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Who will be the next 3rd line center for the Pittsburgh Penguins? A look at some potential targets

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest defection still to be filled for the Pittsburgh Penguins is surely at the center position. The Pens have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which has been the best 1-2 punch down the middle in the whole league for a decade now, but then....Pretty much literally nothing. Nick Bonino left for richer pastures in free agency and Matt Cullen is still deciding if he and his family want another season in the NHL, and in Pittsburgh at that.

Needless to say, it’s a cause for concern since the organization’s third best center is Carter Rowney. But this will change, and change probably very soon.

General Manager Jim Rutherford had to wait to address his center position until he had slotted in the extensions and raises for valuable top-6 forward Conor Sheary and top-4 defenseman Brian Dumoulin. That’s now completed and the Pens know that they have about $3.955 million under the cap right now.

So who can they get? Well here’s some potential options

Zemgus Girgensons

Profile: At age 23, Girgensons is already a 4 year NHL veteran. He was drafted 12th overall in 2012 (four slots behind Derrick Pouliot) and really excelled in 2014-15, scoring 15 goals and adding 15 assists in 61 NHL games. Since then, he’s languished with 2 poor statistical seasons on bad teams and is currently a restricted free agent.

Fit: 7/10; Girgensons was 3rd on the Sabres last year in total faceoffs. He’s a young center with upside. But with only 1.02 P/60 though, his scoring output was in the dredges, but hopefully would increase on a fresh (and much, much better) team. Ideally for a championship team, he might be more of a 4th line center than a 3rd.

Realism/Timing: 8/10; Girgensons remains a restricted free agent and has to be a candidate that former Pens assistant GM Jason Botterill can use to improve his team. Also, Botterill knows the Pittsburgh organization better than anyone- would he want to give, say, Pouliot a chance with a new start? Or try to get one of the other young players he knows so well? Makes a lot of sense that these two sides would have some common interests

Tyler Bozak

Profile: A good buddy of Phil Kessel, the 31-year old Bozak could be the odd man out in a Toronto salary cap crunch. He’s coming off a season where he set career highs in assists (37) and points (55) and is one year out from unrestricted free agency with a $4.1 million salary cap hit.

Fit: 6/10; Bozak’s probably more of a scoring 2nd line center than the role Bonino was playing (heavy defensive zone starts) and Bozak’s salary would mean Pittsburgh would have to be sending an NHL contract back the other way in a potential trade. Still, adding talent and depth is always the most important issue and since the Maple Leaf are trading someone, it could be an opportunity.

Realism/Timing: For now 4/10, soon 9/10; much like Pittsburgh was waiting on signing Dumoulin and Sheary, Toronto is awaiting re-signing Connor Brown before they trade a veteran (rumored to be Bozak or winger James van Riemsdyk) mainly for salary cap relief purposes. So, right now Toronto may not want to pull the trigger, but once the other dominoes fall, surely they will soon.

Cody Eakin

Profile: The 26-year old was selected by Vegas in the expansion draft and before last season had

Fit: 6/10 Eakin had three straight years of the 35-40 point production right in the sweet spot of what the Pens would be looking for, with a feisty two-way style away from the puck that would do a lot of the heavy lifting for d-zone responsibilities to free the stars up for their normal roles. But at $3.85 million for three more seasons, he’s in the same position as Bozak where Pittsburgh would have to shed salary to make this happen. So not the greatest all-around fit, but it would definitely be adding a bonafide 3rd line player in the right role.

Timing/Realism: 5/10 Vegas has been open for business in the trading market, but they need more centers and forwards, not less. Vegas GM George McPhee also drafted Eakin in Washington, so he may be looking to keep him unless it’s for a favorable deal that helps them near and long-term (i.e the Pens give up Bryan Rust and a draft pick). Pittsburgh might shy away at that, and the Golden Knights might not be interested in dealing.

Matt Stajan

Profile: At 33-years old, Stajan has been with the Flames for now seven seasons. He’s in the final year of a contract with a $3.125 million cap hit. At 1.33 P/60 and fairly little overall production (6g+17a in 2016-17, 6g+11a the year before), Stajan seems like a lower end 3C. Many moons ago in his prime (2008-10) he did score 99 points in a two year stretch.

Fit: 6/10; Stajan is among Calgary’s most relied on defensive forwards, so he fits the mold of what Pittsburgh likes to ask their 3C to do. His salary is at the very high end of what the Pens could manage, but it’s worth asking if this older player who doesn’t score a ton is worth investing in? Stajan also seems like more of a 4th liner at this point, and an expensive one at that.

Timing/Realism: 5/10; the Flames are a playoff caliber team and comfortably under the salary cap, so they have little reason to trade an NHL forward unless they want to shake things up or have an internal replacement that they like more. It’s obviously not realistic that the Pens are going to over-pay for a relatively old center who doesn’t score a ton.


The unknown candidate is probably a front-runner. No one had any idea Bonino was going to be moved until he was in summer 2015, and likely this is the same situation this year as well. Let us know who you think some other good candidates are for fit and timing to be moved by their current team.