While many teams across the NHL still have holes to fill before the puck drops on the 2017-18 season, no vacancy has received more attention than the third-line center slot for the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, we’ve already written about it once before. However, the scenario has changed over the last few weeks, as the new contracts for RFAs Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary have left the Pens with just over $3MM in salary cap space. Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette recently spoke with GM Jim Rutherford, who essentially stated that he does not plan to move out significant salary in a deal to acquire a new bottom-six center. What that means is that the Penguins are left with a much smaller margin to work with to acquire Nick Bonino’s replacement.
So who will it be? Who it won’t be is easier to say. The pipe dreams of Colorado’s Matt Duchene or Carolina’s Jordan Staal are now all but over, as are more reasonable targets like Toronto’s Tyler Bozak or Dallas’ Radek Faksa now seem out of reach as well. The Vegas Golden Knights have not shown any indication that they are interested in moving forwards, so strike their group of suitable centers off the list as well. With each passing day, it seems a Matt Cullen return grows less and less likely as well.
What the Penguins are left with are a group of guys who fit their needs well: young, two-way centers on affordable contracts. The most common name bandied about is Detroit Red Wings forward Riley Sheahan. Sheahan struggled mightily in 2016-17 and is relatively expensive compared to some other available names at $2.075MM this season. However, Detroit desperately needs to shed salary and may have reached the end of the line with Sheahan. It could be a good match, with Sheahan very likely bouncing back on a far more talented Penguins team. Pittsburgh’s top target may be Arizona’s Jordan Martinook, who just resigned with the team, but is part of a Coyotes forward corps that is crowded with young talent. Martinook is an underrated two-way player and would fit in nicely with the Pens, but Arizona may not be keen to move him in a deal that Rutherford stated would not included salary players. The Coyotes have had their fill of picks and prospects and might be on the lookout for only veteran contributors at this point. The Penguins could turn to the Los Angeles Kings, who have great depth at center including Nick Shore and Nic Dowd. Both would fit the need nicely in Pittsburgh and come in at under $1MM. The 25-year-old Shore would be especially nice, as the team can retain RFA rights over him beyond 2017-18, but Dowd may be easier to acquire from a Kings squad that is not any closer to returning to the playoffs. One final option, staying out west, could be San Jose Sharks center Chris Tierney. It is rumored that the two sides are on rocky grounds, with Tierney signing just a one-year extension this summer, and could be looking for a trade. Tierney has proven to be a solid defensive force in the San Jose bottom six and could play the same role in Pittsburgh. The Sharks have done nothing this off-season and could see replacing Tierney with a Penguins forward prospect as at least some kind of roster shakeup.
Obviously, the available names are not of the sexy variety. The Penguins have been spoiled with center depth through their Stanley Cup years and fans are surely hoping they can find another Staal or Bonino. However, with little cap space to play with and a reluctance to change the current roster any further, this is what Rutherford is left with. Any of these guys could be a valuable piece on another strong Penguins team, as each plays a solid two-way game, but none are gonna be the big-name acquisition that many expected. Pittsburgh will be back in the Cup race again next year even if they do nothing at all and stick someone from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at third-line center, so maybe the better question is not who will play there, but why does everyone care so much?