Centers, centers everywhere as Penguins open training camp
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been the driving force behind the Penguins attack for more than a decade.
When all is said and done, they’ll probably be considered the greatest 1-2 center punch in NHL history.
And last year at this time, in one very important sense, they were alone.
When the Penguins opened training camp last season, Crosby and Malkin were, for most intents and purposes, the only bona fide NHL centers on the roster.
There was Carter Rowney, who came in with 27 games of NHL experience. There was Greg McKegg, a journeyman who had played 65 games in the league with three teams. There was Jay McClement, a 34-year-old training camp tryout who ended up failing to make the team and playing in Switzerland.
That was it.
This season, it’s a different story. In a 180-degree philosophical shift, the Penguins have loaded up on centers in the past 11 months.
They traded for Riley Sheahan in October and re-signed him in June. They picked up Derick Brassard in a big trade-deadline move in February. They brought back popular veteran Matt Cullen in a feel-good signing hours after the free-agent signing period opened in July, then inked capable bottom-six performer Derek Grant later in the month when he slipped through the cracks in the market. On top of that, prospect Teddy Blueger is more or less ready to graduate from the AHL.
When camp opens Friday morning, the locker rooms at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry literally will be crawling with no fewer than seven NHL-caliber centers.
Don’t think Crosby hasn’t noticed.
“We got a lot of them,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. It’s nice to have that. Whether it’s faceoffs or penalty kill or things like that, it’s good to have a lot of centers.”
Stockpiling centers wasn’t necessarily a primary goal for general manager Jim Rutherford as he tweaked the team’s roster in the offseason. In a six-game second-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals, the Penguins didn’t get a single even-strength goal from a forward not named Crosby, Jake Guentzel or Patric Hornqvist.
Rutherford’s quest was to add forward depth and balance. The fact the depth players he added play center was pretty much a coincidence.
Not that it doesn’t have its benefits.
Mostly because of the defensive responsibilities involved — centers usually do the hard work down low while wingers have the relatively simple assignment of marking the opponent’s point men — centers generally can switch to the wing much more easily than the inverse.
That creates flexibility for coach Mike Sullivan. Based on score and situation, he’ll be able to craft all sorts of line combinations on the fly.
The depth also will help when injuries hit. In the recent past, there were times when Crosby or Malkin going down would have crippled the Penguins. Now, for a short time anyway, they are better equipped to weather such a storm.
“Having the option and the flexibility to move guys into different positions as you go through the season, whether it’s because of the ups and downs with your team or injuries or any matchup problems that you may face, I think it’s a positive,” Cullen said.
The only downside is it won’t necessarily be easy for Sullivan to make all the puzzle pieces fit together.
Do the Penguins bolster their top two lines by bumping Brassard up to a wing spot alongside Crosby and Malkin, even if it weakens their three-line attack? Sheahan, Cullen and Grant are solid, two-way performers when they play in the middle, but can they be as effective on the wing?
As long as none of the centers perceive a move to the wing as a demotion and the team’s forward lines find chemistry, the puzzle-piece problem should work itself out before the Oct. 4 season opener against Washington.
Cullen said he doesn’t anticipate any issues.
“I don’t think so, and the way that we play, I don’t see it like that at all,” he said. “We’ve had guys move from center to wing quite a bit in the past. I think we all see that’s going to happen quite a bit this year. I think we’re all comfortable with it.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.