The Pittsburgh Penguins triumphed three times in the Stanley Cup playoffs during then Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era, and the two already legendary centers played pivotal roles in all of those runs.
However, to have the opportunity to be written down in history by winning the Holy Grail of hockey, it takes more than just two stars, no matter how good, at the top of their game.
To be specific, it takes a well-working team of players that complement each other. Be it the goalie, the defense corps, or the attackers, all the pieces have to fit in just right. The Penguins managed to put the team together like that back in the 2008-09 season and then again in both 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The implied question here stands, what do these rosters have in common? In all of those instances, the Penguins could have always relied on a sound two-way third-line center. When Crosby lifted the Cup for the first time, he did so along with a former second overall pick in the 2006 draft, Jordan Staal. Then some years later, the team had the miraculous HBK line led by Nick Bonino.
The Penguins’ core is getting old and the so-called Cup window might not be open for much longer. So far, general manager Jim Rutherford filled the bottom-six center hole left by the departure of Nick Bjugstad by bringing in Mark Jankowski in free agency. And to say the least, it is uncertain if No. 77 can handle the responsibilities of a third-line center.
Nevertheless, there is a way to give the team more stability coming into the 2021 season. Erik Haula has yet to sign a contract with an NHL organization and according to the latest rumors, the Penguins seem to be interested in the speedy center.
Who is Erik Haula?
In the draft following the Penguins‘ 2009 Stanley Cup championship run, a young Finnish player was selected in the seventh round, 182nd overall, by the Minnesota Wild. And the former general manager of the organization, Chuck Fletcher, gave that player – Haula – a lot of time to develop. No. 56 had to go through one season in the USHL and three seasons in the NCAA before making a pro hockey roster. He had a superb start to the 2013-14 season in the AHL with the Iowa Wild, scoring at almost a point-per-game pace.
Haula then spent the second half of the season with the “big boys“ in the National Hockey League and managed to solidify his spot on the team. In the following three seasons, the six-foot, 194-pounder went through ups and downs but was ultimately never given a proper opportunity. as he only rarely got to play on the second line. On the other hand, he got a lot of time on the penalty kill and had proved himself as a reliable defensive-minded forward.
In short, Haula would be the Penguins’ most prolific third-line center since young Jordan Staal and could remake the bottom half of the Penguins lineup. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a stacked top-six, which now includes six recent 20-goal scorers for the first time in recent memory, or perhaps for the first time in the Sidney Crosby era.Dan Kingerski
The tides shifted when the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft shook the relatively still waters of the league. In exchange for selecting Haula, the Knights received prospect Alex Tuch. In the brand-new organization, the team needed the until-then not so well-known players to step up. And the flashy forward, along with others, managed to exceed the expectations.
Haula’s average time-on-ice jumped up from 13:49 in the 2016-17 season to 17:22 and he secured his spot on the power-play, scoring 12 goals on the man advantage. Overall, the Finn eventually revealed the world his true potential, wrapping up the regular season with 29 goals and 26 assists in 76 games. A misfortune then struck in the 2018-19 season, when Haula hurt his knee and only skated in 15 games. And despite scoring only two goals during that span, he elevated his overall game, putting his versatility on display, tipping over the incredible 60 percent plateau in both Corsi and Fenwick.
After getting traded to the Carolina Hurricanes, Haula was given the nickname “Bo-time”, because the Canes were giving out free BoBerry biscuits after scoring a power-play goal. Concluding the 2019-20 season with the Florida Panthers, he has been lingering on the free market since.
No Cap Space Left
The Penguins currently only have just a little over $1.3 million in cap space. On his last contract, Haula carried an AAV of $2.75 through three years, although he signed that deal before the breakthrough season. Thus, the question is, could Rutherford make it work?
I also think that since Haula has missed the initial wave in free agency, it’s not a bad thing to be patient now and see if teams who currently can’t sign him perhaps make a trade over the next few weeks or months and create an opening.Pierre LeBrun (from ‘LeBrun: Erik Haula has interest, but finding a contract fit might be tricky,’ The Athletic, 10/19/2020)
Realistically, we can expect Haula to seek a multi-year deal with AAV just over $3 million. Unfortunately for the Penguins‘ fans, getting rid of around $2 million in cap space seems like a task a little too difficult at this point. The first player that comes to mind when talking about a possible cap-dump trade is Colton Sceviour. However, his $1.2 million cap hit alone would not be enough. Trading one of the bottom-six forwards along with Sceviour might suffice, but in such case, the Penguins would be missing an attacker and whether or not Samuel Poulin is ready to take on that role is unknown.
The Penguins, led by Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, may have one of the very last shots at winning the Stanley Cup in the 2020-21 season. And what the team seems to be missing since the departure of Bonino is a two-way center, who is reliable in all areas of the game. One such forward is currently at Rutherford’s fingertips on the free market, waiting for the right offer. The window is closing up and the Penguins‘ general manager should not hesitate for too long.