PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 08: Chris Kunitz #14 and James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a goal by Neal against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second period of an NHL hockey game at Wells Fargo Center on December 8, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Last summer I looked at the Pens wingers and suggested they were better than most might have given them credit for.
The Pens have only had a winger or two score 45+ points in a season. For 2011-12, you'd have to say 4 have the skill and opportunity to do so (Neal, Kunitz, TK, Sullivan). Injuries and cold-streaks could derail some of them, but the fact is the Pens probably have more depth down the flanks at this moment more than any other time since the lockout.
As a position, wingers definitely had their best year in recent memory, as four players exceeded my 45 point hurdle (James Neal - 81 points, Chris Kunitz 61 points, Pascal Dupuis 59 points and Steve Sullivan - 48 points). Tyler Kennedy, though his production disappointingly fell back to earth, was actually on pace to score 45 points as well, had he not missed 22 games due to injury.
Neal's mark is the high point for all Penguin wingers since the lockout, the previous high being Mark Recchi's 68 points in 2006-07 (when Sidney Crosby won the scoring title and Recchi was a constant linemate). And obviously Neal and Kunitz owe a lot to Evgeni Malkin who drove the line and himself to the scoring title this past season.
Obviously now the Penguins have the issue of replacing Sullivan, and it'll be a hefty one too. Sullivan added stability to the power-play, where he was capable of playing the point, and also capable of lugging the puck up through the neutral zone and getting things set up in the other team's offensive zone. Ray Shero pretty much told Sullivan's camp to move on and seek another offer, so he obviously has something in mind.
Though the Pens missed out on Zach Parise, they still are pretty deep down the wings. In addition to those named, Matt Cooke had a stellar season and Dustin Jeffrey ought to be better a year removed from knee surgery. Eric Tagnradi's perennially waiting in the wings as well.
Pittsburgh definitely needs to add another offensive-minded NHL-level impact forward, ideally one to play with Crosby, but it's important to remember that this team was the highest scoring team in the NHL next season, and two of their most-gifted players (Sid and Kris Letang) missed significant time last season, and hopefully will have bigger impacts this year.
Plan B might not be the most ideal in terms of finally finding that elusive skilled winger for Sid, but for now, the team can make an addition and be more than adequate to still be one of the most high-powered and skilled teams in the NHL.