Ever since Pascal Dupuis suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 23 at Ottawa, the sense has been that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be looking outside the organization to fill his spot on Sidney Crosby‘s right flank.
Several weeks later, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has yet to add a top-six winger via trade, although that’s about all we know. It could be that Shero is waiting out an unfavorable market, or he wanted to further investigate internal options, or a combination of both in some fashion.
Lord knows the rumors are out there linking the Penguins to any variety of talented forwards suspected to be available for the right price, from Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri to Buffalo’s Matt Moulson and the Islanders’ Thomas Vanek, the latter two of which were traded for each other earlier this season.
Furthermore, while the Pens could use a little more depth at forward, a top-line contributor would appear to be their greatest “need” at this time. Barring something unforeseen, Pittsburgh will be going with a combination of Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff/Tomas Vokoun in net and there are more than enough NHL-caliber defensemen in the organization.
But regardless of what they might do this year, the Penguins may have stumbled upon an unlikely fit alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz: Brian Gibbons. The 5-foot-8 25-year-old hasn’t set the world ablaze in his first 18 NHL games, recording four goals and five assists, but he appears to be fitting in quite well in a couple of ways.
First among those ways is Gibbons’ speed. Part of my concern with the injured Beau Bennett ever jiving with Crosby is that Bennett prefers a slower pace. Not that Crosby and Kunitz aren’t smart players, but they seem to operate more on well-honed intuition that deliberate thought. Gibbons replaces the quickness that Dupuis has provided to the top line in recent years.
Gibbons also has proven effective on the boards, where Crosby and Kunitz generate most of their offense. While the Evgeni Malkin-James Neal-Jussi Jokinen unit has much of its success off the rush, Crosby and Kunitz work the fringes of the rink to their advantage, an aspect of the game that Gibbons can handle despite his smaller-than-average stature.
This isn’t to say that the former Boston College Eagle will fulfill his destiny as a younger version of Dupuis, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him get a few more games on the Penguins’ first line. One thing is for sure: Gibbons is a better option than Chuck Kobasew, who continues to get opportunities with Crosby. (I’m also in favor of the promotion of rookie Jayson Megna from the bottom six; I’ve campaigned for Megna in the past.)
Bennett is hoping to be back to health by the end of this month, when the NHL season resumes following its Olympic break. I presume the 2010 first-rounder will get an opportunity to play with Crosby and Kunitz, which is fine. Gibbons has scored goals in two straight games, both occurring with Brandon Sutter as his center, so he doesn’t have to be in the top six to be effective.
Gibbons’ probable fate on the Penguins is as a third-line winger, a role in which he should excel. Still, it bears exploring whether he can make it work alongside the best player in the world.