After a demolition derby-type preseason and training camp during which no fewer than seven or eight players fought for a few spots on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster, none of the original combatants made the cut. After calling a draw with no winners, the Penguins claimed defenseman John Ludvig on waivers from Florida, just as they did a week prior by claiming forward Jansen Harkins from Winnipeg.
A new bottleneck was created with no cap space, eight waiver-eligible defensemen, and only 12 forwards on the NHL roster. That jam-up is not only denying the Penguins their best lineup, but also denying one player the next step in his hockey growth.
The Penguins and president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas kept both Ludvig and Ryan Shea on the final roster, obviously afraid of losing either on waivers. The Penguins sent all other potential bottom-line forwards to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The result was an NHL roster without a depth forward.
And 12 forwards means there is one behind Jeff Carter in Pittsburgh to improve the fourth line, which has struggled to get beyond the defensive blue line in three games-played.
Curiously, the Penguins have eight defensemen on the NHL roster, and the impending return of Will Butcher will soon give them four defenders with NHL experience (and Taylor Fedun makes five) in the AHL, too. Yet, they’re hanging on tightly to Shea and Ludvig.
The lack of forward depth also means Carter is a permanent part of the roster, which might counter Dubas’s comments from Oct. 9, when he extolled the virtues of depth and the probability of giving some veterans a break while also challenging Carter.
“We’re trying always to have that depth … we try to build out the team deep enough so we don’t have to rely on every single person to be firing on all cylinders at all times. It’s just not going to happen during the course of a year. So we try to build out the team so it’s deep enough so we can slot people a little bit lower and then try to get the most out of them,” Dubas said then. “And in Jeff’s case, I think he’s had he’s had a very good training camp and a good exhibition season. And I think the doubt that may be there will probably fuel him to show that he’s still capable of being a strong and contributing member of a contending team.”
The first three games probably won’t be considered confirmation of those hopes that Carter would elevate his game, but fuel for the fears that he won’t. But no options exist without roster movement.
Carter’s contractual status, as a 35+ with an ironclad no-movement clause, further cement his place on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ payroll.
OK, enough of the soft-shoe approach. Bluntly, Carter is not one of the Penguins’ 12 best forwards at a time when the Penguins have won a couple of games without offensive contributions from the bottom-six forwards. Yet, the salary-cap situation and his no-movement clause mean he stays in the NHL.
Doubling the negative effects of Carter’s situation, Penguins coaches put free-agent acquisition Noel Acciari at center on the fourth line. Acciari told PHN he plays a different game at center than at wing. In the middle, he prefers to be the last person out of the defensive zone.
He didn’t view his philosophical change in the negative, only as a necessary function of playing center. However, he also admitted playing center removes his ability to tenderize defensemen on the forecheck, creating chaos and turnovers.
Penguins fans waiting for that rowdy winger with ill intent have instead seen a cautious, responsible, and only occasionally physical pivot.
Coach Mike Sullivan has steadfastly defended Carter. However, it was an intended compliment on Saturday, which confirmed the belief that Carter’s lines are far too often in the defensive zone.
“They’re just a conscientious line. They had a couple of shifts early in the game where they got hemmed in our end, but they did a great job just protecting the inside of the ice and keeping the play to the perimeter,” said Sullivan. “And that’s the type of thing that settles teams down — when you have a comfort level that you can play in your own end and nothing bad is going to happen, that’s a good feeling when you’re on the bench.”
But spending too much time in the defensive zone has been the problem.
Jeff Carter, Penguins Numbers:
After three games, the fourth line has been unbroken defensively, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been good. Matt Nieto, Accairi, and Carter have been well under water, in the measurable statistics, and in some cases, deep underwater.
The Nieto-Acciari-Carter line has a brutal 32% Corsi, yet 47% of the shots while on the ice (lending credence to Sullivan’s contention that they’re defending well). The line has been outchanced 11-4 despite not seeing significant time against opposing top lines and has nearly as many offensive- and neutral-zone draws (13) as defensive-zone faceoffs.
Those are bad numbers, no matter how they’re spun.
The eye test also shows Carter to be ineffectual.
The necessity of moving Acciari to center both lessens his value to the team and keeps another player off the NHL roster. The Penguins have another player who could be a responsible, safe center, but one who could grow into more: Sam Poulin.
“I was really proud of Sam and the camp that he had, and I think he should be very proud of himself,” said Dubas. “I just feel like he’s going to be better suited playing huge minutes for Wilkes-Barre and being a hugely reliable player for Wilkes-Barre, especially considering the time missed last season, than he would be as the 12th of 13 forward here and playing center there and playing it well. So I think that if Sam just keeps on stacking up the days and weeks he has early here in September through October, he’s going to push himself to earn his way back on. So, can I see him spending significant time in the NHL this year? Absolutely.”
Perhaps that time in the NHL should be now. The potential of losing Shea or Ludvig on waivers should be a secondary concern to constructing the best NHL roster. And it’s only a potential loss, far from a guarantee.
Poulin’s battle with personal issues cost him most of last season. However, Poulin showed well, beginning with the Prospect Challenge in Buffalo and in training camp. He doesn’t project as a prime scoring threat in the Penguins’, or any team’s, top-six, but his improved skating and ability to play a heavy game solidly project him as a third- or fourth-line center.
Carter will remain a lightning rod for criticism, and his lineup status will remain a constant debate amongst the paying public. That part is irrelevant to the internal conversations, but what should be relevant is the potential to improve the depth and performance of the playing roster. In this case, the numbers and the eyes align.
A fourth line of Nieto-Poulin-Acciari seems like it could be a significant improvement.
It’s been a good climb for Poulin, but circumstance is now holding him back. Well, circumstance and eight defensemen.