Sutter keeping No. 3 line solid for Penguins
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Remember when conventional wisdom held that the Penguins owned the finest No. 3 line in hockey?
It might not be long before people start talking about it that way again.
That's not to suggest the partnership of Matt Cooke, Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy has matched, let alone surpassed, what the unit did when Jordan Staal was laboring in the middle of it.
Rather that, even though the line remains a work in progress as the Penguins prepare for their home opener Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, it looks to have been constructed perfectly to fill its role.
"I think we're going to be a great line," Kennedy said.
It has looked like a pretty fair one its first two games together.
Its members have combined for a goal, an assist and a plus-minus rating of plus-2. The only goal-against for which any of them have been on the ice came when Cooke was trying to kill a five-on-three New York Rangers power play in the Penguins' 6-3 victory at Madison Square Garden Sunday.
The results are preliminary, to be sure, but also promising.
Which is precisely what management was hoping for. And, almost certainly, expecting.
While the Penguins desperately hoped to keep Staal -- remember, he was offered a 10-year contract worth $60 million -- parting with him became palatable when Sutter was part of Carolina's offer.
Sutter, like Staal, has the physical and mental attributes needed to execute the duties of a third-line center. And, unlike Staal, he was neither driven to be united with a sibling nor to assume more of an offensive role.
The Hurricanes are hoping that Staal, now teammates with older brother Eric, will help give them a nudge toward becoming a championship contender.
The Penguins, meanwhile, simply want Sutter, 23, to continue doing what he did for Carolina in 2011-12: Be responsible defensively, kill penalties well and win more faceoffs than he loses.
And if he happens to show up on the scoresheet more often than some anticipate, well, not everyone will be shocked, now that they're seeing him more than a few times per year.
"He skates a little faster up ice than we even anticipated," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
"He's shown a release on his shot that you don't get to see just in games against him."
Still, changing teams means making adjustments, and Sutter has had to adapt to more than just the chillier temperatures in Western Pennsylvania.
Mind you, a few of those changes -- having two steady linemates, for example -- can solve more problems than they cause.
Sutter said when he was with the Hurricanes, he generally could count on having Patrick Dwyer on one wing and, well, somebody else on the other.
"Our other winger was kind of anyone," he said. "No one in particular."
Forward combinations often don't last long in today's NHL, and it's possible Bylsma and his staff will decide to reconfigure their lines and give Sutter a new winger or two.
That doesn't seem likely anytime soon, though, because he has jelled so well with Cooke and Kennedy.
Part of that probably is because, while Sutter is neither Staal's clone nor equal, the two do share some core qualities needed to do the job.
"[Sutter] is very responsible in the defensive end and communicates well," Cooke said.
Sutter acknowledged he still is settling in with his new team, still digesting details like the finer points of Bylsma's system, but added, "I'm starting to feel more 'with it' now."
Cooke declined to do a side-by-side assessment of Staal and Sutter, saying, "I don't think that's fair to either one of them," but Kennedy echoed the idea that their games have much in common.
"They're similar players, to tell you the truth," he said. "[Sutter] is a strong skater, great on draws. He's a good player. There's not really that much adjustment."
There is at least one significant difference between Sutter and Staal, and it couldn't be more obvious: Staal is a left-handed shot, and Sutter is a right-handed.
Cooke was reminded of how that counts when he tried to get the puck to Sutter in the Penguins' 3-1 victory in Philadelphia Saturday, and threw it to a spot where Staal would have wanted it.
Which is not where the pass should have gone, with Sutter as its target.
"I put it on the wrong side," Cooke said.
Those are the kind of hiccups that should disappear as Sutter and his linemates get acclimated to playing together. That's a process, he said, that already has begun.
"We'll get it figured out," Sutter said. "It will take a little bit of time, but hopefully, we'll get 'er done soon."
• Game: Maple Leafs vs. Penguins.
• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
• Where: Consol Energy Center.
• TV: Root.
First Published January 22, 2013 12:00 am