A Penguin's progress: Pascal Dupuis' tireless trek from playoff spare part to goal-scoring gamer

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PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Pascal Dupuis celebrated. He soaked up his day with hockey’s holy grail. But he made a promise to his wife, Carole-Lyne – a promise to himself. He had been a spare part, appearing in 16 of the Pens’ 24 playoff games. Zero goals. Zero assists. Zero points. Minus-5.

“I was happy to win, but I was not one of the key guys that made the team win,” Dupuis said. “When the Cup showed up that summer, I told my wife that I’ll win it again, and I’ll be a big piece of the puzzle to get it again. Since that day, things have been going pretty well.”

The Penguins are one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year, if not the favorites. They held a 1-0 lead in their second-round series with the Ottawa Senators entering Game 2 on Friday night, and guess which member of their star-studded roster was tied for the NHL lead in playoff goals?

Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world? Evgeni Malkin, the reigning winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player? Jarome Iginla, the future Hall of Famer? James Neal, the star goal-scorer? Chris Kunitz, the top-10 scorer in the regular season? Kris Letang, the finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman?

None of the above.

Pascal Dupuis, the former journeyman, the throw-in in the “Marian Hossa” trade, the old spare part who willed himself to become a piston in the engine. Still burning to play that big role on a championship team, still improving at age 34, Dupuis entered Friday night with six goals in seven games – more goals than he had scored in 42 games over the previous four playoffs. He had two assists, too.

Asked if he surprised even himself, he paused. He has surprised others far more than he has surprised himself. That wasn’t a dream he had shared with his wife that day in 2009. It was a declaration.

Still …

“It’s great when you can surprise yourself, surprise everybody around you,” he said. “It means that you do stuff that people don’t expect. Usually, it’s a good thing. Yeah, ‘surprise’ could be a good word.”

* * * * *

Search “Pascal Dupuis” and “Marian Hossa” and “trade.” In retrospect, it’s hilarious to read what was written in February 2008. A great example:

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Every time Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero analyzed his team, he came to the same conclusion: A huge missing piece was a forward talented enough to play on Sidney Crosby’s line.

Shero took a major gamble to add that player, acquiring All-Star forward Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers in a deadline deal Tuesday that cost Pittsburgh two young forwards in Colby Armstrong and Eric Christensen, a top prospect and a first-round draft pick.

Dupuis isn’t mentioned in the first three paragraphs. He isn’t mentioned in the lead quote:

“We’ve always had a hard time finding that fit for Sid, and I believe Marian is a guy who can think at that level, skate at that level and, obviously, he can score goals and kill penalties and raise everybody else’s game,” Shero said.

Dupuis isn’t mentioned until the sixth paragraph – the end of the sixth paragraph.

Pittsburgh does get forward Pascal Dupuis in the deal, a right wing with speed who has 10 goals and five assists in 62 games.

How nice.

That’s not to rip on the writer. How was anyone supposed to know what would happen? Not even Shero knew, as shrewd as he was to snag Dupuis, too.

Dupuis put up big numbers in junior. He had 50 goals and 105 points in 61 games in 1999-2000, his final season with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But he was never drafted, and after producing 20 goals and 48 points in his second full NHL season, his numbers dropped off.

The book on Dupuis was that he had good speed, average hands and below-average grit. He was not, in the opinion of scouts, the kind of player with whom you won in the playoffs. He bounced from the Minnesota Wild to the New York Rangers to the Atlanta Thrashers at the end of the 2006-07 season.

Then came the “Hossa” trade.

Hossa and Crosby played together as the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup final in 2008. But Dupuis played with them for much of that run. While Hossa left as a free agent, Dupuis stayed. He stayed with Crosby for the most part until Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach in February 2009. He fell on the depth chart during the Pens’ Cup run.

Since then, things have gone pretty well. Dupuis has won over Bylsma. He has played often with Crosby. He has seen his numbers climb. From 2008-09 to 2011-12, his goals went from 12 to 18 to 17 to 25, and his points went from 28 to 38 to 37 to 59. He had 20 goals and 38 points this year in the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season, so he was on pace for a career-high 34 goals and 65 points in a normal 82-game season.

Dupuis has directly benefitted from playing with great teammates, but not just because they boost his numbers during games. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to become a better player in his own right. Dupuis not only works with Crosby; he studies him. He copies him as best he can.

“When you ask questions and you watch him practice, you watch him play, you learn quite a bit,” Dupuis said.

Remember how Shero described Hossa in that quote in 2008? Dupuis has become that player.

