Time for Pittsburgh to Forget the 3-Center Model (Tuesday Slew)

Justin K. Aller

Pittsburgh won the Cup in 2009 with the three-center model, and four teams without that model have won it since. The top-heavy Penguins need to focus instead on building four viable, NHL-quality lines.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their cast of star players and staff haven't made a Stanley Cup encore since winning it all in 2009. Injuries, bizarre meltdowns and other misfortunes have stunted what was supposed to be the next great NHL dynasty, and in each of the last two playoff years, the Penguins have seen their season end in stunning, stupefying fashion.

That's unacceptable for a franchise that carries as high a set of expectations as exists in hockey, but the Penguins seem to believe they know how to get back to the Finals.

Pittsburgh reportedly went all-in on Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler ahead of last week's NHL Trade Deadline, but fell short of acquiring the player they believe will replace Jordan Staal and return them to their vaunted former "three-center model."

That return to a three-center model worked for the Penguins in two straight postseasons before injuries and other madnesses disrupted their momentum.

According to the Penguins, getting back to that roster model is the way back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

From Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,

[By 2014], Shero wanted badly to add Vancouver center Ryan Kesler before the NHL trade deadline that expired Wednesday. He wanted him so bad that Shero will go after Kesler again at or around the NHL Entry Draft in late-June.

There is a logical reason for Shero's wanderlust with Kesler: He has seen the future of Penguins' Cup runs, and it looks a lot like the early days of his original Big Three.

Four postseasons have come and gone since the Penguins' last championship season. While the Penguins went through only one of those postseasons with the proper three-center model in place, four champions have been crowned in as much time.

Not one of them featured the three-center model Pittsburgh seems to be trying to reanimate.

Perhaps a second iteration of the three-center model would be successful. It's not the only thing that a team needs to go right in order to escape the NHL postseason, but as then-Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice said of the Penguins in 2009, matching up against that strength up the middle was "a nightmare."

However, Pittsburgh was able to carry that model because it was affordable.

If one problem with the three center model is that it doesn't necessarily take one to win the Cup, a more prevalent issue is that used to be economically viable for the Penguins.

Now, it isn't. Let's go CapGeeking.

Evgeni Malkin and Staal were still playing on entry-level contracts during both Cup runs, and Sidney Crosby played his final ELC year in the 2008 season. Up to the 2012 NHL Draft, when Staal departed for Carolina, the three only counted as much as $21.9 million against the salary cap, and only as much in Staal's final year with the Penguins in 2012.

According to the Trib, there's a belief that Kesler and his $5 million cap hit would slot in nicely to the money that would have gone to Staal, had he re-signed in Pittsburgh.

Staal, in June 2012, was offered a 10-year contract worth about $57 million. Had he agreed, the Penguins would have gone into the 2014-15 season with Staal, Crosby and Malkin combining to take up $24 million of the NHL's projected $68 million cap. That is about 35.3 percent.

With Kesler, and his $5 million hit, the Penguins would have about the same percentage (34.3) tied into three high-end centers taking up $23.3 million next season.

The difference between Staal, had he signed, or Kesler, if he is acquired, is $700,000, or the cap hit of checking-line winger Craig Adams.

While that math looks good, it's worth remembering that the Penguins were able to sign a number of key players last offseason largely because Staal left town. Malkin, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis all signed contract extensions last summer that will bring a collective cap raise of $7.05 million over their expiring deals.

Those extensions will carry for at least the next three years, when Dupuis' current deal expires.

Without the money that was saved by dealing Staal, at least one of those players doesn't re-sign in Pittsburgh. They have, and that cap space is gone.

Effectively, that difference between Staal (had he signed) and Kesler (if he is acquired) is already spent.

Here's another way to look at it.

Pittsburgh has just 14 players signed through next season. They are one defenseman and five forwards short of a starting lineup and nine bodies shy of a complete 23-man roster, to say nothing of any further depth. They've also got $55.119 million in cap commitments to the 14 players under contract.

Forget about the projected $71.1 million cap that's been talked about -- according to Kings GM Dean Lombardi, that number is going to be closer to $68 million (thanks, Canada). Assuming there are no roster-shaking trades or other interruptions, that's about $13 million to sign nine players, six of whom figure to be forwards. Adding Kesler's $5 million AAV to that mix takes up 38 percent of the team's projected remaining cap space, with $8 million left to sign eight players.

Pittsburgh has been killed by cap restrictions this season. Is Kesler, who is approaching his declining years, worth two more years of cap migraines when the team has Brandon Sutter, who is younger, more affordable (will be a restricted free agent in 2015, although arbitration could be another monster all its own) and is already providing the only consistent defensive presence among the team's forwards?

Bear in mind that all of this goes without mentioning that it would cost a small ransom in picks and players just to land Kesler. Some of these players could otherwise fill those future roster vacancies without bringing a painful cap obligation like Kesler would.

So affordability is one issue, and a big one. The second, as mentioned, is that it doesn't necessarily take a three-headed monster to win it all.

Take a look at the last four Cup Champions, and who played their third-line center positions.

What those teams had in common was not a star-caliber center logging third-line minutes and defensive duties, but quality (if not star-quality) third-line pivots who were surrounded by wingers of equal NHL productivity.

The Pensblog took a close look at Pittsburgh's possession metrics this season, a good indicator of productivity that goes beyond simple goals and shots on goal. As expected, the Penguins' possession numbers outside of the top-six are the hottest of hot garbage, while the rest of the league's top contenders this year have positive or near-positive possession numbers at least in their top-nine if not across the board.

Those strong possession numbers extend not only to this year's contenders, but to each of the last five Cup-winning teams, too.

Kesler alone isn't going to reverse that trend, and spending more than a third of next year's projected cap budget on one player is going to present the same problem of having too little money to spend on useful, possession-positive depth forwards.

Perhaps a better name for the three-center model would be the "we've got three really good scoring lines" model. Staal was not alone in Pittsburgh's two Cup runs. Flanked by Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, the Penguins' entire third line was a defensive nightmare that could play a transition game, cycle in the offensive zone and regularly generate quality scoring chances.

Kesler, if he comes to Pittsburgh, won't have anything like Cooke or Kennedy to flank him.

The three-center model is a good one, but there's a reason Pittsburgh is still the only team in the salary cap era to have pulled it off.

The Penguins don't have to use that prohibitively expensive model, though, to be successful. And if they care at all about building a competitive bottom-six -- the kind that is needed to match up against genuine four-line teams like the Bruins and Blackhawks -- then the pursuit of names like Kesler needs to end.

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