Penguins wingers picking up scoring slack
SAN JOSE, Calif — When the NHL trade deadline rolls around in about four months, the annual demand for Penguins general manager Ray Shero to acquire a scoring winger will erupt.
But this time, such a move might be unnecessary.
Despite not having the prodigious playmaking skills of centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for much of the season's first month, the Penguins are receiving scoring from, of all places, their wingers.
One of the wingers off to a strong start realizes that fans will still expect the Penguins to enhance their team with a "scoring winger" at some point during the season.
"They'll say that every year," right wing Pascal Dupuis said. "We're used to that. I can only bring what I can bring."
So far, Dupuis and his fellow wingers have been bringing sufficient amounts of offense.
Last season, even though Crosby (41 games), Malkin (39 games) and Jordan Staal (39 games) missed huge chunks of the season, wingers only accounted for 44 percent (106 of 238) of the team's goals. This year, they are producing 62 percent (23 of 37) of the Penguins' goals.
Veterans like Dupuis and left wings Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke have been in coach Dan Bylsma's system for so long that their comfort level and steady track records have been cited as a primary reason for their success.
"That's a huge thing," said Kunitz, who figures to see his numbers surge when Crosby returns to the lineup. "Most of us have been here a while. We're so comfortable in this system."
No one looks more comfortable than Neal, whose nine goals in 13 games only augment the team's strong play from the wing positions. Kunitz believes that Neal's ability to absorb a training camp — something he didn't have access to last season because he wasn't traded to the Penguins until February — has been significant.
"Nealer maybe didn't have the easiest time learning the system earlier," Kunitz said. "It takes a while to figure out. We're doing things at a different pace and at a different level than different teams are doing things. It's a learning curve, an adjustment period."
That the Penguins have received so much scoring from their wingers is impressive given that left wing Steve Sullivan — perhaps still getting comfortable with Bylsma's system — remains scoreless and right wing Tyler Kennedy, the team's most reliable source of offense late last year, has only played six games because of a concussion.
"The wingers here are just so well balanced," rookie center Joe Vitale said. "Look at the depth. There will always be four good lines here. Everyone is committed to the system, and everybody is chipping in with goals."
The wingers have scored in a variety of ways. Kunitz and Cooke are doing most of their damage in front of the net, while Dupuis has scored a couple of pretty breakaway goals.
Kunitz, Dupuis and Cooke bring solid penalty killing and intangibles to the Penguins. That they are scoring so consistently, and consider that Neal might be evolving into a star, is an indication that the Penguins' wingers are suddenly a source of strength.
"The centers and goalies will always been the strength of this team," Kunitz said. "But yeah, everyone is doing well."