The Great Center Debate goes on. I know I have commented on this before, but it has yet to be resolved.
Training camp has opened up and the regular season is just around the corner, but our Penguins are still without a clear third line Center. Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan (at least publicly) express little concern. Hmm…. Do I believe it? Well, let’s just say I am not sold on that statement.
Let’s face it, we are not talking about the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, or Detroit Red Wings; we are not even talking about the under-achieving Washington Capitals or runners-up Nashville Predators, we are talking about the defending Stanley Cup Champions on the cusp of something historic, a Three-peat Championship. I was a senior in high school last time that happened, more years ago than I want to contemplate.
Yes, the players need to just go out and have fun to be in the best position to Three-peat, but Rutherford and Sullivan should be concerned right now. They are not looking to replace a Kim Davis or Mitch Lamoureux, they are looking to replace Nick Bonino, who chipped in 18 goals last regular season and who drove the famous HBK line, heroes of the first Cup of the Championship Run. And what makes the task even more daunting, Matt Cullen, the fourth line Center, added another 15 goals. The task ahead of Rutherford and Sullivan is not an easy one.
Looking at the names the rumor mill has produced about who will fill these holes, logic would seem to dictate that Matt Duchene is the player that Rutherford must look to acquire if at all possible, if our Penguins truly are going to make an all-out effort to enter the history books. Duchene is a bona fide 20 goal scorer, averaging 24 goals per 82 games across his short career. He is also a stud in the face-off circle, with a career 52.7% win percentage, coming off of 57.9% and a 62.6%, the last two years (respectively). The down side is that Joe Sakic, Colorado’s GM, is asking an unrealistic price for Duchene. However, if Rutherford could land Duchene at a more honest price then our Penguins would be in the best position of any team, regardless of the Three-peat to win the Cup.
Andrea Athanasiou, would be the second most logical choice to drive that third line for the Penguins. He can fly and has demonstrated consistent goal scoring skills. He potted the same amount of goals as Bonino did in 80 games last year playing only 64 games with Detroit. No he is not the Bonino’s equal in the face-off circle or shot blocking categories, but if he were playing alongside Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, the speed and Corsi number of those two would seem to make those limitations almost negligible. Furthermore, Athanasiou is a Restricted Free Agent of the Detroit Red Wings and the Red Wings are already $3 million over the cap. If Rutherford offered Athansiou even $2 million, Detroit could not match it. In a worst-case scenario, one blogger has suggested (citation needed), the Penguins would lose a second round pick (third round player). Probability suggests the Penguins will be drafting that low, so the Penguins may be able to trade a Tom Kuhnhackl or Bryan Rust to save the choice, without losing any players in the virtual log jam at wing.
Now that Bryan Little has signed an extension with the Winnipeg Jets and would appear no longer a viable candidate, no other trades appear worthy of a second look. Scuttlebutt has revealed another name to the debate, Riley Sheahan of Detroit, but the oddsmakers would surely consider that a significant step down in talent and even Lady Luck and the Fates would be against this potential addition to our boys of winter. Sheahan has never potted more than 14 goals a season and his career averages only 11 goals per 82 games. Making matters worse is that statistically our Penguins have faced the back-up goalie of their opponents the very least amount of times over the last several years. The chances of Sheahan having a career year and contributing anything close to Bonino’s 18 goals seems very remote. Furthermore Sheahan’s face-off win percentage of 48.8% doesn’t add any value to bringing him in to Pittsburgh for anything more than a Wilkes-Barre Scranton bound prospect.
In-House, Jay McClement may be able to take on a fourth line role here in the ‘burgh, but he is also an ill fit to put our Penguins in their best position to Three-peat. In his best season he could only manage 12 markers and that was way back when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still chasing their first Cup in 2008-2009. McClement’s career thus far has only averaged 8 goals per 82 games.
It is hard to project what some of our Penguins’ Prospects will do, but other names added to the debate suggest the Penguins will go with Teddy Blueger. Rutherford, Sullivan, and Donatelli all seem high on the kid. He was +24 with 7 goals and 24 assists in 54 games down in Wilkes-Barre Scranton last year. Blueger looked strong in the face-off circle during last weeks’ Tournament, but despite the praise of his bosses I did not see anything in his game to suggest that he could help form a third line capable of really adding any offense if opponents shut down Crosby and Malkin. So, Blueger may be able to fill in at fourth line if Carter Rowney needs help or is needed elsewhere, but he is ill-suited to form a recontsitution of the HBK line. Blueger appeared to have trouble keeping up with Daniel Sprong and Zack Aston-Reese in the Tournament, which does not bode well.
The only in-house player that would seem to be a good fit for that third line Center position at this point would to be Adam Johnson. He is definitely not the biggest player on the roster and has no professional experience, but in the Prospects Tournament, he was the only one that impressed me with his offensive instincts. Against other prospects he handled the puck very well in traffic and showed the toughness to take hits and keep playing, despite only weighing 174lbs.
However, if the Penguins really are all in it for a Three-peat, no one in the organization really seems to be in a position, at this point, to really replace Bonino.