We all know the fuss that's been made over the years about finding a legitimate scoring winger for Sidney Crosby. You've said it, I've said it, the neighbor's dog probably barked it at some point. But what does "Top 6" actually mean, and more importantly, how many of those players do we already have?
Jump with me.
The question of what constitutes a Top 6 forward has already been answered by Robert Vollman at Hockey Prospectus as being a player who scores at least 1.7 points per 60 minutes of even strength play. This criterion has since been raised to 1.8 ESP/60, but I can't find when that small adjustment occurred. There's a nice breakdown, however, of what that means at the link I provided.
So, let's take a look at the last few seasons to see whether the Penguins have had Top 6 holes to fill. My one cutoff is that a player must have played at least 40 games to be counted except for this season.
In 2007-2008, the Penguins were indeed a winger short in their Top 6. Leading the way, we had Sidney Crosby at a rare 3.38 ESP/60, followed by Evgeni Malkin with 3.20 for two elite centers, as we all knew. The drop-off after that is steep but not surprising: Petr Sykora (2.12), Marian Hossa (2.07), and Ryan Malone (1.94). Maxime Talbot just barely missed the cut with 1.75, so those of you who want to see him on Malkin's wing certainly had a decent argument that season. And of course, that was the season the Penguins lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to Detroit, a team that, believe it or not, had only 4 legitimate Top 6 forwards (Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, Pavel Datsyuk, and Jiri Hudler).
In 2008-2009, the Cup year, things changed for the better. Not only did the Penguins have their Top 6, but they had nine players who fit that mold. The same two were at the top that year, but flip-flopped: Malkin with 3.07 and Crosby with 3.00 even. Following were Ruslan Fedotenko (2.58, which may explain our disappointment with him last season), Tyler Kennedy (2.38), Chris Kunitz (2.21), Jordan Staal (2.05), Pascal Dupuis (1.91), Matt Cooke (1.91), and Bill Guerin (1.80). Believe it or not, Sykora, the man we all loved to hate that season, was just barely off pace at 1.72, but on a team with that many guys filling the net, he didn't have a place anymore, and Dan Bylsma was correct to move him aside to give others some playing time.
Last season, things began to change. Sidney Crosby was once again back up to unquestionably elite status with 3.41 ESP/60. But he was alone in his position, unfortunately, because nobody else on the team was above 3. They did have a nice supporting cast, however, with 8 total players playing like Top 6 personnel: Malkin (2.62), Dupuis (2.35), Alexei Ponikarovsky (2.27, this being for the whole season, clearly, as he didn't perform to that level in Pittsburgh), Staal (2.11), Kunitz (2.08), Kennedy (1.89), and Cooke (1.82). To wonder what the playoffs would have looked like had Ponikarovsky played like that for us instead of falling apart the way he did.
So far this year, we have an other-worldly (but unfortunately utterly unsustainable) Crosby at the top with 4.26. I'm thinking it's likely, though I don't have the numbers, that nobody has been at that level since the 1980s. After him, the drop-off is cavernous, and the first name may surprise you: Arron Asham (2.22), Malkin (2.21), Kunitz (2.15), and Dupuis (1.84). Also in that group, but only through numbers, is Kris Letang (1.91). So, again, we're a little short this year—just don't tell that to Chris Conner, although he'll have to work a bit harder to make it to that level himself.