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Penguins training camp preview Part 3: Lack of center doesn't worry Mike Sullivan

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, 6:45 p.m.
Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan holds the Stanley Cup after exiting the team's airplane at Pittsburgh International Airport on Monday, June 12, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan holds the Stanley Cup after exiting the team's airplane at Pittsburgh International Airport on Monday, June 12, 2017.
The Penguins' Patric Hornqvist scores past Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak during the first period Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at PPG Paints Arena.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Patric Hornqvist scores past Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak during the first period Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Justin Schultz beats the Panthers' Jonathan Huberdeau to the puck in the first period Sunday, March 19, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Justin Schultz beats the Panthers' Jonathan Huberdeau to the puck in the first period Sunday, March 19, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan engaged with players during game seven agains the Capitals May 10, 2017 at the Verizon Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan engaged with players during game seven agains the Capitals May 10, 2017 at the Verizon Center.
Penguins right wing Carter Rowney (37) fends off Blue Jackets right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand (28) in the first period of the second game of the first round on Friday April 14, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins right wing Carter Rowney (37) fends off Blue Jackets right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand (28) in the first period of the second game of the first round on Friday April 14, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

It's fun to imagine a scene from a fictional Penguins lunchroom where Jim Rutherford blissfully eats a sandwich while Mike Sullivan loudly drums his fingers on the table, waiting impatiently for the general manager to trade for the third-line center the coach has been begging for since July.

Even if there were such a setting, that's not how the scene would go.

Sullivan never has denied the idea the Penguins probably are going to need to add a third-line center at some point now that Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen are gone. He just has faith in Rutherford's timeline to make such an acquisition happen.

“What I've always admired about Jim is he understands when a move needs to be made, and he's proactive and he pursues it,” Sullivan said at the team's annual golf tournament Tuesday. “He also has an element of patience to him that he's not going to go out and get a guy just for the sake of getting a guy.

“If we're going to add a player to our team, it has to be the right fit. It has to be the right type of player that's going to be complementary to the group that we have. Jim's got a great handle on our team and where it's at. We believe in him.”

Here's a look at four issues Sullivan is facing as training camp opens Friday.

That pesky third-line center

The issue: If Rutherford continues to exercise patience, Sullivan will have to slot someone into his third-line center spot.

Possible answers: Sullivan could jury-rig a solution using some combination of Carter Rowney, tryout Jay McClement, rookie Teddy Blueger and maybe winger Jake Guentzel. “We don't have a perfect hockey team by any stretch, but we've got a real good hockey team, and we've got a competitive team,” Sullivan said. “We believe in the group we have. We're going to work with the people that we have to do our best.”

Top line talk

The question: Does Sullivan keep the “Sid and the Kids” combo of Sidney Crosby, Guentzel and Conor Sheary together?

Possible answers: Sullivan could stick with the trio and live with the fact it tends to create and allow a lot of scoring chances. He also could swap in Patric Hornqvist for Sheary. He probably will try both approaches.

Managing fatigue

The issue: Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Penguins played 213 games over the past two seasons. Keeping his team fresh for the long haul is perhaps Sullivan's biggest challenge.

Possible answers: Sullivan could convince his star players to take an occasional breather, call up fresh legs from the AHL at key points or ask his group to continue to gut it out. He doesn't seem too worried about it. “This group of players have been through so many experiences and provided all kinds of evidence that they're capable,” Sullivan said.

Quarterback controversy

The question: Does Kris Letang get all the minutes quarterbacking the top power-play unit? Justin Schultz was pretty good there in his absence last season.

Possible answers: Letang's career accomplishments have earned him the spot, but over the course of a long season, Sullivan will have opportunities to give Schultz a look.

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

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