The third line center role has been a black hole for the Pittsburgh Penguins since GM Jim Rutherford, and head coach Mike Sullivan hoped to get fresher legs following the 2017 season. The Penguins had just won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups, and third-line pivot Nick Bonino was allowed to pursue greener pastures via free agency. Three seasons later, no Penguins trade has been able to fill.
In reality, it was a good move for both player and team. Bonino had weary legs, but the Nashville Predators served up a four-year, $16.4 million contract.
Bonino had a dip in 2017-18 but has otherwise maintained career norms by producing point totals in the mid-30s. What Bonino did well for the Pittsburgh Penguins was to provide a defensive shutdown presence, win defensive zone faceoffs, kill penalties, and distribute the puck to more gifted players Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin.
Rutherford’s inability to fill the third-line center role has been both costly on the ice and extremely costly in terms of trying to acquire the next third-line center. Every Penguins trade has forced another, as the Penguins hole got deeper.
Third lines centers came and went: Greg McKegg, Riley Sheahan, Derrick Brassard, Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, then Jared McCann during Bjugstad’s extended injury absences. Only McCann remains.
McCann has a full toolbox but hasn’t yet learned to use all of the tools. After six seasons, it’s less likely McCann ever will. He has shown more promise to be a productive winger than a 40-point center.
With the Penguins trade of (presumably) Matt Murray pending, Rutherford will likely need to hit the free-agent market. It’s a thin crop, but there are a few options if Rutherford can clear enough money dish a contract in October.
As a requirement to fill the role, the center must be able to score 30+ points, be defensively responsible, killing penalties is a huge plus but not officially required. Another big plus will be a willingness to be the Penguins third-line center, but the essential factor will be affordability. Let’s assume $3-$4 million.
There are slim pickin’s. We excluded Sam Gagner from the list. Gagner has real offensive skills but is not a penalty killer anymore, nor has he primarily been a center over the past few years.
We also omitted Mikael Granlund. Despite scoring only 30 points for Nashville this season, Granlund is traditionally a 60-point scorer on a $5.75 million AAV deal. Granlund will not fall into the Penguins’ third-line center price range unless the Penguins make more significant salary dumps.
In no specific order:
UPDATED: Potential Pittsburgh Penguins Third Line Centers
Speed and playmaking ability. Haula has been on the cusp on breaking into the top six, but ultimately settled into a third-line center role with Florida, Carolina, and Vegas.
Haula kills penalties, too. His $2.75 million salary will likely go up. He scored 24 points (12g, 12a) in 48 games and his reputation is outpacing his current station, in a similar arc to J-G Pageau.
Haula won 56% of his faceoffs this season and if the Penguins get to dabble in the market, he should be their top choice. However, Haula could well command north of $4 million, and it’s hard to see the Penguins being able to compete at that financial level. If the collapsed market keeps his salary in check, Rutherford should pounce.
In the past, Rutherford has been linked to Soderberg. The 34-year-old Swedish center is a vacuum in the defensive zone and earned a few Selke votes last season. Soderberg is a consistent 35-point scorer who scored 35 points this season with a dreadfully low scoring Arizona team and popped a career-high 49 points last season with Colorado.
The downside is he hasn’t won more than 46% of his faceoffs in three seasons and has won more than 50% of his faceoffs only once in his seven-year NHL career.
Soderberg’s consistency and stable production will keep his price tag near his current $4.75 million price tag, though he should be in line for a small pay decrease with the flat cap.
The 29-year-old pivot is a high-motor, energy center who could inject some spark in the Penguins bottom six. Eakin is similar to Brandon Tanev, in good ways and bad, though Eakin isn’t as physical.
Eakin does take some bad penalties, but he also scored big goals on the Vegas Stanley Cup pursuits. He slumped to 15 points (5g, 10a) in 49 games this season, but he had a career-high 22 goals and 41 points last season. He split this season between Vegas and Winnipeg and will test the free-agent market next month.
Eakin made $3.85 million this season and could be an affordable spark plug for a stayed team like the Penguins.
Spezza is in decline. This season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, his production fell to 25 points in 58 games and he played for just $700,00. There is talk he will walk away.
However, that was also Jason Spezza, the former offensively gifted top-line center, who dropped his gloves in the Qualifying Round to spark his team.
Toronto trailed 2-0 in Game 4. If they lost, it was over. After Spezza’s fight, they rallied to win with a furious third period comeback, and Toronto forced Game 5 before losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Give me that guy on my team.
Spezza’s speed was never blazing, and it’s OK at best. However, he still knows how to dish the puck and later in his career, he learned to play defense. He also has a 53.1% career faceoff percentage, including 54% this season and 58% last season.
A playmaking center with heart on a budget contract. The internet intelligencia would crow, “Jim Rutherford thinks it’s 2015,” but the Pittsburgh Penguins could do worse if Spezza has another go in him.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins dig deep into the center free-agent market for a fourth-line player like Thomas Nosek. In such a case, Teddy Blueger would be elevated to third-line center, and the Penguins would use a good faceoff man and skater for the fourth-line job.
We like Carl Soderberg if the price is right, but not at a salary above $4 million. Eakin could be a great fit. His tenacity is what the Penguins want, and need. Eakin’s salary could elevate to the $3.5 million range, and if the Penguins are serious about filling the role with championship-level talent, that must be an acceptable number.
There’s also something attractive about Spezza on the barren market. It’s not nostalgia as much as leadership and desire. He wanted to win a Qualifying Round so badly he dropped the gloves for just the seventh time in his career. He took minimum money to play with his hometown team but maybe a team just over four hours away could convince him they need his desperation for a Stanley Cup?