CRANBERRY — Upgrading the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third and fourth lines was a priority for Kyle Dubas this summer and, by most accounts, he succeeded.
Sure, patiently constructing the trade that netted defenseman Erik Karlsson was his signature deal of the summer and acquiring Reilly Smith was a shrewd move to offset the impending loss of Jason Zucker to free agency, but Dubas understandably viewed bolstering his bottom-six forwards as key to getting the Penguins back into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And possibly staying there for a while.
So Dubas, in his dual role as president of hockey operations and GM, moved aggressively on the free-agent market, signing the likes of Lars Eller, Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto, Vinnie Hinostroza and Andreas Johnsson, among others. He then added Rem Pitlick from Montreal in the three-team Karlsson trade and brought Colin White and Austin Wagner to training camp on professional tryout agreements.
Pitlick, Hinostroza, Johnsson and White ultimately ended up with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre, but Eller, Acciari and Nieto locked up roster spots and all have, as management hoped, contributed to an early-season improvement in the team’s penalty-kill.
The power-play goal Calgary scored during the second period of the Penguins’ 5-2 victory at PPG Paints Arena Saturday night is the only one the Penguins have allowed in 10 shorthanded situations through the first three games, and Eller, Acciari and Nieto have played significant roles in that.
First-line right winger Bryan Rust leads the team’s forwards in average shorthanded ice time at two minutes, 18 seconds, but Acciari is just two seconds behind him, while Eller checks in at 2:13 and Nieto at 1:37. Drew O’Connor (1:22) and Jeff Carter (40 seconds) also have been used when the Penguins have to kill a penalty.
“They’re a big part of the penalty-kill,” coach Mike Sullivan said Sunday. “They’ve all done a really good job, in that regard.”
He praised the bottom-six forwards’ defensive work in general — “I think they’ve played well. They’ve played hard. They’re hard to play against. They get a lot of defensive-zone starts against our opponents’ top lines.” — and said he isn’t concerned that all have yet to chip in with a goal.
“I do think that they’ll score goals,” Sullivan said. “They’ve had a fair amount of scoring chances. It hasn’t gone in the net for them, but I do think that bottom-six will score goals. We’re going to need them to produce, offensively, if we’re going to become the team that we hope to become.”
All 11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goals have been scored by members of the top two lines; Sidney Crosby and Rust have three each, Evgeni Malkin and Smith have two apiece and Jake Guentzel got the other.
The only point coming from someone in the bottom-six is Eller’s secondary assist on Rust’s goal in the first period of the opener against Chicago last Tuesday.
Nonetheless, Eller, who works between O’Connor and Jansen Harkins on the third line, believes a three-game sample is not enough to establish a trend, and is confident his unit and the No. 4 line, which has Acciari in the middle and Nieto and Carter on the wings, will soon begin to capitalize on some of the scoring chances they create.
“Fifteen or 20 games into the season — probably 20 games into the season — you can start seeing if there’s a repeating pattern of issues or concerns,” he said. “I don’t think you can get too caught up in one or two or three games. But we’re always pushing to be better. We always look at the next game and say, ‘OK, what can we do differently and what can we do better?’ ”
Eller has generated seven of his unit’s 11 shots on goal; O’Connor and Carter have two each.
“We’ve had some looks,” he said. “We’ve had chances. It hasn’t gone in for us just yet, but at the end of the day, as long as we’re not letting in goals and we’re staying on the right side of that equation, we’re still helping the team win.”