Many fans in Pittsburgh are looking to see which name rises above and claims the Penguins third-line centre position. There are a few intriguing options to take a look at.
A Hole Needing to be Filled
Ask any fan in Pittsburgh, they’ll tell you the importance of a good third line. During their back-to-back cup runs of 2016 and 2017, the Penguins consistently rolled out a deadly third line that constantly would give opposition fits (HBK ringing a bell to anyone?).
After having to deal with one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, teams would be left helpless when the likes of Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Phil Kessel would come streaking into the offensive zone.
Those days of the Penguins third line being a strength are long gone. The last few years, fans in Pittsburgh suffered through the Jeff Carter experience. They then were subjected to a carousel of bodies trying to inject some life into their breathless bottom six. This off-season, General Manager Kyle Dubas aimed to correct this issue and gave the bottom six something it had been missing under previous management: an identity.
That being said, did Dubas do all he could to set that bottom six up for success this year? Most noticeably, the role of third-line centre is still not solidified. Let’s take a look at a few options that Head Coach Mike Sullivan is exploring as the season draws near.
The front-runner for the Penguins third-line centre position is most definitely Lars Eller. Eller, coming off a fresh new contract, is known primarily for his defensive acumen. Last season, Eller split time between rival Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche. While his ten goals and 13 assists from last season aren’t anything to scoff at, they are not the most impressive numbers.
Having said that, Eller offers the Penguins an elite option on the penalty kill, and his defensive metrics truly are elite. Eller is not the sexy choice but could potentially fill out the role of third-line centre just fine. It would seem, however, that if the Penguins want to make a deep playoff run, they would be better off having Eller centring their fourth line and looking elsewhere for the third line spot.
Another new addition from Dubas, Noel Acciari brings a particular snarl to the game that the Penguins have been lacking in recent years. While he’s certainly no goon, Acciari’s tenacious forecheck and persistence in hunting down loose pucks make him a perfect fit for Coach Sullivan’s system.
While it’s not always wise to look too deeply into training camp lines, Sullivan has been consistently deploying a line of Drew O’Connor, Acciari and Carter. This will most likely be the Penguins fourth line to begin the year. Once again, it’s a good role for Acciari. Acciari throughout his career has split time as a wing and centre and isn’t particularly known for his scoring touch. While he’s certainly a solid option for the role of third-line centre, Accairi realistically will not see too many minutes there.
Longshots (O’Connor, Zohorna)
While I do not think that any of these names will see significant time as the Penguins third line centre, it’s fun to discuss the potential that these two names possess.
O’Connor has long been a training camp darling but has yet to truly break out in the regular season. The Penguins and Mike Sullivan seem content with him being on the wing. However, he’s a natural centre and has seen NHL time there before. If injuries rear their ugly head, O’Connor is the most realistic name to centre the Penguins third line.
Radim Zohorna, or as fans refer affectionately refer to him, Big Z has impressed in his first two preseason games, registering a goal and assist. Zohorna seemingly has improved his game since his last tenure with the Penguins. He will still have to fight for a spot in the upcoming season. Similar to O’Connor before him, Zohorna is a fine option for the Penguins if push comes to shove.
The biggest takeaway from this analysis is that the Penguins still lack a legitimate scoring threat in the third-line centre position. General Manager Kyle Dubas is not shy from making significant trades midseason to bolster his teams for playoff runs (see, Ryan O’Reilly or Nick Foligno before him).
Perhaps the best third-line centre for the Penguins is someone who currently is not on the roster. Here’s a WAY too early look at some pending UFAs that may be on the move this season:
Adam Henrique: We know the Penguins have at least had interest in him before. Henrique is able to consistently put up 35-40 points. Having said that, he won’t be helping the Penguins get any younger or faster.
Chandler Stephenson: Pending UFA from the Stanley Cup Winning Vegas Golden Knights. Stephenson broke out in last year’s playoffs and became a fan favourite in Vegas. While they may not be keen to move him, Vegas has a reputation for trading away players they don’t believe they’ll be able to sign in the offseason…so one can dream.
Regardless of who the Penguins have in the role of third-line centre, their bottom six serves to be a vast improvement from the monstrosity that was last season.
Main Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports