For their last two seasons – both of which ended with a Stanley Cup championship – the Pittsburgh Penguins had stability in the stable of centers: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin anchoring the top six, Nick Bonino starring with the HBK Line and then playing dependable hockey, and old man Matt Cullen holding down the fourth line.
Entering this season, it’s a different story. Bonino is now with the Nashville Predators, who gave him a four-year, $16.4 million contract in exchange for the secret recipe for winning a Stanley Cup. Cullen pulled a Parise, and decided against both re-upping with the Penguins and retirement to sign with the Minnesota Wild, to be closer to family.
How do the Penguins replace Cullen, who averaged 13:55 per night over 72 games and played on the penalty kill? The Penguins think they have a solution in 28-year-old Carter Rowney, who played 27 games last season. He can kill penalties and do the necessary fourth line things, although he’s not the faceoff guy (48 percent) that Cullen was (51 percent).
How do the Penguins replace Bonino?
They might not.
At least right away.
From Sam Werner of the Post Gazette, speaking with GM Jim Rutherford, who said the Penguins could start the season without having acquired a player for that spot:
“[I’m] more comfortable with that than trading for somebody where I’m not sure whether they can help us or not,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford said he spoke to coach Mike Sullivan earlier this week and Sullivan told him he “could make it work” if the Penguins open training camp with their current roster. “The coach is working on that now, looking at what those options are,” Rutherford said.
Among the options: Using Scott Wilson at center, where he’s played before. Or converting Jake Guentzel from wing to center.
Now, Guentzel’s an interesting option. He’s a gifted offensive player, and slotting him in that third-line role makes the Penguins a more dangerous and deep team, at a time when their depth at forward can legitimately start being questioned. He’s versatile enough to play center or wing.
But if Guentzel opens the season at third-line center, it’s out of necessity. Rutherford’s already on the record back in June saying that “we’d prefer him to play the wing.” And frankly, after seeing him click with Crosby as he did, it’s hard to imagine he’s moved out of that role. Again, unless the situation absolutely demanded it.
The Penguins have about $3.2 million in cap space, with everyone signed. Which means one assumes the center spot would be addressed through a trade, asset for asset. Plus the remaining UFAs don’t offer much: Boyd Gordon and Vernon Fiddler are more No. 4 guys than threes.
At this point, Rutherford and Sullivan have more than earned the benefit of the doubt, and frankly the Penguins could wait until the trade deadline to really address this issue and be just fine, because they’re that damn good.
But as we said before: When you subtract Cullen and Bonino and Chris Kunitz from your bottom six, it makes an impact. And you can ask Ray Shero about how your bottom six can make or break a team.
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