As I mentioned in my game story last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins tinkered with their forward lines Monday morning, putting Beau Bennett on the “top” line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, while Pascal Dupuis dropped to Evgeni Malkin‘s line and Jussi Jokinen took a spot alongside Brandon Sutter and Brian Gibbons on the third unit.
Improbably, of all the players involved in the shuffle, AHL call-up Gibbons had the biggest night, recording a goal and an assist in his first NHL game. But regardless of what happened in the Penguins’ 3-1 win over Anaheim, the man to watch over the next few games is second-year pro Bennett.
The 21-year-old Californian was a first-round pick of the Penguins in 2010 after he scored 134 points (45 goals) in 71 games for the Junior ‘A’ Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League. A former roller hockey star in his native state, Bennett has always been known for his creativity and accurate shot.
He netted nine goals and 16 assists in his freshman year at the University of Denver, then suffered a broken wrist that limited his sophomore year to 10 games. Bennett turned pro last fall and registered 28 points in 39 games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins while the NHL was working through its latest lockout.
Bennett was worked into the Penguins’ NHL lineup gradually last season, dressing for 26 regular-season contests and six playoff games. While he produced a combined 15 points (three goals) in those 32 opportunities, at times the league seemed a little too fast for his deliberate style.
Although Bennett has good size at 6-foot-2, he’s always had to work on speed and strength. He clearly has the brain and hands to excel at the highest level; it’s a matter of him getting to the right spots in time and not getting knocked around when he arrives. In theory, Bennett’s east-west approach should provide some balance to the north-south prowess of Crosby and Kunitz, but the results weren’t quite there Monday night.
In fairness to Bennett, he missed about a month with an earlier undisclosed injury, which may be to blame for his uninspiring line so far: 10 games, zero goals, two assists. His possession-based stats are much better, as he’s among the Penguins’ top skaters in raw Corsi (shot attempt plus-minus) and relative Corsi, which compares a team’s shot generation when a given player is on the ice with its production when he’s not.
Those numbers would indicate the goals and assists will start to come for Bennett, especially if he continues to play with Crosby and Kunitz, who also rate highly in possession metrics. While I think the Penguins may have rushed Bennett to the NHL, Pittsburgh could use his offensive assistance.
Bennett turns 22 later this month, so he’s still got some physical maturation coming. Under the guidance of Penguins strength coach Mike Kadar, he should grow into his body. Until then, Bennett will have to strive until he learns to thrive.