2014 NHL Trade Deadline: Time for the Penguins to Build a Third Line (Tuesday Slew)

Brandon Sutter is a man alone. Time to get him some help. - Alex Trautwig

The Penguins are a dramatically top-heavy team, a blueprint employed by exactly zero recent Stanley Cup winners.

Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Ottawa Senators at CONSOL Energy Center. Citing a concern for his team's energy level to start the game, head coach Dan Bylsma trotted out Brandon Sutter and the rest of whatever constituted the team's third line that day, hoping to start the game on an energetic note.

Sutter, the centerpiece of the blockbuster Carolina trade and the man who replaced former second-overall pick Jordan Staal as the team's third-line center, was flanked by wingers Taylor Pyatt and Tanner Glass.

Whether or not the Penguins are squeezed tight against the salary cap ceiling (and boy are they ever), that's no way to enter a postseason.

The Penguins have a number of problem areas to address. Sidney Crosby lost his regular right-winger, leaving the team down one top-six forward. Marc-Andre Fleury's backup is a rookie. The team has lapsed defensively over the last few weeks as they struggle to find balance and chemistry in what is beginning to resemble a healthy lineup.

All of that pales to the abominable production coming from the team's bottom-six forwards.

While the Pens have traditionally been active at the trade deadline, addressing that need from outside the organization this season is nigh impossible. Pittsburgh's current cap situation alone (just over $500,000 in non-LTIR cap space) is enough to make trading for help along the third line wings another miracle of salary cap navigation.

Combine that with a trade market that currently sees only five teams more than 10 points out of playoff position, as well as the chaos of the post-Olympic roster thaw (teams have just ten days between the post-Olympic roster freeze and the March 5 NHL Trade Deadline to make moves), and adding anything of significance starts to look very much impossible.

So, how do the Penguins hope to shake up bottom six, if at all?

The problems don't lie with Sutter, whose production has been uneven at times. Sutter, for his part, has been a respectable piece of the Penguins lineup. He's a prominent figure on the league's best penalty kill, and his fancy stats reveal what he's really bringing to the team.

To wit,

  • No Penguins skater has a better on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5 play this season: 93.6 percent of even-strength shots taken against the Penguins while Sutter is on the ice don't find the back of the net.
  • That looks all the more impressive when considering no Penguins skater not named Craig Adams has started a higher percentage of faceoffs in his defensive zone (59.8 percent for Adams, 56.1 percent for Sutter).
  • His shooting percentage (10.1 percent as of Monday afternoon) is sixth-best out of Penguins skaters to have played at least 40 games, and his 20 points are good for 10th place on the team. However, his on-ice shooting percentage, which adds in the shooting percentages of his wingers and defensemen, is a measly 7.00 percent. Suffice to say, he's had less than no help in trying to put the puck in the net.
To be sure, injuries have played their part in Sutter's offensive troubles. For a time this season, this team featured as many as three rookies or AHL regulars in the top-six alone. Among them, only Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen have avoided troubles with injury or suspensions. That means Sutter's would-be regular wingers, had they stayed healthy to begin with, would have spent a good deal of time promoted to the top-six.

In Sutter, the Penguins at least have a real center around which to build the rest of the third line.

As for the rest of that line?

The easy answer is to build from within. Pittsburgh has a number of forward prospects and more veteran AHL players who have shown themselves capable of keeping up with the NHL lineup. Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna have wheels like few others on the team, and have shown flashes of what could be along the top two lines. Andrew Ebbett, Harry Zolnierczyk and Zach Sill also played well in energy roles in their time with the Pens.

Barring a trade that would shake up the roster as currently constructed, Beau Bennett is going to be Sidney Crosby's right winger when he returns to the lineup. That leaves Megna, Gibbons, Ebbett and Zolnierczyk as speedy, handsy options to help Sutter find some offense in five-on-five situations.

They may lack experience, but they've shown speed and glimpses of stickhandling skill that far outweigh some of the more veteran wingers Sutter has carried this season.

If the team wants to trade for third line wingers, options are out there -- but they have to come cheap.

As mentioned previously, this team is simply strapped for cap space. The salary cap ceiling fell to $64.3 million this season, down from last year's $70.2 million total. That reduction made it tough to field a team to start the year, and new deals for Pascal Dupuis and Rob Scuderi hardly simplified the problem.

While the team completed a number of deals last summer that are going to look like larceny in a few years (the cap is expected to continue its steep annual climb), those deals also guaranteed that this season was going to be a close payroll shave.

According to CapGeek, the Penguins have just $560,000 in year-end cap space. That $560,000 is the remainder of the $4.89 million in long-term injured reserve space from Dupuis and Tomas Vokoun the team has used to build the lineup, but that number can hardly be counted on to add salary. The space afforded by LTIR isn't a reduction of the team's total cap hit, but a temporary amount by which a team can be over the cap ceiling.

So as of right now, the Penguins are counting on the remaining salary on Dupuis's 2014 deal (a $3.75 million AAV) to help bump that total, as well as Vokoun. Dupuis is ostensibly done for the year, and the Pens can bank on the remainder of his salary to provide LTIR relief.

If Vokoun is able to make a decision one way or another on the balance of his season, the Pens might have that money to lean on (although likely not before the March 5 trade deadline), and only if he does not return.

It's possible that the team could bring in a low-cost forward from a team that's out of contention, or nearing it. Florida's Brad Boyes, their current scoring leader, is a veteran presence playing on an expiring contract ($1 million AAV this year). Other low-cost options include Nashville's Gabriel Borque, who's got a year remaining on an RFA contract at just $775,000 this season. The Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils have players who may be available as well. Those teams are on the playoff bubbles of their respective conferences, but may be willing to deal.

The Penguins don't have much cap flexibility, but that doesn't mean they don't have options. And if they're going to address anything this season, the third line is the place to start.

Tuesday Slew is an irregular feature that appears on Tuesdays or days near it throughout the season. Shower James with your praise and adulation on twitster, @Slew_James.

Information from CapGeekBehind the Net and other sources was used for this piece. Stick tap to Mike Colligan for correcting my pass/fail salary cap math.
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