Carter Rowney may be 28 years old and a Stanley Cup winner, but he will be entering the 2017-18 season as a rookie. That’s because his 27 regular season games played in the 2016-17 season are just under the league minimum (32 games) to count as a full season.
Despite Rowney only playing a portion of the regular season, he was present for the majority of a successful postseason run, appearing in 20 of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 25 playoff games. Although his first NHL game ever was on January 31, he quickly established himself as a key depth player for a Penguins roster that at that time found itself utterly depleted by injury.
Rowney may have begun the 2016-17 season in the AHL, but he will almost certainly be in the starting lineup for the Penguins come October 4. That’s because with Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen gone, Rowney has established himself in a fairly crucial role on the team— he’s the only center on the roster other than the two stars of the team, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins’ Search for Centers
The Penguins need a third-line center. You know it. I know it. Anyone who’s glanced at their current roster knows it. But General Manager Jim Rutherford has indicated that he might wait until the start of the season to make moves for that necessary piece of the lineup.
Last year’s lineup was centered around Crosby, Malkin, Bonino and Cullen. With the latter two gone (both leaving in free agency) the Penguins are in dire need of centers.
Jake Guentzel is one option. He played center in the minor leagues, but given the success he found on Crosby’s wing — he scored on his first shot in his first NHL game and didn’t really slow down from there — it seems unlikely that Guentzel would be shunted down to the third line. That means that there are most likely two center spots open, with Rowney’s name on one of them.
Coach listed Rowney and Guentzel as potential options at center, and added that there are a number of other options in the organization.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) August 17, 2017
Carter Rowney’s Growth
Rowney becoming a regular fixture in the lineup has been a possibility for a while. Once he started proving he could act as a reliable fourth-line center and Matt Cullen started waffling about retirement, it seemed like a definite possibility he could step up to fill Cullen’s shoes.
But now Cullen’s gone (not retirement, but signing with a different team) and, additionally, so is Bonino. This dearth of centers is almost certainly Rowney’s chance to get his first season as an NHL starter.
Last season, Cullen saw about 14 minutes of ice time per game and won 51.2% of his face-offs. In his 27 regular season games that same season, Rowney averaged around 10 minutes per game and won 48% of his face-offs. That made Rowney one of the best face-off men on the team, even with the limited draws he took that season. For reference, both Bonino and Crosby ended the season with about the same level of success on face-offs, although of course at a much higher volume of draws.
Rowney’s average ice time will almost certainly go up next season. Hopefully, with time and experience, so will his face-off percentage. Cullen was the Penguins’ most reliable face-off man. If Rowney can up his success rate next season, he will be a huge part in softening the blow of losing Cullen.
Rowney in 2017-18
Rowney showed a lot of promise in early 2017. He’s a tenacious bottom-six player who isn’t afraid to hit, who can take face-offs, and who’s pretty good in possession metrics (he grit his way to a 49.2% Corsi For percentage, meaning the Penguins controlled the puck about as much as the other team when he was on the ice). That’s pretty good for a team that was struggling fiercely with possession.
The loss of Cullen and Bonino and the Penguins’ sudden, undeniable need for a center means we will be seeing a lot more of him this fall.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.