Identity for Pens' third line belongs to Sutter
Brandon Sutter can see how it could happen Wednesday.
It goes like this:
Sidney Crosby shoots and scores, maybe one of those backhand beauties, to give the Penguins a lead early in their home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Onto the ice steps Toronto's top scoring line.
Coach Dan Bylsma calls out the numbers “24, 16 and 48.” Sutter hops the boards, skates into the faceoff circle, looks at Matt Cooke to his left and Tyler Kennedy to his right.
An organized offensive onslaught begins with Crosby and MVP Evgeni Malkin watching from the bench.
“If we're going to be the third line all year, it's nice to be great defensively, but it's nice to score some goals, too,” Sutter said a few days before the Penguins opened their 48-game NHL season with weekend wins at Philadelphia and New York.
“I've said it before, if it's going to be the third line, that's a role I'm comfortable in — especially against a team's better line. You want to get in their zone. Top players in the league don't want to play there. They want to create stuff. Best way to take that away is play in their end. Early in a game, that's important.”
The Penguins have lost their last three Stanley Cup playoff series. There is not only one reason why they have fizzled after sizzling en route to consecutive Finals, winning the Cup in 2009.
Bylsma has a working theory, though — and it does not involve goaltending, defense or injuries.
The Penguins have lacked, he said, “A line that together collectively can be a force with the puck in the offensive zone; a line that scores big goals but also can put teams back on their heels; a physical group, a gritty group.”
“There's always been a lot of talk about the third line in Pittsburgh,” Bylsma said. “I don't think we've really had a third-line identity for maybe two years.”
Coincidentally, that was the last time the Penguins were blessed with a relatively healthy Crosby and Malkin, and a No. 3 center content to set a tone by doing the dirty work not often shown on a scoresheet.
Sutter is with the Penguins to help restore that “third-line identity,” which was most evidently lost last spring in a first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia for which Jordan Staal was on the ice for almost a third of the goals the Flyers scored.
Sutter is 23, stands 6-foot-3, weighs about 190 pounds, shoots right handed, and bears a bit of a resemblance to an unshaven Ryan Gosling.
He may be a lot of things.
A player with good offensive upside, general manager Ray Shero said.
A quick learner, Bylsma said.
A natural fit in the room, Kennedy said.
And tough guy to play against, right wing Pascal Dupuis said.
Sutter sounds a lot like the guy he is tasked with replacing, but he should not be compared to former third-line center Staal.
“I don't think it's fair to either one of them to compare the two,” said Cooke, a close friend of Staal, who was traded to Carolina in July for Sutter and the seventh overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft.
Comparisons are inevitable because the Penguins' greatest success over the last seven years came when Staal was comfortable filling a role as the third-line center. His instinctive defensive skills were obvious from his debut in 2006. He masterfully played a shutdown role on the 2008 and 2009 Cup Final squads, his breakout coming in that 2009 Final when he scored two huge goals in Games 4 and 6 wins to pull the Penguins even in that best-of-7 series against Detroit.
For all of that, and because he believed Staal was maturing into perhaps the NHL's dominant power forward, Shero wanted badly to keep his first draft pick. He offered him almost $60 million over 10 years, a contract that would have made Staal the Penguins' third highest-paid player.
Staal declined, and Shero turned off his emotions and moved on.
Inside his office at Consol Energy Center, a few hours before Round 1 of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft was to begin, Shero sat with Carolina counterpart Jim Rutherford and said, plainly, that Staal would belong to the Hurricanes, but only if Sutter would be a Penguin.
“(Sutter's) an all-around good player, and he's very good defensively, supporting down low for his wingers, and he skates real well, and he can be in a variety of roles,” Shero said, admitting that description of Sutter could also apply to Staal.
“Our key was to have a good team again this year, and I wasn't going to just trade Jordan for draft picks. We knew what we wanted, and we're real happy to have Brandon.”
The puck is dropped and Sutter kicks it back to defenseman Matt Niskanen. He moves it to Kennedy, who dumps the frozen rubber disc into the Maple Leafs' zone. Cooke crashes into a few bodies behind the cage, wins a battle and moves the puck to open space.
Sutter gets to it first, protects the puck by shielding a defender with his left right arm, and works toward the slot, drawing the attention of another Maple Leafs player. A Penguins teammate, maybe Kennedy or perhaps defenseman Kris Letang breaks open, and Sutter gets him the puck.
That player sends a pass behind the cage, and Cooke starts the process all over again.
It goes like this for about 30 more seconds, enough to fatigue Sutter and his teammates, more than enough to exhaust the Maple Leafs on the ice.
This is how Sutter would draft his first shift as a Penguin at Consol Energy Center.
The kind of shift the Penguins used to get from the guy in the center of a team Cup photo-wallpaper every player passes before taking the ice. The guy who anchored the “Nightmare Line,” because that is what opposing coaches considered Cooke-Staal-Kennedy — a nightmare matchup.
“When we were at our best, we were playing against the top line on the other team and forcing them to play in their end,” Cooke said. “We didn't try to score goals even though that happened. We didn't try for fancy plays. We were content to spend 20-30 seconds in the offensive zone, and sometimes out of that the result was goals, but it was never the approach.”
It is not the approach now, either.
As for Staal, the player to whom he will perhaps forever be linked, Sutter does confess one comparison would be welcome.
“He won a Cup here,” Sutter said. “He played a pretty big role on some great teams. That sounds good.”