Much of the talk in the search for a third- and fourth-line center for the Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason has focused on external options. The Penguins have been rumored to be interested in Matt Duchene and Jordan Staal along with perennially solid contributors such as Tyler Bozak.
To begin the season, it’s much more likely the Penguins will go with a boring, internal option. This preseason, fans shouldn’t be surprised if Jean-Sebastian Dea emerges as one of those choices.
The 23-year-old has been a starter in the AHL at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the past two seasons. He signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Penguins last week. Should he make the NHL roster, he will earn $650,000.
He played in the meaningless season finale against the New York Rangers this past April but didn’t register a point. In 148 games at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton over the last two seasons, Dea posted 38 goals and 70 points. He’s averaging 0.47 points per game and almost 39 points per 82 games in the AHL.
Those numbers aren’t lighting any houses on fire, but should his game translate quickly to the NHL, Dea could be a solid contributor on the fourth line.
At least to begin the season, the Pittsburgh fourth line will look very different from the previous two years. With Matt Cullen centering that unit and wings next to him such as Eric Fehr, Tom Kuhnhackl and Scott Wilson, the Penguins possessed a great mix of veteran presence and speed on the bottom line.
The acquisition of Ryan Reaves in June changed everything. Then a couple weeks ago, Cullen signed with the Minnesota Wild.
The former St. Louis Blue tough guy gives Pittsburgh a physical presence it didn’t previously possess. Plus, he has never averaged nine minutes per contest over the course of a whole season, meaning coach Mike Sullivan will have a much harder time rolling four lines.
Both changes could make Dea a perfect early option for fourth-line center. Sullivan could slowly introduce him to the NHL with nine to 10 minutes per game, and Dea has a blend of skill and toughness to skate next to Reaves.
As previously mentioned, Dea was a threat to score 20 goals in the AHL, but he also posted more than 0.64 penalty minutes per game. Last season, he recorded 0.81 penalty minutes per contest. If he centers a line with Reaves, Pittsburgh could have its new physical leaders — at least two guys who could replace Chris Kunitz.
It’s also possible Dea will become a penalty-killing option for Pittsburgh. Even more than scoring, it’s very difficult to predict what young AHL players will produce in the faceoff circle or defensively, but Dea did submit a plus-13 rating in each of his last two minor league seasons.
As important as depth scoring is in the modern NHL, the Penguins would likely be very pleased if Dea can take care of his own end and kill penalties… as Cullen and Nick Bonino did from 2015-17.
Should Dea become a true NHL option in training camp, Pittsburgh would still have to find a third-line center before the start of the season. A trade could still occur, but again, the Penguins have possibilities in their organization with Wilson and Jake Guentzel both having experience at center in the minors.
Even if Wilson, Guentzel and Dea struggle at center for the first half of the season, the Penguins shouldn’t be in danger of missing the playoffs. They should still be in the running for a top seed in the Eastern Conference. Then at the trade deadline, general manager Jim Rutherford could strike a deal to land a more experienced third-line center for the playoff run.
However, there are risks in this plan. The last thing Sullivan wants to do is have a top-heavy lineup and play Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin major minutes to win games in the first three months of the season. Both stars are at least 30, and might need to play fewer minutes to stay fresh for the playoffs.
In order for Pittsburgh to confidently enter the season without any external additions to the roster, a couple young Pens must prove themselves at center during training camp.
But there’s no denying that the opportunity is there for Dea to make a significant early impact for the two-time defending champions.