The Pittsburgh Penguins have precious little salary cap space, a gaping hole in the middle of their depth chart, and only a few pieces to deal. In order to acquire a third line center worthy of a championship run, the Penguins only trade bait–meaning players other teams actually want–will hurt to lose. To get, a team must give. The available names likely include regulars Conor Sheary, Olli Maatta, but should also include prospect Daniel Sprong.
For that matter, if the haul is big enough, all Penguins prospects should be on the table including Zach Aston-Reese. Such a deal would require a BIG time center coming to the Penguins.
No way, you say! The Penguins window for a Stanley Cup is now and a third line center could make the difference between watching the Columbus Blue Jackets escape the Metro division and actually doing so, themselves.
General Manager Jim Rutherford was looking for an impact centerman in the $2 million range. Was. Matt Cullen‘s departure to finish his career in Minnesota could change Rutherford’s thinking. Realize, the market just paid the Penguins fourth line center up to $1.7 million. Perhaps a bargain center won’t cut it, any longer. Perhaps there aren’t any bargain centers available, who are worthy of the chase.
A potential option is to package a prospect like Sprong with expendable veteran Carl Hagelin to both shed salary and receive a proper return. That type of package would allow the Penguins to afford a better third center than a “lowly” $2 million type.
The Penguins are looking for a rare commodity, an affordable, highly competent center. They got lucky with Nick Bonino, who melded into his role with near perfection (after a lackluster first 40 games).
Dealing Sprong would allow the Penguins to keep their scoring lines intact and not strip away too much of the team’s future. Sprong’s inability to grasp professional positioning forced his return to the QMJHL, midway through the 2015-16 season. Unfortunately, Sprong’s positioning was so bad that even teammates didn’t shy away from discussing it, albeit in polite terms, during his first stint in the NHL. He had just two points (2g, 0a) in 18 NHL games, but the Penguins burned the first year of his three-year professional contract by allowing him to play more than nine games.
Sprong is quick, has filthy hands, and a release as good as any sniper in the NHL.
Sprong suffered a hip injury playing with the “Black Aces” practice squad during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and missed most of last season while recovering from surgery. He played 33 games for the Charlottetown Islanders, where he tallied 16 goals along with 30 assists. Sprong arrived at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for the AHL playoffs but didn’t appear in a game.
Sprong’s development is nearly a year behind schedule and he likely won’t contribute to the Penguins until later this season, if at all.
The Penguins need is great and they have a few prospects who should be knocking at the NHL door soon. In an ideal world, the Penguins would be able to see if Sprong can become the dynamic sniper befitting his talent. But nothing about the Penguins current dearth at center and salary cap restriction is ideal.
The “little engine that could”, Sheary is the opposite of Sprong. Sheary was an undrafted college free agent who stormed the AHL, earned an NHL contract and in short order found himself helping the best player in the world to greater heights. This summer, Sheary avoided arbitration by signing a team friendly three-year, $9 million deal.
Sheary, 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, tallied 53 points in 61 games last season (23g, 30a). When Sheary played with Crosby, the team output was nearly one goal higher, on average. Sheary is a top 6 winger who could fetch a legitimate return, no questions asked.
It’s easy to make the case, Sheary could help an offensively starved team which has more than golfing aspirations for the spring. Winnipeg has plenty of big bodies and centers, they could use more speed and offense. Same with the Anaheim Ducks, where 2016 First Round pick Sam Steel could make Antoine Vermette expendable. Certainly the Vegas Golden Knights (hello, Erik Haula) could use a player like Sheary.
Sheary has been inconsistent in the playoffs. He has needed a press box breather each year but was a much better player after each benching. Losing Sheary would hurt and could force Crosby and Patric Hornqvist to play together, again. (You can almost hear Hornqvist laughing, and Sid groaning, can’t you?)
Perhaps no person or media outlet has defended Olli Maatta more than PittsburghHockeyNow.com and this writer. Maatta was very good after returning from his broken wrist/hand. Really good.
However, Brian Dumoulin‘s $4.1 million payday means the Penguins have one of the most expensive defensive corps in the NHL. Dumoulin pairs with Letang on the Pens top pairing. Ian Cole is the perfect compliment to Justin Schultz on the second pairing, which leaves Maatta on the third pair.
Can the Pens really afford an expensive third pairing defenseman? Newly signed Matt Hunwick is more than capable of anchoring the third pairing, while Chad Ruhwedel and Derrick Pouliot fight over the 6th and 7th slots.
Dealing Maatta makes the most sense, but will a rival GM see the good Maatta from March-June or the achingly slow Maatta who preceded his better self?
Tomorrow (or Monday. Does anyone actually surf the net on weekends?)… We dive into more possibilities for the Penguins center position!