The Pittsburgh Penguins saw more turnover this offseason than any other organization in the NHL. From the hiring of President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Kyle Dubas to the signing of a multitude of fourth liners, the Pittsburgh Penguins look wildly different than they did six months ago. It’s certainly a welcome change in the Steel City after the Penguins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
In a recent season preview that was completed by Sean Gentille, Shayna Goldman, and Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, the trio pointed out that one of the biggest issues with the Penguins last season was the lack of support from the bottom six forward group. The group was so bad that nearly half of it was put on waivers before the trade deadline. Kasperi Kapanen was claimed, Brock McGinn was traded, and many others departed in free agency or were traded away.
Kyle Dubas completely overhauled the bottom six almost exclusively through free agency. In the early days of free agency, the Penguins signed Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, Vinnie Hinostroza, Andreas Johnsson, Joona Koppanen, Matt Nieto, and Radim Zohorna. Dubas also traded for Rem Pitlick who was a throw-in as part of the Erik Karlsson trade. These eight players now find themselves competing with the remaining Penguins’ bottom six options Jeff Carter, Alexander Nylander and Drew O’Connor, as well as Colin White who is in camp on a PTO. The group of 12 will be competing for six or seven NHL spots in the Penguins forward group.
Competition is almost always a good thing in the NHL and the Penguins training camp has seen a lot of it. Very little is set in their bottom six, except that it will likely be again void of offence. While the group doesn’t have a ton of offensive firepower, they clearly have an identity, which is something that didn’t exist in previous seasons in Pittsburgh. Dubas has targeted players who are capable defensively, can skate with pace, and won’t hand the game away by giving up backbreaking goals. The same can’t be said for the Penguins’ bottom six last season.
With all this, one must wonder which players will have the inside track to start opening night on the Penguins’ third and fourth line. Let’s look at the way Head Coach Mike Sullivan and the Penguins might utilize their options.
In a perfect world, Eller would be a perfect fourth-line center, but in Pittsburgh, he will likely see duty as a third-line pivot. At 34 years old, Eller’s best days are behind him, but he is still a very capable penalty killer and is defensively sound. Eller doesn’t offer the offensive pop he did in his last 20s, but he is just a year removed from a 31-point season.
Flanking Eller on the left side will likely be O’Connor, the Penguins love his size and speed and are hoping he can piece it all together. It goes to show how top-heavy the Penguins are when they are counting on a player who has eight goals and nine assists in 78 career games to be a key component of their third line.
When healthy, it seems very possible that the Penguins will deploy Nylander. The former eighth-overall pick has the pedigree to be a scorer in the NHL, but he has never been able to produce enough offense to stick with an NHL club. Nylander will start the season on the Penguins second line in the absence of Jake Guentzel, and depending on his production he could find himself flanking the right side of the third line, or exposed to waivers.
The Penguins’ fourth line is where it gets interesting. Nieto and Acciari were targeted by Dubas on July 1st and fit the identity that Dubas and Sullivan are building for that group. Nieto is a terrific penalty killer and will be utilized in that role a lot, while Acciari adds a physical element and is good defensively. Both players can add a bit of offense as well, Nieto is coming off a season in which he posted 12 goals and 12 assists in 81 games, while Acciari had 14 goals and 9 assists last season in 77 games.
Finally, last season’s lightning rod Carter remains under contract for one more season and is still a favorite of Coach Sullivan. Carter was never removed from the Penguins lineup last year, despite having the worst season of his professional career. Carter looked run down at times and was consistently a step behind when it came to both offense and defense. However, he was utilized in a third-line center role and probably shouldn’t have been. Carter could perform better when being deployed less often and in a more sheltered role. Given Sullivan’s affinity for Carter, it would take a lot to remove the 38-year-old from Pittsburgh’s lineup.
How the Penguins bottom six will look on opening night remains a mystery. But it should be one of the more exciting roster battles to see in the final week of training camp. The Penguins will have to expose a lot of players to waivers to trim down their roster and could lose some bodies to other teams depending on how things shake out.