He has been a fit for Crosby because he can think at that level and skate at that level – and because he has become grittier. He plays in straight lines, which makes him predictable, which allows Crosby to find him with no-look passes. He goes to the corners and the front of the net, which suits Crosby’s down-low game. He can score goals and kill penalties and raise everybody else’s game.

“I think the credit to him is just how much he’s willing to learn and how much he has worked to do that,” Crosby said. “It’s all because of the way he’s applied himself and tried to get better. He’s playing in all situations. That’s all him. He’s working hard and learning a lot still at his age.

“If anything, we’re just more comfortable with each other. I think he just goes to those tough areas. The way he skates, I mean, he’s going to be able to get those areas, and it’s a matter of putting it in. But he gets there every time.”

The skills and confidence have carried over when Dupuis has not played with the best of the best. Crosby took a hit to the head in the 2011 Winter Classic. He has played only 58 regular-season games since because of injuries, and his absences generally have not put Dupuis with Malkin. Since Jan. 1, 2011, Dupuis has scored 32 goals without Crosby or Malkin on the ice, according to STATS Research.

Dupuis hasn’t padded his numbers on the power play, either. He hasn’t had the chance to play on the power play much. He scored two power-play goals during the regular season – after going eight seasons without a single power-play goal. Virtually all of his production has come at even strength or shorthanded.

Since Jan. 1, 2011, he ranks 19th in the NHL in even-strength goals, according to STATS Research. He tied for seventh in even-strength goals this season with 17 – one more than Alex Ovechkin, two more than Patrick Kane, three more than Phil Kessel, four more than Kunitz, five more than Crosby, No. 87.

“It goes well beyond playing with just good players,” Bylsma said. “He’s been a guy who for a long time has been the winger who we need to replace on 87’s line. But over the years, the number of even-strength goals he’s scored is right up there in the top few in the league with star names. He’s done that without 87 being in the lineup for periods of time. He’s still been that guy for a lot of the games in the last 2-1/2 years or so.”

Dupuis’ first five goals in these playoffs came at even-strength. Then Tuesday night, not long after he crashed into the boards and seemed to suffer an ankle injury, he hopped onto the ice for a penalty kill. He ended up on a 2-on-1 rush.

As he skated down the ice, Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar took away the option of a pass to teammate Matt Cooke. But it didn’t matter. When was the last time Dupuis had this much confidence as a goal-scorer?

“Maybe back in junior,” Dupuis said.

Dupuis, who has scored eight shorthanded goals over the past three regular seasons, wired a wrist shot past the right shoulder of Senators goaltender Craig Anderson and underneath the crossbar, popping the water bottle. Instead of allowing the Senators to cut the Penguins’ lead to 3-2 on that power play, Dupuis extended their lead to 4-1.

“It’s not just 5-on-5,” Bylsma said. “It’s not just scoring goals. He’s an outstanding penalty-killer, and he did it again tonight. … That power play could have given them a chance to get back in the game. He finishes it off with an exclamation point.”

* * * * *

Dupuis will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. We can only speculate about the future.

He might stay in Pittsburgh, even if he accepts less money to do so. He knows what it is like to lose. He knows what it is like to bounce around. He knows what he has here – a home for his wife and four children, a springboard for his career. It says something that instead of playing in Europe during the lockout, he stayed to train with Crosby, Kunitz and others and reaped rewards on the ice.

“For me, it’s about winning,” he said. “It’s about being comfortable. It’s about being on a team that I feel comfortable, playing with great friends, great teammates. Right now that’s what I’m doing. The business side of it is going to take care of itself eventually.”

But what about business?

Dupuis played on a three-year deal with an annual salary of $1.4 million, then a two-year deal that gave him only a $100,000 annual raise. His cap hit of $1.5 million is 18th-highest on the team and lower than even fourth-liner Tyler Kennedy’s – a huge advantage for the Penguins, a reason they have been able to squeeze so many stars on the roster. He’s in line for a significant raise and should draw much interest in a thin free-agent market, at the same time the cap is coming down and other Penguins need new contracts or extensions.

What if another team makes a huge offer? What if the Penguins can’t come close? Who knows?

Who knows what happens even if he stays, anyway? The Penguins have not advanced past the second round since winning the Cup in 2009. They will not be able to keep this roster together next season. As the Penguins know all too well, injuries can screw up everything. Dupuis isn’t getting younger, either.

Now is the time. Dupuis is playing at the highest level of his career. He’s comfortable and playing with great teammates on a top Stanley Cup contender. He couldn’t ask for a better chance to achieve his goal.

“I’m enjoying what I got right now,” he said.

He’s earned it.

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