ShareThis Page
Penguins

Centers, centers everywhere as Penguins open training camp

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, 6:51 p.m.
The Penguins’ Derick Brassard celebrates his goal against the Flyers in the first period Sunday, March 25, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Derick Brassard celebrates his goal against the Flyers in the first period Sunday, March 25, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

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 jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me