Break Up the Band: Malkin, Neal need Kunitz more than Crosby

Justin K. Aller

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal lost Chris Kunitz for most of this year, and the trio combined for nine points in its only game together against the Hurricanes. There's no sense in breaking up that kind of production.

Imagine a universe where Jarome Iginla might not be a suitable replacement for Chris Kunitz.

Here we are.

That's no slight to Iginla, who has been excellent in a Penguins uniform (5 goals, 11 points in 13 games). However, prior to his arrival and injuries to the top-six, the Pens' top line of Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis was electric. Even with Crosby having missed the last quarter of the season, they still finished the year as the most productive trio in hockey.

Crosby is going to spend the next decade in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform. It makes sense that the team should give him every tool at their disposal to keep him productive and happy.

Every tool but his favorite left-winger.

At least for these playoffs.

Granted, the Carolina Hurricanes defense isn't quite the second coming of the 2000 New Jersey Devils. But in their first game together this year, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kunitz combined for four goals and nine points in an 8-3 drubbing of the Canes, including five points scored at even-strength.

Are the Pens really going to let that kind of second-line chemistry be put at risk?

That was the line that combined to produce 116 goals and 251 points in 2011-12, including career-highs of 50 and 40 goals for Malkin and Neal, respectively.

With Crosby healthy and reunited with Kunitz and Dupuis this season, Malkin and Neal trundled through a series of ineffective left-wingers, including Eric Tangradi, Zach Boychuk and Tyler Kennedy, while their own production slipped.

Early on, the Pens' didn't have the depth to move Kunitz back to the second line while still putting quality talent on Crosby's wing. Since then, the problem of forward depth has been addressed.

Perhaps excessively.

Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen were acquired ahead of this year's trade deadline thanks to the Pens' one-time wealth of cap space. Each has proven to be aggressive and talented enough to flourish in Dan Bylsma's system.

If they can effectively play the north-south game without an MVP-candidate at center, they can certainly play it with one.

Crosby has a knack for elevating the play of his linemates. If all he has to work with in place of Kunitz is a 500-goal scorer in the form of Iginla, one imagines he'll manage.

Disregarding the work of the top line earlier this season, the Pens need Malkin's line to find the productivity it had last season. Where Crosby has shown the ability to improve anyone who plays with him, Malkin's style is more suited to specific traits.

That's not to suggest that Malkin can't improve those who play with him—Neal and Kunitz each had career-best seasons in 2011-12. However, Malkin's improvisational style is best aided by familiarity, and it took only one game against Carolina to get the band back together and up to speed.

When Crosby returns to the line-up (and the team still hasn't indicated when that could take place), he ought to find himself playing with Iginla. Those two famously combined to score the overtime goal that won Olympic gold in 2010.

They should have no problem combining to score a big goal or two in the playoffs.

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