Which set of forward lines is the best?
Note: With free agency anything can happen, but these lines were assembled at what is estimated to be roughly the same overall cost and therefore are all projected to be within the Penguins budget. (Signing Kovalchuk and Marleau, for example, is not).
1. Bring 'Em Back - The Penguins had plenty of talent this year, they just ran into a hot goaltender. No need to panic. Just re-sign Cooke, Guerin, and Ponikarovksy. This forward corps was among the league leaders in goals scored, and while Ponikarovsky didn't have an adequate opportunity to gel with Malkin, he's a proven 20-goal scorer. It would be wrong to expect too much from Tangradi too soon. He may see some time on the 4th line, but he'll have to wait another year to be a regular contributor.
2. Keep The 3 Deep Centers and + Kariya and Afinogenov - The Penguins strength is down the middle and it needs to stay that way. Crosby had his best year ever playing with Kunitz and Dupuis so no reason not to keep the 1st line together. On the 2nd line, the Ukranians were major disappointments, so Malkin gets a set of new wingers. Kariya signs at a reduced salary in exchange for a legit shot at the Cup and Afinogenov adds speed on the outside. Look for Tangradi to earn a spot on the 3rd line, but he'll have to wait another year to become a regular scoring line winger.
3. Re-Sign Cooke, Keep Malkin in the Middle, and + Prospal as a RW/C Flex - Keep Cooke, and keep the 3rd line intact. Crosby had his best year ever playing with Kunitz and Dupuis so no reason not to keep the 1st line together. Malkin gets a new winger in Prospal who has the ability to take draws for the second line and then shift back to wing while Malkin rotates back to his natural center position. Because Prospal can play RW and C, he affords the Penguins the flexibility of trying Staal and Malkin on the same line from time to time. Look for Tangradi to earn a spot on the 4th line, and if he performs well, to swap roles with Talbot and move into a role as a scoring line winger.
4. Re-Unite Staal with Malkin and + Malhotra and Higgins - As rookies on a line together Malkin won the Calder and Staal posted his career best in goals (29). They have the skill to share the responsibilities of playing Center depending on the situation, and Staal shouldn't be relegated to a "Bottom 6" role indefinitely. Malhotra is an elite 3rd line pivot and adds size, tenacity on the PK, and a scoring touch. His addition preserves the Penguins "3 deep down the middle" advantage. Higgins gives Crosby a goal-scoring winger. Look for Tangradi to earn a spot on the 3rd line, and if he performs well, to swap roles with Dupuis and move into a role as a scoring line winger.
See the FORWARD LINES breakdown after the jump.
Option 1 - Bring 'Em Back
Option 2 - Keep The 3 Deep Centers and + Kariya and Afinogenov
Option 3 - Re-Sign Cooke, Keep Malkin in the Middle, and + Prospal's RW/C Flexibility
Option 4 - Re-Unite Staal with Malkin and + Malhotra and Higgins