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Penguins training camp preview: Centers are old, but a strength of the team

They’re old, but still good..Well, most of them.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are an old team, and they aren’t any older than they are at center. The five top options they have down the middle average 35.2 years old — and that’s with “youngster” Noel Acciari (31) chipping in to significantly drag down the number with Sidney Crosby (36), Evgeni Malkin (37), Jeff Carter (38) and Lars Eller (34) around.

With age, however, comes some of the team’s best players. (And, well, not in all cases though).

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t in their teens, twenties or even early thirties any longer. That doesn’t mean they still can’t do incredible things — 2022-23 was the first time in the duo’s illustrious 17-season partnership that both were able to play in every single regular season game together. That, of course, led to a lot of success: Crosby was the team’s leading scorer, Malkin was second to the captain. Together they combined for 60 goals and 176 points. The two-headed monster isn’t as potent as it ever has been, but it hasn’t fallen off all that much either.

Where the pain came for the Pens was when 87 and 71 were on the bench. A Pensburgh article earlier in the summer demonstrated just how bad it was:

With both Crosby+Malkin: 1 goal for, 0 goals against (+1)
Crosby: 67 goals for, 51 goals against (+16)
Malkin: 53 goals for, 50 goals against (+3)
When neither Crosby or Malkin on ice: 47 goals for, 71 goals against (-24)

That 24 goal difference of allowing more than scoring last year (and the massive and very problematic 71 goals against) seen by the third and fourth lines is a big reason that all the players who started the 2022-23 season in those roles are now somewhere else. Well, all of them except Jeff Carter, but we’ll get to him in a bit.

And that is why the team signed Acciari and Lars Eller as depth center behind the two stars. Both of these players come with excellent defensive reputation and proof with measurable impacts in that department. Acciari is likely to become the next type of Brandon Tanev-level fan cult hero for a hard-working player that exerts a ton of energy, plays physical and chips in some important goals. Eller, the team believes, is going to stabilize their third line.

Then, there’s Carter. The team’s elephant in the room. “Gifted” to new GM Kyle Dubas by a full no trade and no movement clause signed with the previous manager, Carter must give his approval to be sent off the NHL roster. He’s shown no signs of that.

Due to the salary cap, if the Penguins do not place Jake Guentzel on long-term injured reserve, they likely will only be able to carry 13 total forwards (including Guentzel). Just like that, welcome to the NHL opening night lineup, Jeff Carter.

The question then becomes how to minimize Carter’s impact and ability to have a turnover or defensive lapse that costs the team when it counts. Coach Mike Sullivan seemed to figure this out, dropping Carter’s ice-time after the All-Star break and occasionally shifting him to wing. Carter does carry some value as a RH center, and legitimately one of the top faceoff takers in the league, giving him the ability to take a draw then shift on the fly over to the wing as play goes on.

Since Pittsburgh had Crosby and Malkin in their primes, they ended up barely ever bothering to invest any of the few high draft picks they kept on centers after, oh say Jordan Staal in 2006. Staal has been gone for over a decade, but restocking the center position hasn’t happened yet (it could if 2023-first rounder Brayden Yager bulks up enough to acclimate in the middle for the pro game).

The Pens’ centers won’t win any youth contests, but the two-headed monster will still be counted on in 2023-24 like they have been for going on two decades to provide the production and leadership to fuel a successful team.