Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Third-Line Improvements

The Pittsburgh Penguins were busy on Tuesday as they solidified a rather weak third-line via trade and free agency. The Penguins made a deal with the Vancouver Canucks to send Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-round pick which originally belonged to Vancouver to the Canucks for Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2016 second-round draft pick in a rather unsurprising move, and then announced they had signed former Capital Eric Fehr to a three-year, $6 million deal. While no one will say that the Penguins have the best third-line in hockey by any means, they solved their "Brandon Sutter" problem while bringing in two guys who make that line better.

The stakes were high when the Penguins dealt Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, and they felt that Sutter could replace Staal while being a cheaper option down the middle. While Sutter was an excellent penalty killer and checking forward, the offensive flair that the Penguins wanted was never found. The Penguins certainly used Sutter to make their team better, but his impending free agency and potential big payday made the once-vital centerman expendable in an era where two-way players have to contribute offensively.

So he's off to Vancouver in exchange for a centerman who can score, a defensive prospect who looks like he may have a shot at an NHL job, and a pick that the Penguins desperately need after dealing away every first-round pick until 2076 (I kid, of course). The Penguins are already fairly deep down the middle, but there is a definite need to get more offence out of their third and fourth lines. Players like Marcel Goc, Zach Sill, Daniel Winnik, Craig Adams, and Maxim Lapierre did little to bolster the top two lines in Pittsburgh, and there's a good chance that Bonino, Fehr, and the re-signed Beau Bennett form the third line. There's vast potential there, but I'd be careless not to suggest that potential has to be realized.

Bonino is an American centerman who has played with the USA National Team at the 2015 World Championships where he put up two goals and two assists in ten games. He has a solid season with the Canucks last year, and put up career numbers with Anaheim the year before. Bonino isn't going to win you a scoring championship, but he has a nose for the net and has proven he can finish at the NHL level. While the Penguins will miss Sutter in his penalty-killing role, Bonino can kill penalties as well. In terms of effectiveness, we'll see how close he gets to Sutter in terms of his defensive game.

The other guy the Penguins added for a tidy sum today was Eric Fehr. Fehr hasn't done any significant scoring outside Washington, DC, so it will be interesting to see what happens in Pittsburgh. There's a train of thought that because he wasn't playing with the same type of offensive players in Winnipeg as he was in Washington that his stats plummeted hard. This may be the case or it could be because he was often injured, but whatever it was in Winnipeg wasn't the same in Washington. He's been a consistent 30-point player with the Capitals, and it's that kind of production that the Penguins sorely need from their bottom-six. Playing with a guy like Bonino who's a pretty decent passer should help as long as Fehr does the little things right like going to the net and finding openings.

It seems that the depth of the Penguins has improved greatly with these two moves while not adding a big chunk of salary. From a stats perspective, it seems the Penguins are pleased with the additions despite the subtraction. "The analytics are very strong on both Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr in all the aspects of what we look for in analytics," Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said. "Fehr is comfortable as a two position player. He could definitely jump up to the top-6 if the situation presented itself. Bonino's strongest position is center. That would be his preference."

While he's not scheduled to appear on the third line whatsoever, Adam Clendening might be the diamond in the rough in the Vancouver trade. He's a solid offensive defenceman who has really honed his game since leaving Boston University. He was excellent with the Rockford IceHogs from 2012-14 when he posted 105 points in 147 AHL games. He's generally viewed as needing to be grittier in his own zone, but I'm not sure that offensive defencemen have ever been gritty. For Clendening to take the next step, he has to use his rather under-used shot from the point. He's great at reading plays and jumping up where needed, but his shot should be featured as part of his skill set. If he can crack the Penguins line-up, expect him to be in a three/four role and see time on the power-play. He could very well be the second unit's Kris Letang with his offensive ability.

Overall, for a team that desperately needed to improve in relation to the moves made by other teams in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins have done the best they can with the miniscule salary space they have. In this writer's view, they certainly didn't take a step back.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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