Analysis: Bennett's injury leaves Penguins in holding pattern
By Rob Rossi
Published: Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, 10:54 p.m.
The Penguins won't see Sunshine until after the Winter Olympics.
That could cast a cloud over general manager Ray Shero's hope to improve his club without making a major move before the trade deadline.
Beau Bennett was to be given a chance to fill a vacancy at right wing on captain Sidney Crosby's line, Shero said last week. However, Bennett is at least another month from playing, coach Dan Bylsma said Monday, and because of the upcoming NHL Olympic break, that would place his return to games close to the trade deadline March 5.
“He's holding a stick but can't catch a pass yet,” Bylsma said of Bennett, who skated with other injured Penguins players before a practice Monday morning at Consol Energy Center.
“He's still four weeks out.”
There is a roster freeze during the Olympics, leaving only about five weeks of NHL action before the deadline.
Shero had made a move at the deadline or within the month before in seven of eight years with the Penguins.
Bennett has not played since Nov. 22. Three days later, he had surgery to repair a broken right wrist. Team doctors projected him to miss eight to 10 weeks.
By missing a minimum of four more weeks, Bennett would not return until after Feb. 7, when the Penguins play their final game before the league's three-week break for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
The Penguins will play only three post-Olympics games before the trade deadline. That is not a lot of opportunity for Shero to assess Bennett, presuming he is ready to play by the Penguins' first post-Olympics game Feb. 27.
Three players — all injured — have replaced Bennett since he vacated the top-line right wing spot because of his injury. Pascal Dupuis is out indefinitely (and management expects for the season) because of a torn right ACL. Forward Joe Vitale is out three weeks with a severely sprained right wrist and forward Brian Gibbons will miss this week with a lower-body injury, Bylsma said Monday.
Neither Vitale nor Gibbons is viewed as a long-term solution as the top-line right winger for this season. Shero said Bennett, who replaced Dupuis in that role in mid-November, was a candidate to do that again.
Bennett has played in only 38 NHL games since debuting last season, and some members of management and the coaching staff feel playing a significant role for a Stanley Cup favorite is too much pressure on a player with limited professional experience. Counting his time in the AHL, Bennett has played only 77 professional games.
That inexperience is one reason he was not on one of the top two lines to open the season.
At 22, he remains the organization's most promising young forward, though his development has slowed because of injuries in three of four seasons since the Penguins selected him 20th overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Management has expressed no desire to rush Bennett into a prime role before he is ready.
The Penguins' other top-line forwards are Crosby and fellow Canadaian Olympian Chris Kunitz, a left winger. Each is a top-10 scorer for the second straight season, and they have played together when Crosby has been healthy for the past five years.
Dupuis, before ceding his slot to Bennett, was in a fourth straight season of playing with Crosby and Kunitz when all three were in the lineup. He had proven an ideal fit because of his speed, straight-ahead style and willingness to handle defensive responsibilities.
Bennett, nicknamed “Sunshine” because he is a California native, is a smooth skater, though not known for speed, forechecking or defense. His promotion to the top line from the third came at a time when Dupuis was in a stretch of scoring once in 24 games, and there was no guarantee Bennett would stick.
Crosby has lauded Bennett's skill, but they have played together sparingly other than in a handful of games before Bennett's injury in late November.
The Penguins will have some prorated salary-cap space to add a player before the trade deadline because of long-term injury designations for players such as Dupuis ($3.75 million) and goalie Tomas Vokoun ($2 million).
The need for a top-six winger dates to Dupuis' injury Dec. 23. Before then, and still, Shero wanted to upgrade the third line.
Bennett, who began the season there, also is a candidate to return to that spot because of his natural playmaking ability — an element the third line has lacked.
The third line, anchored by center Brandon Sutter, has struggled to develop an identity, Bylsma said Monday. Sutter has not flourished (eight goals and 16 points) while playing with more than a dozen wingers in 47 games. The Penguins lead the NHL with 279 man-games lost to injury, including 74 among players who were top-nine forwards coming out of training camp.
“To get chemistry, to get an identity, to get continuity on that (third) line … the parts have changed too often,” Bylsma said. “That challenge isn't going to stop.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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