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When Sidney Crosby returns, what does it mean for Jordan Staal?

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The big news broke earlier today that Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact, is a full participant in practice and could be eligible to return as soon as this Sunday versus the Boston Bruins. This is good news for all parties, and after so much time waiting and hoping, Penguins fans can finally realistically think now about what life with Crosby back in the lineup would be.

Dan Bylsma hasn't had to make a lineup card with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal all three together but two times since the beginning of the 2010-11 season. (And those two games- the Winter Classic and the Tampa Bay game where Victor Hedman smushed Crosby into the boards are better off forgotten). It's a good problem to have and one he certainly would not complain about doing well into the spring.

But it still raises the question- how would lines be formulated? Given the tremendous production and chemistry demonstrated by Malkin and James Neal, it's be foolish to break them up. And Chris Kunitz, though a frequent Crosby linemate, has been a valued and important member of that line, so let's keep him there to keep that line together.

The big wildcard for setting up the rest of the lines would be Staal's placement. Let's look at some of the options, and a poll for your choice, after the jump.


1- Try to unite Staal and Crosby on the "2nd" line.

Pros: This could be the most interesting option. Staal, with 21 goals and 34 points in just 45 games, is showing more scoring touch this season than he ever has in his NHL career. If Kunitz and Neal stick on Malkin's line, that doesn't leave a lot of skill depth for Crosby's line. Staal would offer that.

Cons: The Pens biggest pro (center depth) would be compromised pretty greatly if they use Staal on the wing. It might make them lean on Richard Park and Joe Vitale more than they'd other wise want. Also could Steve Sullivan's old legs keep up with top 6 minutes?

Possible lines:

Kunitz-Malkin-Neal
Sullivan-Crosby-Staal
Cooke-Park-Dupuis
Adams-Vitale-Kennedy
(Extra- Asham, Jeffrey, Tangradi)

2- The classic "three center" model

Pros: Tried and true. The Pens have been successful in the past with their unmatched center depth, why change a good thing? Plus, Staal is a natural center and his best position and most likely place to help the team would probably be right down the middle.

Cons: How tough would it be to find skill for the wings to generate goals? Assuming Kunitz remains with Malkin, you'd need to break in a relatively new face to play with Crosby, which as we've seen in the past isn't always the easiest thing.

Possible lines:

Kunitz-Malkin-Neal
Sullivan-Crosby-Dupuis
Cooke-Staal-Kennedy
Adams-Vitale-Asham
(Extra- Park, Jeffrey, Tangradi)

3- Hybrid- try a little bit of everything

Pros: It'll be a little bit of everything - use the rest of the regular season to basically try out wings for Crosby to see who works well or where you could catch lightning in a bottle (Dustin Jeffrey, Arron Asham, Eric Tangradi, Tyler Kennedy, etc). See if any unknown entities can step up and if any chemistry can be formed there. Or the Pens could even slot Kunitz and Dupuis with Crosby on his normal and natural line, and then try out a third wheel for the Malkin/Neal line.

Cons: No real cons around. Pittsburgh isn't likely to catch the New York Rangers for the Atlantic division, so chances are they're (At best) locked into the 4/5 seed matchup and then who knows what could happen from there. Plus with 17 games left, there's still plenty of time to figure things out.

Possible lines:

Staal-Malkin-Neal
Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis
Cooke-Vitale-Kennedy
Sullivan-Park-Adams
(Extra- Asham, Jeffrey, Tangradi)

OR

Kunitz-Malkin-Neal
Tangradi-Crosby-Dupuis
Cooke-Staal-Kennedy
Sullivan-Park-Adams
(Extra- Asham, Jeffrey, Vitale)

OR

Staal-Malkin-Neal
Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis
Cooke-Vitale-Kennedy
Sullivan-Park-Adams
(Extra- Asham, Jeffrey, Tangradi)