Build Down The Middle Or On The Wings?
For years, the Penguins have suffered the agonizing fate of having two of the world’s best and most exciting centers on their roster.
Sure, sure, they’ve won the Stanley Cup once and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals once more, but that pales in comparison to the fact that they just can’t afford quality wingers.
Ok, so I jest.
But, to some, the dire need for at least one top-six caliber scoring winger has led to more than a few heated arguments.
Nevermind the fact that the Penguins finished fifth in scoring one season ago with Pascal Dupuis and Ruslan Fedotenko taking two of the four winger positions on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s lines.
The fact is, the offense has operated just fine without a Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, or Dany Heatley.
Even so, the desire for a better top-six remains, which has led to quite the interesting debate.
Should Jordan Staal continue his career as a center, anchoring arguably the league’s most dominant third line, or should he return to the wing, where he spent most of the time during his wildly successful rookie season?
I suppose the answer isn’t quite as easy as picking one or the other.
You see, if the Penguins aspire to play Staal at wing, which is a strong possibility, the third line needs a replacement center, one who can contribute, not only as a standout defensive player, but as an occasional offensive producer.
Those attributes are difficult to come by, which is precisely why the Penguins have had such a unique and successful third line over the last few seasons.
And, more than a month into free agency, the vast majority of players capable of contributing have been signed.
Still, a few names come to mind that would be welcomed additions capable of allowing Staal to play on the wing with Malkin.
- Eric Belanger – With more than 600 games under his belt, Belanger has proven himself as a quality third line center. He’s fantastic in the faceoff circle, more than capable offensively, and qualified to play on the penalty kill. Last season, he finished 9th in faceoff percentage (56.4%), scored 41 points, and averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice-time per game. Oh, and he’s as tough as nails.
- John Madden – While he may be creeping up there in age, Madden continues to dominate defensively, shutting down some of the game’s top forwards. Like Belanger, Madden is excellent at taking draws, but unlike Belanger, he has made a living playing defensive hockey. Last season, he finished 20th in faceoff percentage (53%), scored 23 points, and averaged 2:18 of shorthanded ice-time per game. At 37, he’s not getting younger, but the former Selke Trophy winner wouldn’t be a bad fit for a Penguins team clearly seeking to improve its defense.
- Jeff Halpern – With his best days clearly behind him, Halpern has flown under the radar in recent years. Even so, the former Washington Capital and self-proclaimed “Penguin hater” remains a viable checking line option. While his plus/minus rating last season was far from good (-14), his overall defensive play remained steady, as he averaged 2:24 of shorthanded ice time per game. In the faceoff circle, Halpern took fewer draws than most centers (479), but won at an impressive 52 percent clip. And, while his offense struggled a bit (just 19 points in 71 games), it should be noted that he wasn’t playing for an offensive juggernaut. Halpern wouldn’t be my first choice, but on an affordable, one-year contract, he just might do the trick.
If none of these three third line centers tickles your fancy — or more importantly, Ray Shero’s fancy — the option remains to leave Staal at his familiar third line center position.
Such a decision, however, likely would be made easier with the addition of a proven scoring winger, someone capable of contributing offensively, thus taking some of the pressure off of Malkin and Crosby.
Some names that come to mind include…
- Bill Guerin – We’re all familiar with what “Billy G” brings to the table and what he doesn’t. At this point in his career, he has lost a step (or three) and his hands aren’t what they once were — but he still has the ability to bury the puck on the power play. Unfortunately, Guerin has become somewhat of a power play specialist, and doing so on a team that finished 19th in the NHL with the man advantage isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Still, Shero remains in periodic contact with Guerin’s agent, and should the veteran winger’s asking price dip to the $1 million range, an agreement likely could and would be reached.
- Paul Kariya – Such an elite name seemed a pipe dream just a month ago, but the longer free agents sit on the market, the more their value drops. Kariya, 36, isn’t the same winger who scored 85 points in 2005-06, but he certainly hasn’t regressed to the point where he lacks production. With the right center — cough, Crosby, cough — I dare say Kariya could revisit the 60-70 point plateau, assuming he can stay healthy.
- Raffi Torres – How long have Penguin fans clamored for a bull willing to stand in front of the net and capable of planting himself there? Well, that player is out there, and he could come cheaply. Torres scored 19 goals last season, the vast majority of which came from within five feet of the net. While not overly versatile, Torres is big and physical and he can score. Sure, he’s more suited for a third line role, but when we’re talking about adding some offense in August, the pickings are slim.
- Patrick O’Sullivan – In 73 games with the Edmonton Oilers last season, O’Sullivan scored 34 points (not bad) and had a minus-35 rating (ouch!). He’s a project, for sure, but with a wealth of talent demonstrated in a 53-point 2007-08 campaign with the Los Angeles Kings, O’Sullivan just might be worth the gamble for the cash-strapped Penguins.
Of course, all of the players above represent external options. And, while it’s far from a foregone conclusion that Shero will look outside the organization for roster depth, it seems quite likely he’ll bring in at least one more player if for no other reason than to create competition for youngsters, such as Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Dustin Jeffrey, and Mark Letestu looking to making the jump to the NHL.