Bylsma likely to add 2-3 different faces to roster
OSHAWA, Ontario -- There will be, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma figures, no more than "two to three" spots up for grabs on his team's 23-man roster when it opens training camp later this week.
That could change, of course -- injuries and trades and such can cause seismic alterations in any team's plans -- but the lineup that tied for the third-most points in the NHL in 2010-11 largely intact, and the Penguins still have some of the game's most elite talents on their payroll.
But even if their personnel stay largely the same between now and the regular-season opener Oct. 6, in Vancouver that doesn't mean a few things won't be dramatically different in 2011-12.
Bylsma made that clear during a wide-ranging interview in which, among other things, he said:
• James Neal, a left winger by trade, is penciled in on the right side of a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
• The power play, which underachieved so badly in '10-'11, is getting a major overhaul, with a top unit featuring four forwards and one of those forwards, not a defenseman, bringing the puck up ice.
• Tyler Kennedy, coming off a 21-goal season, will get a place on the No. 2 line, alongside Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan, although Kennedy might get occasional work in his customary spot with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke on the third line.
The most critical variable for the Penguins, naturally, is Crosby's health, and there still is no certainty about when he will get clearance to play. Or, for that matter, how involved he will be able to be during training camp because of the concussion that has kept him out since Jan. 5.
His absence obviously could have a profound impact on the forward combinations, and would affect the performance of the power play. Bylsma, though, said the power play will do some things differently that it has in the past, regardless of whether Crosby is in the lineup.
"We're going to try to institute different things, when he's there and if he's not there," Bylsma said.
One is to use Sullivan, a left winger signed as a free agent from Nashville in July, on the point of the No. 1 power play, replacing a defenseman.
"We'll see a fair amount of that, having four forwards on the ice," Bylsma said. "It also provides another right [-handed] shot for a unit that works off the left side with [Crosby] or [Malkin], which we've worked in the past.
"We're going to involve [Crosby] and [Malkin] and [Sullivan] more with the people bringing the puck up the ice. ... You're putting it in the hands of the guys who are the best at carrying the puck up the ice, and that does make it harder for other teams.
"If Kris Letang carries the puck up the ice, they can take away Sidney Crosby by skating next to him. It makes it harder for them to take away that option."
Once they're in the attacking zone, Bylsma plans to have units capable of working from either side of the ice, rather than just the right. Crosby and Malkin will be on both groups, but the rest of each unit will be tailored to the area from which the group is operating.
"If you have [Crosby, Malkin, Paul] Martin and Kunitz or Neal on the ice, and Sullivan, if you pass the puck to Sullivan, he has four [left-handed] one-time shots [to set up]," he said. "There will be a different look off the other side of the ice, and we'd be doing that on a regular basis.
"We could switch in the game, we could switch after periods. Say, 'We've done the overload on this side, we're now going to go over there' to give a different look, to get our players moving more, to get different personnel involved -- not the same five guys."
Ideally, Bylsma projects his top three forward lines this way: Kunitz-Crosby-Neal, Sullivan-Malkin-Kennedy and Cooke-Staal-Dupuis, although Kennedy and Dupuis could swaps spots on times.
He sees Arron Asham and Craig Adams on the wings of the fourth line, with Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey, Richard Park, Joe Vitale and Jason Williams competing to center it, while Eric Tangradi, Steve MacIntyre and Nick Johnson also contend for spots on the opening-night roster, which will have from 20-23 men.
Aside from Crosby, no forward is likely to command more attention during camp than Neal, a reliable goal-scorer who got just two in 27 regular-season and playoff games after being acquired from Dallas.
"He had a lot of great opportunities," Bylsma said. "When you look at all the goals he's scored, they have been him shooting the puck hard and it going through goalies, going under goalies ... it's not a lot of picking your spot and beating a guy.
"It's just shooting the puck hard and it going in, and him being around the net. He had those opportunities and they didn't go in. People who watched last year and said, 'Well, this guy didn't score, what's going on here?' ... and had never seen him play before are going to see him score some goals.
"They're going to see a different player, and I don't think much is going to change other than the fact that he's going to score at a [higher] rate."
First Published September 12, 2011 12:00 am