Winger Bennett's return to ice could help to propel Penguins' 3rd line
Beau Bennett is looking to carry it.
The puck that is, not the Penguins' offensive load — though the opportunity is there for that, too.
“I want to be able to carry the play at times, set up plays, create offense and get guys open,” Bennett said Monday after a lengthy practice at Southpointe Iceoplex.
The Penguins could use any or all of that from Bennett, who played for the first time in 11 games on Saturday night in a loss at St. Louis. They have split their past 10 games — only two of which have featured a goal from captain Sidney Crosby and none with goals from center Evgeni Malkin or right winger Pascal Dupuis.
Those are three of the Penguins' top five forwards.
Bennett, a second-year winger, seems suited — “Beau has high-end, like, elite skill,” winger Matt D'Agostini said — for a top-six slot, but the Penguins have plans for him on their third line.
Coach Dan Bylsma's thinking is that Bennett can do for that third line what Crosby and Malkin do for the top scoring units: dictate, distribute and — usually, though not recently — score.
Bennett returned Saturday to play as the right wing on a third line with center Brandon Sutter and D'Agostini at the left side. Those players combined for six of the Penguins' season-low 37 attempted shots, or about 16 percent.
It was a start, anyway.
Those three players — projected by coaches to form the third line at the start of training camp — had not played together in the Penguins' previous 16 games because of injuries to Bennett and D'Agostini.
Sutter, an admitted “two-way” center whose strength is defensive positioning, has played with eight wingers. The belief among coaches is that his straight-ahead offensive game — and an underutilized whip-shot — will benefit from Bennett's high-level vision, soft hands and penchant for making something out of nothing.
“It's a different look to what I had last year for wingers, for sure,” Sutter said, referring to grinders Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy before the latter was replaced by Brenden Morrow.
“The main thing is we still have to be a hard forechecking line and playing responsible in our own end. But anybody who plays with me probably already knows that. But when I'm playing with guys like Beau and ‘Dags,' there's definitely going to be a chance for our line to create more offense for this team.”
The Penguins, still haunted by scoring only two goals in a four-game sweep from the Eastern Conference final, are all about finding more offense.
That is partly why Bylsma implemented a neutral-zone based defensive system, the left-wing lock. He envisions a more transition-based attack that can supplement his most skilled forwards' natural puck-possession tendencies.
The Penguins want to establish a third line that can play a factor in the playoffs, as Jordan Staal's line did on the Stanley Cup Final runs in 2008 and '09. Also, coaches suspect Bennett will develop more naturally as a go-to guy on his own line.
Bennett, only 21 and with just 32 games of NHL experience, has embraced this proposal for him.
“When I'm playing top-six, it's more read and react. In this position, it's nice to carry the puck more, make plays on my own,” he said, noting his practice focus on holding the puck longer so a scoring opportunity can develop.
“When you look at the Penguins, they have their most success when the third line is a factor. So, we're going to need that, too.”