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Carter Rowney has chance to move up the Penguins depth chart after centers leave via free agency

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, 6:12 p.m.
Penguins right wing Carter Rowney (37) and Vancouver's Jayson Megna battle for the puck during a Feb. 14 game.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Penguins right wing Carter Rowney (37) and Vancouver's Jayson Megna battle for the puck during a Feb. 14 game.
Penguins right wing Carter Rowney (37) navigates traffic behind the net against the Predators in the second period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Thursday, June 8, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins right wing Carter Rowney (37) navigates traffic behind the net against the Predators in the second period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Thursday, June 8, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

Carter Rowney was one of the most-talked-about Penguins players during the offseason, but not because of anything he did.

Rowney had a parade thrown in his honor in his hometown of Sexsmith, Alberta. He played dad to his new son, Anders, who he proudly reports is already sleeping through the night like a champ. A nice summer, no doubt, but nothing particularly buzzworthy.

Rowney found his name on the lips of Penguins fans because of the moves the organization did not make. As centers left via free agency — first Nick Bonino to Nashville, then Matt Cullen to Minnesota — Rowney slowly climbed the depth chart.

General manager Jim Rutherford has said steadfastly all summer that he plans to acquire a third-line center at some point, but unless and until that happens, Rowney will be in a prominent spot for the two-time defending champs.

He kept his eye on the transaction wire all summer. He knows what he's walking into.

“You pay attention to your surroundings. It's your organization,” Rowney said. “But at the end of the day, you have to just come in and be confident in your own game and worry about yourself. Have a good summer no matter what and try to improve the things you know you have to improve on.”

In a 27-game NHL trial as a 27-year-old rookie last season, Rowney showed there are parts of his game that need improvement. At even strength, based on shot stats, his line was generally neither dominant nor dominated. On the penalty kill, he excelled.

It was a small sample size for sure, only 28 short-handed minutes, but when Rowney was on the ice on the penalty kill, the Penguins gave up only one goal. By way of comparison, Bryan Rust saw five goals scored in 43 short-handed minutes. Eric Fehr was on the ice for 13 goals allowed in 94 minutes on the penalty kill.

In other words, when it comes to being responsible, Rowney already has a pretty solid foundation. The key, of course, is building on that.

“That's always the goal,” Rowney said. “You want to improve in those areas while staying strong in the areas that got you there.”

If Rowney is going to make a case for third-line center duty, he's going to have to improve his offensive production. He had three goals and four assists last season.

For the better part of the last decade, the Penguins have been spoiled when it comes to offensive production from their third-line center. Bonino averaged 13 goals and 33 points in his two seasons in the spot. Brandon Sutter averaged 15 goals and 26 points in his three seasons filling the role. Before that, Jordan Staal was a perennial 20-goal, 40-point man.

Rowney is confident he can approach those numbers, given the opportunity. After all, that's what he did in the AHL before graduating to the Penguins.

When he came into Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as an undrafted rookie out of North Dakota in 2013, he did the dirty work on the bottom two lines. By his third pro season in 2015-16, he was leading the Baby Pens in scoring and was Jake Guentzel's first center when the burgeoning star came out of Nebraska-Omaha.

“I think I can definitely open up a little bit, just getting used to the league and focusing on certain areas of my game,” Rowney said. “Being more comfortable in the locker room and being more comfortable with the game and how it's played helps. I think there's room to improve.”

Note: Jordy Bellerive, an undrafted 18-year-old tryout, continued to make a name for himself at the Buffalo prospect tournament Saturday, recording a hat trick as the Penguins beat New Jersey, 6-2. Bellerive, who had 27 goals for Lethbridge of the WHL last season, also scored in the tournament opener Friday. Daniel Sprong, Teddy Blueger and Thomas Di Pauli added goals for the Penguins, who play Buffalo's prospects on Monday night.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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