Penguins Center Situation Remains Murky

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had depth issues across the lineup for years. One position that they have needed to fill for quite some time is their fourth line center, and really a third line center. But don’t the Penguins have Brandon Sutter on the roster? Yes they do, for now.

General manager Jim Rutherford has publicly stated that he likes Sutter’s play. While I don’t agree with Rutherford’s infatuation with his current third line center, he should start the season in that spot, but will he end the season there? It’s very likely that Sutter will not end the 2015-16 season as a member of the Penguins. Here’s what Elliotte Friedman reported in an instalment of his 30 Thoughts column.

17. Rutherford on Brandon Sutter: “I’m not planning to move him. I like him. We have 10 guys who can play in our top nine — including Beau Bennett. But, we are up against the cap pretty good, so we’ll have to do something.” I’d heard Chicago likes Sutter, but with Artem Anisimov ensconced, there doesn’t seem to be a fit.

However, Rutherford is beginning to tell certain people different stories. Friedman reports that Rutherford is not planning on moving him and that he likes him, but consider what Rutherford told 93.7 The Fan Pittsburgh during an on air interview.

I like Brandon Sutter I mean, after all, I traded him to Pittsburgh to get Jordan Staal. Teams have been calling about Sutter, but I’m not actively shopping him. But we also realize the reality of our situation, we’re up against the cap. He’s going to be a free agent this coming offseason and we don’t want to lose him for no return.

Sutter is going to be an unrestricted free agent during this coming offseason, and like all players, he will be looking for a raise. Personally, I think that his current salary is too high, but during NHL free agency, teams love to throw millions of dollars at players who are not worth it. If Sutter remains with the Penguins past the trade deadline, they will lose him for no return and that’s the last thing the franchise can afford to do right now.

Where Do The Penguins Stand?

At the time of writing, the Penguins have three centers on their NHL payroll and it’s not a surprise who they are. It’s Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter. That’s it, they don’t have a fourth-line center on the roster. The heir apparent to Sutter, according to many sources, is their 2012 third-round draft choice, Oskar Sundqvist. However, he is missing the Penguins development camp with an injury and this certainly does not help the Penguins’ talent evaluation.

Sundqvist projects to be their next third-line center and it really would have helped to have him in development camp. Not so he could improve his skills, but so the Penguins could see what they had in Sundqvist and how ready he actually was. He’s a big body, a capable defensive center and, most importantly, has young and fresh legs. However, there is great uncertainty if he can actually make the jump to the NHL in his first full season playing in North America.

The Ideal Situation

The Penguins are banking on Sundqvist being NHL ready and there’s no other way of putting it. They have not pursued a fourth-line center in free agency and might not until training camp. It’s Sundqvist’s job to lose and that’s why his absence from on-ice workouts at development camp are such a hindrance. Teams will continue to sign free agents between now and training camp and that means the pool of potential fourth-line centers should continue to shrink and limit the Penguins options.

In a perfect world, Sundqvist proves he is NHL-ready at training camp and takes over the bottom line and plays a ton of minutes on the penalty kill. Then at the trade deadline the Penguins are able to move Sutter and Sundqvist takes his spot. But then there is a void on the Penguins’ bottom line and they’d have to make a trade, or modify the potential Sutter trade, to return a center to Pittsburgh.

Again, all of this is hinging on Sundqvist and his NHL readiness, is he ready? No one, not even Penguins’ management, knows, and if he is not ready their entire plan for the 2015-16 season will have to be modified. That could mean they lose Sutter for no return at the end of the season if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup.