The Pittsburgh Penguins already acquired an Atlantic player when they acquired center Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings earlier this year. Could GM Jim Rutherford double-dip into the division for yet another center? There are plenty of options available.
As everyone knew they would, the Penguins have rebounded from some serious early season struggles and are back in the playoff picture. With 53 points, the Pens have tied up the New York Rangers and the two teams currently hold wild card berths. However, the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, and Carolina Hurricanes are mere points behind and all have games in hand on Pittsburgh. In fact, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs are actually last in the Metropolitan Division in points percentage. The Penguins undoubtedly have work to do prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, but this year they need help just to make the playoffs.
The main issue for Pittsburgh continues to come back to third-line center, where nothing has worked this year. Sheahan has struggled on the third line, but has settled in nicely on the fourth line. Injured Carter Rowney is also better suited for an energy line role. Jake Guentzel is a competent pivot, but to have him center the third line is to remove him from his top-six wing spot where he has been so successful. Despite their many attempts, the Penguins still just need to replace Nick Bonino.
Enter the Atlantic Division, home to two of the best teams in hockey as well as four of the worst. The Pens have already dealt with Detroit, sending Scott Wilson and a third-round pick their way for Sheahan. However, there are three more teams willing to sell and with pieces of interest to the Pens. The Montreal Canadiens, who themselves are desperate for help at center, are seemingly ready to move on from career contributor Tomas Plekanec, an impending free agent. The 35-year-old has years of experience and is perhaps the best two-way player on the Montreal roster. A rental deal for Plekanec to go to Pittsburgh has been talked about by many and would be no surprise. A less likely deal, but one that also makes sense is Canadiens forward Paul Byron. Although he provides great value with a cap hit just over $1MM for another season, if the Habs enter 2018-19 with Byron again as even a top-nine center, then they will have not done enough this summer. The team may as well move on now and get a good return from Pittsburgh, who could really use the late bloomers services at a bargain rate through next season. Then there are the Ottawa Senators, who have made it known that they are willing to move just about anyone on their roster. The player of most interest to Pittsburgh is likely Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The 25-year-old center is signed through 2020, but has heard his name on the rumor mill and fits the third line role perfectly. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston even mentioned that the Penguins have been kicking the tires on Pageau. Zack Smith, a similarly skilled player with a similar $3MM+ cap hit, but with greater experience, could also be had. Although the Sens are likely more keen to keep Smith over Pageau, Smith was one of many players recently asked to waive his no-trade clause. Finally, perhaps the crown jewel of available Atlantic centers is Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart. The struggling Sabres have few players of value to offer – and reportedly Reinhart is not one they are willing to part with – but there is no doubt that Rutherford would love to pry the 2014 second overall pick from old friend Jason Botterill in Buffalo. Reinhart has struggled to produce on offense or play well down the middle with the Sabres, but the 22-year-old has the makings of an elite two-way center down the road. In a new city where he faces less pressure to be superstar and top scorer, Reinhart could develop into that defensive-minded top-nine forward that his skill set is best suited for.
There are more than enough options for Rutherford and the Penguins to make a move for yet another center from the Atlantic. The Canadiens, Senators, and Sabres are all floundering and will be sellers looking to make a move. Pittsburgh hasn’t yet traded away all of their prospect and draft pick assets and Rutherford has shown a desire to make moves early and often ahead of the trade deadline. Don’t be shocked if his next newsworthy move is to bring in any of these players to give his team a shot at the postseason and perhaps even a three-peat.