Jussi Jokinen nicely fits in on second line for Penguins

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It all seems so obvious now.

With the way Jussi Jokinen has settled in at left wing on the Penguins' second line and meshed with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, it's easy to understand why general manager Ray Shero swung the deal late in the shortened 2013 season that brought him in from Carolina.

The catch is that Shero didn't make the trade because he projected Jokinen as a good fit with Malkin and Neal.

What he wanted was someone to fill in for Sidney Crosby, whose season had been so abruptly and brutally disrupted by a broken jaw, and whose availability for the Stanley Cup playoffs was uncertain.

"Timing is a funny thing," Shero said. "We probably don't pick up Jussi Jokinen unless Sid is out. And I didn't know for sure whether Sid was coming back, or at what point. If he had a setback with his jaw ... "

Crosby ended up recovering pretty much on schedule, as he missed the final 12 regular-season games and the opener of the Penguins' first-round series against the New York Islanders.

Jokinen had a setback of a different sort, when other late-season acquisitions such as Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow nudged him down the depth chart and into the press box for all but eight of the Penguins' 15 playoff games.

"My role was pretty small in the playoffs," he said.

Jokinen reported to training camp intent on changing that, and felt he had identified an ideal niche.

"Obviously, there was a spot open with [Malkin and Neal], and that was my goal coming in to camp, to play in that spot," he said. "I felt even before camp that that could be a really good match for me and the team. And it's been working out pretty well."

Well enough that Jokinen enters the Penguins' game at 7:38 p.m. today against Buffalo at Consol Energy Center as the team's No. 5 scorer, with 15 goals and 21 assists in 52 games.

While it's clear that his game complements that of Malkin and Neal, how long their partnership will endure is not.

Jokinen, you see, is one of several Penguins veterans who are little more than five months removed from unrestricted free agency, and Shero is noncommittal about which of them he will try to retain.

"Like a number of other unrestricted guys we have, whether it's [Brooks] Orpik or [Tanner] Glass or Jussi or Matt Niskanen, we haven't gotten to that point yet," he said.

Jokinen is in the final year of a deal paying him $3 million, although Carolina is picking up $900,000 of that.

With the NHL's salary-cap ceiling expected to rise to about $71 million for 2014-15, Shero could be able to retain some players, although defenseman Kris Letang will consume a significant chunk of that increase when his new contract kicks in.

He said that Jokinen "has fit in real well with us," but if Shero concludes it's prudent to offer him a new contract, the numbers would have to make sense within the team's salary structure.

Jokinen's strong play with the Penguins makes it likely he wouldn't have trouble finding prospective employers if he goes on the open market, but that isn't his preferred option.

"That's my goal, to stay here, if I'm allowed to stay here," he said. Smiling, he added that "there needs to be two parties to do a deal."

While Jokinen has spent much of his time this season on Malkin's left side, he has played all three forward positions and has shown he can be effective on any line.

A team that already has lost 315 man-games because of injury and illness presumably has a special appreciation for that kind of versatility.

Jokinen has accepted whatever assignment coach Dan Bylsma has given him without complaint, but has a decided preference for the job he's filling now.

"I'm most comfortable playing in a little bit more of an offensive role," he said. "And I'm playing with good players."

His linemates are playing with a pretty fair one, too. Never mind that, while Shero was pondering whether to try to bring in Jokinen last year, he got feedback from plenty of guys who focused mostly on flaws in Jokinen's game.

"When you talk about Jussi Jokinen, [people say], 'Well, Jussi's not the fastest guy. Jussi's not this. Jussi's not that,' " Shero said. "I get it. But he can play."

No question about that. The only real uncertainty is where he'll be doing it next season.

NOTES -- Malkin will appear in his 500th NHL game tonight, making him the 15th player in team history to reach that milestone. ... Left winger Glass' 13 hits Saturday in Dallas are a franchise record. ... The Penguins canceled a practice Sunday and will replace it with one Tuesday.

Today's game

■ Game: Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres, 7:38 p.m.

■ Where: Consol Energy Center.

■ TV: Root Sports.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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