Thanks to The Pensblog for finding a nugget in Tribune-Review reporter Rob Rossi's column about Pens GM Ray Shero making a comment about young forwards Tyler Kennedy and Maxime Talbot.
"We have talked about Malkin at wing, but there are other things we need to find out," Shero said. "Is Tyler Kennedy good enough to play higher in the lineup? Tyler has to prove it to us in camp. Same with Max (Talbot). His game last year - is that it? Where are we with Max?
"I like competition with the role guys we have. I'm looking at a number of players to get off to good starts."
As I've touched on before (and it's not exactly a state secret), the Penguins are very much in need of some skill up front to complement their top-tier centers. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal in the scoring line roles, there's still one hole left. The Pens boast a number of gritty players best served in checking roles, like Mike Rupp, Matt Cooke, Arron Asham and Craig Adams. What they lack is dynamic NHL scoring options outside of Crosby and Malkin.
Other Eastern Conference contenders will be much more balanced up front than the Pens. The Washington Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Alex Semin and Mike Green, who will all put up big numbers. The Philadelphia Flyers have threats in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux. Crosby and Malkin are as good (or better) than any player on that list, but if they aren't able to come through every single night, who else will? As in the past, the answer could determine the fate of the Penguins' season.
Which brings us to Kennedy and Talbot. Both are relatively young, at 24 and 26 respectively, and have a ton of experience - Kennedy has 240 career NHL regular season and playoff games, and Talbot has 365. They've played huge roles on the team, too, with Talbot scoring 14 points in the 2009 Stanley Cup winning playoff run, including the only two goals Pittsburgh scored in Game 7 of the Cup finals. Kennedy has joined with Cooke and Staal to form arguably the league's most consistent and best third lines in the league over the past two seasons, and he chipped in nine points during the Cup run.
With the losses of Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky, Kennedy and Talbot have prime opportunities to sink or swim. Both young Pens have shown flashes, but both players are undersized and have had long unproductive stretches.
"Where are we with Max?" Shero wonders aloud. The playoff hero from '09 tallied just two goals and five assists in 47 games last year. Of course, he had rotator cuff surgeries on both arms, which would naturally hinder any mortal. In the playoffs he put up a more respectable six points in 13 games, but in the last five games of the season he only got one point, and the Pens bowed out to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs. Talbot hasn't been a prolific, consistent point producer in his NHL career, and that's what the team is searching for.
Kennedy has suffered lately too; after his great start to last season, he missed time with a groin injury that seemed to rob him of all his production. He scored just 17 points (8 goals, 9 assists) in his last 62 games, including a complete bagel in the playoffs, combined with a dreadful playoff plus/minus rating of -6. No matter how much else a player brings to the table, going scoreless and watching the puck go into your own net just cannot be tolerated, especially for a team with championship aspirations.
It's also important to remember that both Kennedy and Talbot are in the final years of their contracts. A slow start by either to their 2010-11 season probably earns a eventual ticket out of town. If either were to seize a scoring role, they'd also get the perk of playing with Crosby or Malkin every shift. Can they prove that they earn it? Will they finally shake off injuries and inconsistencies to make their marks?
The opportunity is there, and it's going to start in training camp. There's no room for dead weight and unproductive players on a championship-caliber team. It doesn't need to be said, but if either player wants to remain with the Pens' organization for much longer, they'd better come out firing with both barrels to make it happen.