Bottom-six forwards Greg McKegg, Carter Rowney central figures for Penguins
CHICAGO — The forwards on the bottom two lines are often some of the most anonymous players on a hockey team's roster.
They usually avoid headlines, quietly doing the dirty work defensive forwards and penalty killers are asked to do.
That dynamic is a little different with the Penguins this season. Third- and fourth-line centers Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney are definitely the types to focus on the little things that don't always get noticed, but, for a couple of reasons, they're going to be in the spotlight anyway.
First, they're replacing Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, key cogs in back-to-back Penguins championships, so the standards for the positions they play are high.
Second, the moment the team or their lines start to struggle, some will call for general manager Jim Rutherford to pull the trigger on a long-awaited deal for a third-line center.
It's a bit of an odd spot for players with a total of 94 NHL games of experience between them to be in, but here they are.
“Whatever the team needs,” Rowney shrugged. “For me, I just want to go out there, play my game, leave everything on the table and help the team win.”
While coach Mike Sullivan obviously is aware of the experience drop-off in the position — Bonino and Cullen had combined to play 1,621 NHL game on opening night last year — he said he has no intention of babying McKegg and Rowney.
“They're in the lineup because these guys are deserving to be in the lineup, and we believe in these guys,” Sullivan said. “We're going to try to cast certain guys in certain roles that we think play to their strengths and help this team win.”
For McKegg, that means centering the third line and playing extensively on special teams, both as a penalty killer and on the second power-play unit.
“Last year, I definitely had a limited role,” said McKegg, who split last season between Florida and Tampa Bay. “But I've done it before. In the AHL, I've done both. You just try to draw on those experiences. It's a different level up here, obviously, but I've been learning a lot from the coaching staffs. They've been great working with me.”
Aside from showing off his speed and playing a responsible game, the easiest way for McKegg to stay on the good side of the coaching staff will be to succeed in the faceoff circle. A 48 percent faceoff man in his NHL career, he was extremely impressive in the opener Wednesday night, winning 13 of 17 draws.
“That's a crucial part of the game,” McKegg said. “That's something that I would obviously take great pride in.”
For Rowney, the most important role he can play is as a physical presence on the fourth line.
Over the past two seasons, the Penguins haven't played a particularly heavy game on their fourth line. With the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Rowney centering heavyweight Ryan Reaves and dedicated forechecker Scott Wilson, that figures to change this season.
They probably won't put up the points a Cullen-centered line did, and they likely won't please the analytics crowd, so they'll have to make an obvious physical impact to avoid criticism.
It's a role Rowney might thrive in. After all, he was second in the league with 80 postseason hits last year.
“That it is something I tried to bring to the team,” Rowney said. “I tried to bring a physical presence in the playoffs. It was something I took pride in.”