As the calendar flips to September, the hockey world will eventually lurch into movement as training camps pick up soon enough. One part of the end of the off-season is when veterans try to latch onto NHL teams via the professional tryout (PTO). Teams can get a risk-free look to see if an older player has enough in the tank to help out. The player gets what often could be one last chance to latch onto an NHL roster. PTO season may have officially began in earnest on September 1st, with our old “friend” Jack Johnson and Colorado agreeing to a tryout.
PTO’s have been a small chapter of the Penguins in recent years- Jay McClement failed to make the team in 2017, as did Sergei Gonchar in the fall of 2015 in the last gasp of his career. While most of the PTO’s can end up not working out, occasionally it will as well. Mark Eaton ended up being a fairly impactful player for Pittsburgh off a PTO, Adam Hall won a job in 2007 for the Pens and kept his NHL career alive all the way through 2014.
Who are some possible candidates that remain unsigned free agents that the Pens might have interest in and vice versa? Let’s give it a look!
With Evgeni Malkin recovering from a June knee surgery, the team is anticipating that he will not be healthy for the start of the season, but there remains some questions and an unknown (or at least unannounced publicly) timeframe of just how long Malkin will be unavailable. Therefore, it’s tough to know if the Pens need a short-term patch or perhaps a season-long answer to adding a center.
But it does seem likely they need something. The top of the lineup is just fine with Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger going 1-2-3 for the top lines. Beyond that, the Pens fourth best center with Malkin out? There probably isn’t an answer for that at the NHL level with candidates like Michael Chaput, Drew O’Connor and Jordy Bellerive as the top choices for now.
With that in mind, a center of NHL capability makes sense for the Pens, especially if they can take a look on a PTO to see if anyone out there can give them more than what they have.
Here are some of the top choices:
Bozak was down in 2020-21 from 2019-20, but he hits a lot of relative high notes. And remember, when you’re shopping down the PTO in September aisle, this isn’t a luxury or fancy place to be, so that has to be kept in mind as well.
Mainly known as an offensive-minded center for the early portion of his career in Toronto, Bozak has made a late-career change in St. Louis, where he’s been used more as a checker and has actually performed well defensively. With 13 points in 26 games in the 2019 Stanley Cup run, he also was effective there.
However, 2020-21 was a tougher year and injury limited Bozak to just 31 games on the season. He turns 36 years old next March and is certainly not a spring chicken any longer as far as his NHL playing days goes.
But, especially for production and reasonable upside for 2021-22, if Bozak was amenable to a tryout, he would by far be the best candidate for Pittsburgh to patch up their center depth. Hell, there’s probably a case that he even deserves a contract right now, with the team just waiving one more of Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello or Radim Zohorna to fit Bozak under the salary cap and 23-player limit.
I’ve seen the name of the former Penguin out there, he is a free agent so there are some dots to connect, but remember how ineffective and not very good Sheahan was in Pittsburgh from 2017-19? He’s just as bad no, only his defensive results, which were admirable at least, has gone away. Sheahan is an easy pass, he doesn’t have anything to offer at this point.
Nevermind on this one, the Kraken signed Sheahan yesterday.
Speaking of, to help get a sense of contextualizing performance that’s top of mind to what a WAR chart showing offense/defense impact, here’s Mark Jankowski. Jankowski is most certainly not going to be back in the Pens’ organization, but it’s a way to show the trajectory of his career. As you can see, the defensive effort was not bad, but Jankowski brought very little to the ice offensively.
With the charts above in mind, you can see just how poorly Artem Anisimov was last season. While he isn’t “old” old, there’s been some wear and tear on over 800 NHL regular season and playoff games. This limited him to 19 games last season, Anisimov doesn’t look like much of a long-term option for next season.
One player who could be in the Matt Cullen mode of “star top line player turned good fourth liner” might be Eric Staal in theory. However, Staal’s turn in Montreal was not promising with just four goals in 42 total games with the Habs. That is very unlike Cullen in the Cup seasons of 2015-16 and 2016-17 who was getting defensive results that hasn’t seen for several years, and probably isn’t likely to replicate, being as he turns 37 next month.
Defense is a worthy concern in Pittsburgh, at least in numbers being as Cody Ceci left the Pens, and they’ve made no moves to replace him. The Pens do have Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman, and anyone they bring in would have to beat one, if not both of these players out for a job.
Are there any candidates?
Early career Sami Vatanen in Anaheim from 2014-17 was a tremendous player. However, the years since then have not been kind to him as injury woes have helped derail his effectiveness. Vatanen did show a bit last season (albeit only in 39 total games, and just nine with the Stars). Vatanen wouldn’t be a waste of a roster spot on a tryout, but at this point in 2021 it looks doubtful he has more to offer than Ruhwedel or Friedman.
Gudbranson is a natural candidate since he brings some size and toughness, but the Pens have already tried this player and it didn’t work out. His defense last year almost literally couldn’t have been any worse. Gudbranson just hasn’t displayed any ability to help an NHL team in 2021.
Overall, based on the talent pool available, Bozak would be the best option to fill a need that the Pens have if a tryout could be on the table. Most of the rest of available names, you can see already would go the way of McClement or Gonchar and not be able to parlay the tryout into a spot in the lineup.