With the departures of centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, the Pittsburgh Penguins ? central concern this off-season has been at center. Replacing a combined total of 68 regular-season points, which included 31 goals, will not be easy; not to mention another combined 16 points, including six goals, in the playoffs.
With Bonino, money and term were the main reason for his departure. A salary of $4.1M for four years is too rich, both in terms of actual dollar amount and length, for a third-line center. Nobody can begrudge Bonino for his new contract with Nashville. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins can find a cheaper option at less term.
Matt Cullen ?s reasons for leaving were more personal. Being from Minnesota, he wanted to return home to have one last hurrah with the Minnesota Wild. One year at $1M is certainly a number the Penguins could have fit under the cap, but in the end Cullen chose being closer to home as more of a priority than a chance at a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
So, who are viable candidates to fill the voids left by the departures of Bonino and Cullen? First, you must look at the internal candidates. The most logical candidate is Carter Rowney. He seemingly came out of nowhere last season and played an important bottom-six role in helping the Penguins capture the Cup. The 28-year old rookie contributed a modest seven points in his 27 regular-season games and chipped in three assists in 20 playoff games. While his point totals are not going to wow anybody, his speed and willingness to finish every check will. He fits perfectly into the Penguins’ speed strategy. Additionally, winning 49 percent of his faceoffs in the regular-season and 51 percent in the playoffs shows he ?s not a liability in the faceoff dot. He should slot into the fourth-line center role, but does not have the experience, nor the point-producing capability to perform as a third-line center.
To fill the hole at third-line center, the Pittsburgh Penguins are likely going to have to look outside of the organization. The name heard most in trade rumors has been Toronto center Tyler Bozak. He has been with Toronto since the 2009-10 season and has been a steady point-producer for the Maple Leafs, registering 322 points in 513 regular-season games; an average of .63 points per game. Additionally, he has experience playing with Phil Kessel. His cap hit is $4.2M for the 2017-18 season, but he becomes an unrestricted free agent at season ?s end. The Penguins only have $3.2M under the salary cap right now, so they’d have to move some money back in the deal (or a separate deal) to make this work. The Penguins most expendable chip is probably Carl Hagelin and his $4.0M cap hit the next two years, but I’m not sure if there’s a good fit for him on a wing in Toronto. Additionally, the Maple Leafs appear to be a prime competitor to unseat the Penguins in the East, so it doesn’t make much sense why they would try to help them out.
Longer shots to fill the third-line center role are Edmonton ?s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Colorado ?s Matt Duchene. Nugent-Hopkins has been with the Oilers since the 2011-12 season and has recorded 265 points in 395 games; an average of .67 points per game. The reason that Nugent-Hopkins might be expendable is that the Oilers are going to have major salary cap issues starting next season. Connor McDavid ?s monster contract kicks in next season and he ?ll be making $12.5M per season through 2025-26, while Leon Draisaitl begins making $8.5M this season through 2024-25. Nugent-Hopkins is slated to earn $6M/season until the 2020-21 season. That would be too steep of a number for the Penguins to take on, but if the Oilers were willing to keep $1-$2M of his salary in exchange for some players and picks, it could be a nice fit for the Penguins.
Matt Duchene has been with the Avalanche since the 2009-10 season and has recorded 418 points in 572 career regular-season games; an average of .73 points per game. He is also a fantastic faceoff man. He led the NHL is faceoff winning percentage last season, winning an impressive 62.6 percent of his faceoffs. However, he also carries a $6M cap hit, but has a short term, as he is only signed through the 2018-19 season. Moving Carl Hagelin plus a high draft pick would be the rough outline of a deal for Duchene. The issue with both Nugent-Hopkins and Duchene, other than their large cap hit, is that they are both offensive-minded and play little to no time on the penalty kill. The Penguins ? model, dating back to Jordan Staal, has been to have the third-line center be good at faceoffs and even better on the penalty kill.
One dark horse candidate that might make sense for the Pittsburgh Penguins is free agent center Mike Ribeiro. He had some off-the-ice issues last season after an alcohol relapse and was subsequently waived by Nashville. However, he did continue to play in the AHL and recorded a very respectable 26 points in 28 games for the Milwaukee Admirals. The 37-year old certainly has experience, 1,074 games to be exact, and he could probably be signed for the veteran minimum. While signing Ribeiro is a long shot, it could low risk, high reward.
Another slightly off-the-radar signing could be old friend Daniel Winnik. He was very uninspiring when he came over in a trade back in 2015, but he would check a lot of boxes for the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 2nd go-around. He put up a line of 12G-13A-25P in 72 games last year for the Capitals while getting just under 13 minutes of ice time. He’s defensively sound, can kill some penalties, and has a little bit of edge to his game. His cap hit last year of $2.2M would fit in well with the Penguins’ budget.
GM Jim Rutherford has shown that he is not afraid to pull the trigger if the right deal comes along. Given that Rutherford has put together rosters that have produced back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships, Pittsburgh Penguins fans should be centered on Rutherford ?s next move.