Primeau filling important role with team
Being a third-line center in the NHL isn’t the most glamorous job in the world.
You don’t get much credit for doing the dirty work, like bouncing yourself off the other team’s top lines every night. As important as it is to win a defensive draw late in the game, it won’t be a highlight on ESPN.
Wayne Primeau’s jersey doesn’t fly off the shelves, and his mug won’t be featured on a bobblehead doll.
But guys like Primeau, the Penguins’ third-line center, are necessary for a team to be successful. The most goals he has ever scored in his first five seasons was nine. Injuries have shortened several seasons for the 26-year-old and hurt his growth as a player. Even though Primeau’s scoring touch leaves something to be desired, role-players are a vital part of any good team.
“Defensemen today in the NHL are so big, and (Primeau’s) a big guy, and he’s strong on the puck,” coach Rick Kehoe said. “Sometimes, you need a guy to wear down defensemen on the other team, and he can do that for us. Plus, he’s killing penalties, and he’s a key face-off guy for us.”
So far this year, The 6-foot-3, 200-pound center is fifth among Penguins forwards in ice time, averaging 16 minutes and 28 seconds per game. His face-off percentage has fluctuated, going from winning six of 13 against Tampa Bay on Saturday, to 16 of 24 against Montreal on Monday.
But the Penguins’ penalty killing has jumped from just 75 percent before Saturday’s game to 81.5 percent overall.
Primeau’s biggest problem has been with injuries. He’s had a separated shoulder, an MCL sprain, a fractured heel, a hip injury, neck spasms and hockey’s version of the common cold — groin worries. But last season in Chicago, Primeau knew something was very wrong.
“I kind of collided with someone else and tried to plant myself, and my skate got caught in a rut and snapped my knee,” Primeau said. “I knew it wasn’t good, because I’d strained my MCL before, and it never felt like that.”
That injury Jan. 6 of last year meant reconstructive-knee surgery and the end of his season. The timing could not have been worse for him or the team. The Penguins doctors and trainers were already the busiest people in the organization. Martin Straka had a broken leg, Mario Lemieux was having hip problems, Ian Moran had just come back from a broken foot, and Aleksey Morozov had a bruised shoulder, to name a few of the team’s walking wounded.
Meanwhile, Primeau was with his third NHL team in five full seasons in the league after being traded from Tampa Bay for Matthew Barnaby on Feb. 1, 2001. But after missing the first eight games of the year recovering from a broken foot, he was averaging 12:38 per game and was making strides with the Penguins.
“Last year, he was starting to come along,” coach Rick Kehoe said. “Last season before the injury, he was probably playing the best hockey of his career.”
It took a long rehab (which Primeau said he wouldn’t wish on anyone) to get his knee back in shape, and he also spent time over the summer in California in a training program. Primeau said he hasn’t had any side effects from the knee surgery, and overall, hasn’t felt better since coming into the league.
This season, he’s centering the third line with Ville Nieminen and Dan LaCouture. The line has scored only one even-strength goal in six games, and that’s the one problem that seems to be universally pointed out with the Penguins. The team can’t afford to rely on Lemieux’s line to score every goal every night, even though with Lemieux that seems possible. In order to have long-term success, they need their second and third lines chipping in on the scoreboard.
Primeau believes it’s just a matter of time.
“We know that we just have to go out there and play well defensively, and when we do that we’re going to be able to create chances offensively,” Primeau said. “We’re all big guys and we’re able to get the puck in and control it down deep, we’ve just got to start believing in ourselves that we can score.”
Karen Price is a former freelancer.