Jussi Jokinen is the guy Carolina just didn't have a place for anymore.
Indeed, the Hurricanes were so willing to part with him -- and eager to open some salary-cap space -- that they agreed to pick up 30 percent of his $3 million salary if the Penguins would take him off their hands at the trade deadline this spring.
Carolina's requested return: A seventh-round draft choice, payable only if Jokinen appeared in 25 percent of the Penguins' playoff games and the team reached the Stanley Cup final.
Which it didn't.
Consequently, the Penguins got Jokinen for less than they would have if, say, they had claimed him on waivers. Which, coincidentally enough, he cleared just a few days before the trade.
Jokinen fit in nicely with the Penguins from the first game he arrived, and Saturday made it clear that he isn't just seeking to hold on to a place with this team; he's looking for a prominent one.
Jokinen, skating on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, made a compelling place for holding onto that spot, scoring all three of the Penguins' goals in a 5-3 preseason loss to Columbus at Consol Energy Center.
Even so, Jokinen's rampage -- he recorded a natural hat trick in a span of 8:28 in the second period -- probably didn't guarantee he'll be alongside Malkin and Neal when the regular season opens Oct. 3.
Not when Beau Bennett, the organization's top forward prospect, hardly has looked out of place when he has gotten a chance on the second line.
"Beau played [the exhibition opener] with James and [Malkin] and played really well and showed a lot in that game," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think they had eight scoring chances, as a group."
He quickly added, however, that "they didn't put the puck in the net to the degree that Jussi did tonight."
Not many guys do.
In addition to an obvious ability to mesh with Malkin and Neal, Jokinen's knack for winning faceoffs -- perhaps the most striking soft spot in Malkin's game -- makes him an attractive option to play there.
Jokinen is perhaps the Penguins' most versatile player -- Dustin Jeffrey is his only competition for that distinction -- and capable of filling virtually any slot on any line.
Saturday, however, he left no doubt he prefers to be cast in a role like the one he filled against the Blue Jackets.
"I think every guy wants to play on the first line," Jokinen said. "Every player wants to play on the first line, or in the top six and have those offensive chances and play a little more.
"If you'd ask me, I'd rather play top-six, for sure."
Certainly, he's familiar with such a niche. As Bylsma has noted more than once, Jokinen has been productive playing alongside such formidable talents as Mike Modano in Dallas and Carolina's Eric Staal.
"He's had experience in that regard," Bylsma said. "I'm not surprised to be able to see him fit in and play on that line [with Malkin and Neal] and have some chemistry.
"He's an extremely intelligent player. He knows how to play with, and read off of, good players. He showed that tonight."
Regardless of the assignment he ultimately draws, Jokinen's place on the Penguins' opening-night roster seems secure. Barring a trade, anyway.
Bylsma, though, said after the game that "no more than two spots" on the major league lineup still are being contested, although he did not elaborate.
"They're not fully decided on at this point in time," he said. "I think you can see some of the competition for spots on our team still playing itself out."
It's not certain whether, or how, Jokinen will be affected by who ultimately claims those final two spots, although his versatility conceivably could have an impact on management's decisions.
Jokinen scored two of his goals on Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky from near the net, and the third from the right circle. Malkin, Neal or both assisted on all of his goals.
"With some guys, you just click right away," Jokinen said. "Obviously, [Malkin and Neal] have played together. I just tried to fit in. Those guys are pretty easy to play with."
So, it would seem, is the guy who worked on their left side Saturday.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published September 22, 2013 4:30 AM