The Pittsburgh Penguins lost five important pieces from their championship roster and still have yet to re-sign Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary. However, the fact remains, they are just a quality third-line center away from owning the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference and once again being the favorites to win the Stanley Cup for a third straight year.
But who will be that third-line center? The best free agents to fill that role already have been signed, so Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is searching for a trade partner. There are also some intriguing possibilities already within the Pittsburgh organization.
Here are three suitable options for the Penguins third-line center position in 2017-18:
Since the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Marcus Kruger from Las Vegas (he was a member of the Golden Knights for a mere couple of days), there have been rumors in the Steel City that Staal was headed back to his original team. It hasn’t happened yet, but the rumors have continued.
Staal has been away from Pittsburgh for five years now. In Carolina, he was supposed to grow into a top center, which he was never going to do with the Penguins behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But in five seasons with the Hurricanes, he’s never scored more than 20 goals. Over six seasons with the Penguins, he averaged 20 goals per year and tallied a career-best 25 goals and 50 points during his final season in Pittsburgh.
Losing Nick Bonino hurts, but Staal is a better scorer, drives more possession, wins far more faceoffs and is also an effective penalty killer. Put that way, the deal sounds like a no-brainer.
Well, there’s one problem — his $6 million cap hit. That much money going toward a bottom-six forward could potentially hamstring the Penguins salary cap moving forward. And trading for such a talented player within the division won’t come cheaply. Defenseman Olli Maatta or a veteran forward such as Carl Hagelin with a first-round draft pick would probably be the starting point in the negotiations.
Staal is the best choice, but he’s also going to be the most expensive. If minimal disruption to the two-time Stanley Cup champion roster is an objective, than Bozak is the better choice.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently over the salary cap; in need of dumping salary, the Maple Leafs might have no choice but to trade a player such as Bozak for less than market value — an obvious advantage for Pittsburgh.
The 31-year-old scored 18 goals and a career-high 55 points in 78 games during 2016-17. Bozak also has won more than 56 percent of his faceoffs each of the last two seasons.
Most interestingly is his relationship with Phil Kessel. Speculation has run rampant in Pittsburgh this week that Kessel could be on the trading block because coach Mike Sullivan and other members of the Penguins organization have grown tired of him. Pittsburgh assistant coach Rick Tocchet, who worked closely with Kessel the last two seasons, is leaving for Arizona.
Assuming Pittsburgh is concerned about Kessel, Bozak could be a key acquisition for the Penguins because he and Kessel are close friends and former linemates. If Rutherford truly doesn’t like Kessel with Crosby or Malkin, then he could try recreating “HBK” with a different B.
Bozak is also only signed through this season, so unlike with Staal, this trade wouldn’t prevent the Penguins from re-signing Patric Hornqvist or Bryan Rust next summer.
Unfortunately, Bozak isn’t exactly the perfect fit, either. He doesn’t kill penalties and would have to learn to do so unless Sullivan plans to use Crosby on the short-handed unit.
Matt Cullen/Carter Rowney
While there’s probably a 95 percent chance that the Penguins will trade for a third-line center, they still do have some intriguing options already in the organization.
For one, Cullen isn’t definitely retiring as of yet. If he returns, the Penguins could increase his minutes slightly and plug 28-year-old Carter Rowney at center on the fourth line or vice versa. Cullen averaged just 13:55 last season but he’s in excellent shape and still great in the circle. While Rowney needs more repetitions at the faceoff dot, he played very well during the playoffs.
Or the Penguins could get even more creative and move one of their young wings back to center. Both Jake Guentzel and Scott Wilson played center in the AHL before sliding over to wing once they joined the Penguins on a full-time basis.
Again, the question there is: Who will kill penalties? Guentzel and Wilson were usually Sullivan’s first choices to head to the box when Pittsburgh committed a bench minor last season, indicating his lack of confidence in their short-handed skills. Both also don’t have regular repetitions in the faceoff circle at the NHL level.
Furthermore, it’s hard imagining anyone wanting to move Guentzel away from Crosby’s wing after he led the playoffs with 13 goals.
Still, the Penguins are going to pursue every viable option at their disposal. These three or four appear to be the best choices as of the middle of July.
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