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Center of attention: Penguins addition of Grant creates a numbers crunch

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The numbers are piling up at forward with the addition of Derek Grant

Anaheim Ducks v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins signed center Derek Grant yesterday for the 2018-19 season. Grant’s been a journeyman playing for five different organizations in the last five years, but is still relatively young at 28 and had a pretty decent season last year with the Anaheim Ducks. Anaheim had all sorts of injuries to their forwards last year, and as The Athletic’s Seth Rorabaugh noted, Grant got an opportunity to have a decent-sized role early in the year and made the most of it during the portion of the season where Ryan Kesler was out.

One a one-year contract for “NHL minimum wage” at $650,000 this move looks like a good one for the Pens. It will at least provide some depth. Grant scored 12 goals and 12 assist last season, for a fairly impressive even strength 1.85 Points per 60 minutes played. Compare that to previous depth forwards last year like Tom Kuhnhackl (0.56 P/60) and Carter Rowney (0.79) and the Pens can feel good about making an upgrade on skill at the lower-end of the lineup. Ironically (and inexplicably), Grant’s former team gave Rowney a three-year contract worth more than a million dollars a year, so Pittsburgh essentially making the trade gets a better player in Grant for less money and term commitment.

Think about it, you’ll never see Rowney pull off even the deke at the blueline to keep this moving:

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made no bones about it, he sees Grant as an NHL level player for Pittsburgh next year.

“He’s an NHL player. We didn’t sign him for our minor-league team.”

“He’s coming off a good year, 12 goals as a fourth-line player. He can play center. He can play the wing. Kills penalties. Good number on faceoffs. He can play in all situations. It just adds to what we talked about, having more balance and more depth and all that.”

Also wisely, Rutherford knows that he had Rowney and better-in-the-minors Greg McKegg as his two lower line centers last year. He understands that center depth can be difficult to acquire during the season, so he’s trying to load up on it now.

“[Making an immediate trade] that’s not why I did it,” Rutherford said. “I don’t presently have something in the works. Certainly, as we get into camp and into the season, it does give us more options.”

If we take Rutherford’s claims at face value that he is NOT looking to necessarily make a trade because of the Grant signing, what does it mean for the rest of the team?

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Frankly, it means bad news for one of the troika of young Pittsburgh forwards in Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese. An extra body in Grant, even if he possibly serves as the Pens 13th forward as a healthy scratch when the team is healthy, means one less roster spot for a young player. Right now, the Pens may look something like:

Top Nine locks (8): Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust

4th line mainstays (2): Riley Sheahan, Matt Cullen

In the mix (4): Sprong, Simon, Aston-Reese, Grant

As of right now, Pittsburgh has two open spots in their forward positions. The prized spot will be the available one in the top-nine, as this is an opportunity for a player to be in prime scoring line role with a tremendous quality of teammates- including what could be a chance to play on Crosby’s wing. One of Sprong or Simon make the most sense to win this job. The other open spot is on the fourth line. This is shaping up to be whomever gets the short end of the stick in the above position battle plus Aston-Reese plus competition with Grant for the final spot in the playing lineup.

Beyond that, traditionally the Pens only carry 13 healthy forwards. If Grant is staying and the team is only keeping 13, there’s 14 names above and you don’t need to be a mathematician to see a numbers crunch is looming if Pittsburgh remains healthy through training camp. Of all the players, only Aston-Reese can be assigned to the AHL this season without being exposed to waivers. However, Aston-Reese has been a favorite among the coaching staff and the Pens have said many times he’s close to being a full-time NHL player. If that is truly the case, a tough decision may need to be made in terms of a trade.

The Grant signing adds an interesting wrinkle for the Pens coaches to play around with for their roster. It gives them depth, and options and flexibility. But it also creates what could be a bit of a looming numbers crunch, and the result could be a lesser opportunity right off the bat this season for a young player like Sprong or Aston-Reese to shine. The NHL season is long, grueling and can be unrelenting, nothing is written in stone and lineups are constantly changing with injuries and roster moves. There’s no reason to really be discouraged just yet that a fan’s favorite prospect is going to be on the outside looking in, but Rutherford’s moves now are clear to stock up as much as he can for the season ahead.