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Like Vegas and Washington–Penguins Need to Upgrade Fourth Line

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Riley Sheahan: Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire

The Pittsburgh Penguins must be watching the 2018 Stanley Cup Final and recognize successful pieces they had in 2016 and 2017 during their championships but did not possess in 2018. Most notably, the Penguins were missing threatening third and fourth lines.

The Penguins bottom lines must be more effective. Or physical. Or both.

How many big goals did Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen score in 2016 and 2017?

How many big goals did Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard score in 2018?

Brassard gets a pass for dealing with an injury Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said made it difficult to play hockey. He also gets a pass because, as head coach Mike Sullivan admitted, Brassard had not yet grown comfortable in the Penguins system. His momentum before a late-season injury makes Brassard look like a solution.

Riley Sheahan doesn’t get much of a pass, however.

It doesn’t take much to see bottom lines are driving the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals forward in their quest for the Stanley Cup. The Golden Knights best line in the series has been their fourth line with Ryan ReavesPierre-Edouard BellemareTomas Nosek. The Washington Capitals are getting substantial production from their fourth line, as well.

The number of NBCsn interviews and graphics packages with Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle should be a good hint. Beagle has eight points (2g, 6a) in 21 playoff games but has been a strong contributor in all three zones. Smith-Pelly has five goals and one assist in 22 playoff games, and a few of those goals have been big ones.

Smith-Pelly and Beagle had only 16 points each, during the regular season. But that still doubles the Penguins bottom crew. Penguins fourth-liner Tom Kuhnhackl had a staggering eight points. Reaves, when he was with the Penguins, was the fourth line’s most prolific scorer with eight points in only 59 games.

Fellow Penguins fourth-line center Carter Rowney had five points in 44 games, when he could stay healthy. His combination of stiff corner work and shot blocking did not treat him well.

In the waning weeks of the season, when Sheahan was shuffled to the fourth line, it didn’t fare much better as Kuhnhackl, Sheahan and the rotating right wings were not able to generate offense.

Decisions, Deci$ions

The Penguins will have to make a real decision on Sheahan. As an RFA, the Penguins must offer Sheahan his 2017 salary or more, $2.075 million. He could be a solid fourth line center but not with a price tag which well exceeds last season’s salary.

The biggest knock on Sheahan from this corner is that he isn’t an aggressive player. Sheahan’s strengths as a player were obvious. He is defensively responsible and was a defensive zone faceoff wizard. But, he doesn’t disrupt the game in any fashion. Again, compare to the Vegas or Washington fourth line shifts which create turnovers or get the puck in deep and work the corners.

It’s hard to recall Sheahan and any Penguins linemates consistently doing so.

Sheahan scored 32 points last season, but a majority of those came playing with Phil Kessel through the middle of the season. Sheahan’s three playoff points, as the Penguins desperately searched for offense from anyone not named Jake Guentzel or Sidney Crosby, weren’t good enough. Especially since Sheahan had plenty of time with offensively capable wingers.

According to Capfriendly.com, Sheahan’s contract “value” when compared to similar outputs across the league is about $4 million. The Penguins cannot, nor should not, entertain Sheahan at anything beyond his current $2 million price tag. In fact, the Penguins would be forgiven for first looking to the free agent market, where several low rent but potentially productive fourth-line center types will be available before they pony up bigger cash for Sheahan.

Perhaps the likes of Tomas Plekanec or Valteri Fillpula could fall into the Penguins price range, given their age and sub-30 point production, if Sheahan requires a significant raise.

Upgraded Wings

Another avenue to add some punch, either offensive or physical, to the Penguins fourth line would be to upgrade the wings.

It’s certainly pointless to count hits for the Penguins bottom liners. A few more of those wouldn’t hurt.

First, let’s cross off Daniel Sprong. The offensively gifted but defensively, ummm, growing Sprong is not built for fourth line duty or responsibilities. Sprong could draw third line duty with a center like Brassard, but Phil Kessel likely has that spot (please read the Evgeni Malkin and Conor Sheary report cards before commenting that Kessel should play with Malkin).

Kuhnhackl, 26, faded to the background last year. His penalty killing should not be overlooked nor should it be overvalued. Kuhnhackl plays with above-average speed and grit but not much jam. With eight points last season, he didn’t play with much offense, either.

Zach Aston-Reese is an intriguing option for the Penguins fourth line. His skating lacks explosion or overall speed, but he is tough on the walls and isn’t afraid of the net. If the effects of Capitals winger Tom Wilson‘s thuggery (broken jaw, concussion) keep Aston-Reese off the ice for too long this summer, he may struggle to crack the lineup next season.

The rest of the WBS Penguins crew, from Teddy Blueger to Adam Johnson, will need strong training camps to be considered. Johnson may take Rowney’s roster spot, but the Penguins will need a “bigger” contributor.

For the Penguins to upgrade more than one spot on the fourth line, they will have to go outside the organization. In fact, the final four remaining teams this season had a healthy dose of physicality. The Penguins, if they can’t upgrade the offensive production from the less used lines, they should add a bit of thump.

A little of either can go a long way.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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