One of the main talking points by Pittsburgh Penguins management this summer has been surrounding Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the complimentary players needed to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals that has eluded them since 2009. New general manager Jim Rutherford has been tasked with that, and has put his touches on the roster already. His biggest move was trading once 40-goal scorer James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, in what probably was a skill downgrade, but maybe (hopefully?) makes the Pens a tougher team to play against and gives them better depth.
Besides that, the Pens weren't able to do a lot in free agency. All of the top forwards/wingers available (Mike Cammalleri, Radim Vrbata, Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Jussi Jokinen, Nikolai Kulemin) signed for $4 million or more per year for multi-year deals, which the Penguins couldn't be able to meet.
So how else will they fill out their top six forwards on the wings? Chris Kunitz is obviously stapled to Crosby's left, and Hornqvist is sort of a similar type player to Kunitz that is probably going to play with Malkin, leaving two spots.
There's Beau Bennett, he of immense talent, but only played 21 games last year thanks to injury- to go with missing half the lockout-shortened season in 2013 with injury. Unfortunately that has been the story of his young career so far. Flashes of talent, followed by stints on the IR. Can the Pens count on him? If so, the right-wing (Bennett's preferred spot) could be open on either line.
There's also Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's former right winger who is 35 years old and on opening night will be just 8 months removed from major knee surgery to repair his ACL and MCL. Dupuis is in excellent shape and rehabbing like a rabid wolverine to make it back in time, but putting too many eggs in that basket is a decision doomed to fail. In an ideal world, the versatile Dupuis could drop down into a 3rd line checking role and help stabilize that line with possible Spaling and Brandon Sutter.
For spot shifts, Steve Downie could be considered. The wild man had his best NHL season (22 goals, 24 assists, and yes, 208 penalty minutes) when new Pens assistant coach Rick Tocchet was the coach in Tampa Bay. Downie played on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and was quite successful for about a year and a half. Playing with stars wouldn't be anything new for him, though with his temper and propensity to get sent to the penalty box, Downie probably isn't quite cut out for a full-time role as a top six player.
But then, in a recent piece by Dave Molinari at the Post-Gazette, the following stood out to my eye:
[Rutherford] also suggested that winger Kasperi Kapanen -- the Penguins' first-round draft choice [last month] and son of Sami Kapanen, who Rutherford once drafted for Hartford -- could be in the mix as early as this fall.
"We have to keep in mind that Kapanen could come in and make this team," he said. "He's played with men [in Finland] for two years. He's a good player."
The Pens have seen teenagers in starring roles before. Crosby scored two 100+ point seasons as a teen in the NHL, winning the MVP in 2007. Jordan Staal went from 1st round pick to 29 goal scorer and Conn Smythe runner up as an 18 year old in 2007 as well. Olli Maatta burst on the scene as a wise-beyond-his-years 19 year old last season. Could Kapanen be next?
It's probably wise to pump the breaks- Kapanen is still 17 years old until later this month, making him one of the younger players even eligible for the draft. Although he played 47 games in the Finnish league last season, that's a far cry from the physical and mental grind of an 82 game NHL season and then playoff run (ask Maatta).
At 5'11 and 181 pounds Kapanen doesn't have much of a physical game to develop anyways, his game is based on speed, puck control and offense but he would stand to benefit from adding more muscle and gaining more experience before getting thrown in the deep end of the NHL.
Make that the deepest of deep ends really, since we're talking about a potential role playing alongside either current MVP and scoring champion Sidney Crosby or former MVP and scoring champ Evgeni Malkin. There's a lot of pressure in that role to produce points consistently, and as we've seen from Eric Tangradi to Zach Boychuk to Brian Gibbons - it can be a very difficult position to fill successfully and produce enough points to stick around.
It's worth a look in training camp to see how Kapanen measures up, but counting on this young player to be NHL ready is probably too big a leap to take for a team that self-professes to be a Stanley Cup contender every year. The best bets right now to fill out the top 6, prior to a trade deadline situation, are looking like a fluid committee of Bennett, Downie and Dupuis, depending on health and effectiveness of all three. It might not be ideal, but in a salary cap world hardly nothing is.