

That last part presents an interesting developmental dilemma. The Penguins need to help Bennett become more responsible while not breaking his offensive spirit and turning him into a third-line grinder.

“When a player is in offensive situations and he has the puck, then there's some freedom, some creativity, some experimentation. You've got to let the horse run a little bit,” Hynes said. “But there's also the part when they don't have the puck. They have to realize the harder I check, the more responsible I am when I don't have the puck, the more I'm going to have it.”

Jonathan Bombulie has covered the Baby Pens for the Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached via email at jbombulie@aol.com.

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