The events of last week must have caught the Pittsburgh Penguins by surprise and spurred the search for potential Penguins third line centers. The growing feeling was Matt Cullen would return. Cullen, a superior fourth line center, lessened the burden on the other Penguins centers by winning faceoffs and killing penalties. His loss means the team will need more than an average third line center to carry those responsibilities.
The Penguins shopped for a third center in the $2 million range. GM Jim Rutherford told the Cook and Poni radio show on 93-7 the Fan, he could have made a deal, but wants a center more capable of “making an impact”.
We’ve detailed the Winnipeg Jets situation–they have three centers in their bottom 6, and at least one prospect ready to make the jump, which could make at least one viable candidate, Adam Lowry or even Mathieu Perrault, available.
There are several more centers who could become available with the emergence of youngsters, and perhaps a few who could be had by dangling an offensive talent like Conor Sheary or defenseman Olli Maatta.
#5 Antoine Vermette, ANA
Vermette, 35, already wears one Stanley Cup ring courtesy of his superior work with the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks. He slumped to 28 points in 72 games last season with the Anaheim Ducks, after consecutive 38 point seasons, mostly with the Phoenix Coyotes and 19 games with the Blackhawks.
2016 Ducks First Round pick, Sam Steel could soon be ready for NHL ice, which would make Vermette and his $1.75 million salary expendable.
Vermette still has swift skates in his mid-30’s, is good in the faceoff circle, and knows how to win on the biggest stage. The Ducks have Cup aspirations, too. They’re likely unwilling to part with Vermette unless Steel forces the issue or the Penguins make a strong offer.
#4 Carl Soderberg, COL
The Colorado Avalanche pivot had a precipitous drop in production last season, from 51 points in 2015-16 to 14 points last season. The 6′-3″ Swede will turn 32 as the season begins and his $4.75 million AAV contract runs for three more seasons, including this season.
Soderberg is not a tough center but is not weak. His game comes from the traditional Swedish style; he makes plays, plays positionally, but is not a grinder.
Soderberg won 52% of his faceoffs and was defensively reliable. He started 53% of his shifts in the defensive zone. Though Soderberg was not one of the primary Avalanche penalty killers, averaging just :42 shorthanded ice time per game.
Given the Penguins offensive depth, he could put up big points from the third center. Olli Maatta would be the necessary piece here, as Avalanche GM Joe Sakic is known to like Maatta and the Penguins would need to send significant salary back. However, Maatta is probably worth well more than Soderberg, at this point.
#3 Ryan Spooner, BOS
Spooner has been available to the Penguins and according to league sources, the Penguins previously declined Bruins GM Don Sweeney‘s overtures. It’s unclear from sources if actual trade talks took place.
The knock on Spooner is his toughness. Or perceived toughness. However, Spooner, 25, is young. He just completed his second full NHL season and scored 39 points (11g, 28a). He had 49 points (13g, 36a) in 2015-16. He is more of a playmaker than a speedy forechecker. Boston doesn’t think highly of Spooner’s defensive game. Last season, he started an astonishingly low 37% his shifts in the defensive zone.
Spooner also failed on the faceoff dot. He won just 38.9%, last season. He did, however, boast a 54.5% Corsi.
Spooner and the Bruins avoided arbitration this summer by agreeing to a one-year $2.8 million contract.
If the Penguins reconsider, it may be the right time to buy low on Spooner. Refer to last week’s column on the benefits of making a move, early. He is somewhat reminiscent of Nick Bonino before the Penguins acquired Bonino. A move like acquiring Spooner could be a boom, but if it becomes a bust, time to fix the situation would be an asset.
#2 Erik Haula, VGK
Haula had a great run in the second half of 2016, with the Minnesota Wild. He scored 26 points (11g, 15a) in the final 34 games. Last season, he was far less effective in the offensive zone. He scored only 26 points in 72 games. The Wild left Haula exposed in the Expansion Draft, and the Vegas Knights snagged him.
Haula, 26, signed a three-year deal with VGK, with an AAV of $2.75 million. The uncertainty of the Vegas lineup and VGK’s addition of former Columbus Blue Jacket, William Karlsson could make Haula expendable.
Haula is fast and a penalty killer. He’s also a playmaker, which means he could be a good fit for Phil Kessel. A really good fit.
#1 Nick Bjugstad, FLA
Bjugstad. 25, was the Panthers First Round draft pick, 19th overall, in 2010. The 6′-6″ 218lbs center saw an offensive decline last season, just 14 (7g, 7a) points in 54 games. Bjugstad averaged 38 points over the three previous seasons.
League sources reported to Pittsburgh Hockey Now, the Penguins are high on Bjugstad. They also reported the Panthers would like to shed salary but the Panthers are also high on Bjugstad. So, according to sources, the Penguins will need to present a strong offer, “they won’t just give him away,” said the source who has direct knowledge of the Panthers stance.
The downsides on Bjugstad are salary ($4.1 AAV for the next four seasons), inconsistent offensive production and he has not been a penalty killer in Florida. Last season, he averaged just :09 per game, short-handed.
The Penguins see a 25-year-old, big bodied center who could flourish in a better situation.
Honorable Mention: Phillip Danault
Thomas Plekanec’s age and the Canadiens need for centers likely make Danault unavailable.
The Penguins are poised to wait out the situation until the proper player falls to them. Perhaps if Sam Steel rises in Anaheim or Jack Roslovic rises in Winnipeg, the Penguins could get a top-notch third line center from a team with an expendable veteran. Otherwise, they will have to buy their player with a strong offer.
Again, sooner the better for the Penguins sake.