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What will Penguins do with all their centers?

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This past week the Pittsburgh Penguins added free agent Derek Grant on a one-year contract. Not a major signing, but one that still seems to be a little curious given the current construction of the roster.

The 28-year-old Grant, you see, is a center. After bouncing around the NHL and recording just seven points (all assists) in 86 career games, mostly as a fourth-line/depth player, he finally received an increased role with the Anaheim Ducks this past season due to to their rash of center injuries and made the most of it. He scored 12 goals (and added 12 more assists) in 66 games and earned himself a one-way contract with the Penguins.

What makes the signing so curious from a Penguins perspective is it comes just a few weeks after they brought back soon-to-be 42-year-old center Matt Cullen.

That came after they re-signed restricted free agent center Riley Sheahan to a one-year, $2.1 million contract.

Which came just a couple of months after they give up a bounty of assets to acquire Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators prior to the NHL trade deadline to give them another big-time third-line center to play behind their two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That is … a lot of centers. Six, to be exact, all with NHL contracts, all expected to be on the NHL roster.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he wanted to make his team deeper after its second-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the additions of Cullen and Grant definitely help accomplish that. It also comes after the Penguins entered last season without much depth at the position following the free agent departures of Nick Bonino and Cullen. They opened the 2017-18 season with the likes of Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg playing NHL roles, a situation that was less than ideal.

It is the exact opposite now.

So what can they possibly do with all of these guys?

Option 1: Somebody moves to the wing. Aside from the fact that Cullen or Grant will probably be healthy scratches from time to time, this is probably the most logical outcome as one of those two could also probably flip to the wing on the fourth line.

The other candidate to move is Brassard who could move to the left side to play in a top-six role.

This, of course, runs counter to the reason the Penguins acquired Brassard in the first place which was to help give them a trio of centers that no other team could match up with. Brassard not only has his best value at center, it also forces one of Sheahan or Cullen up into a third-line spot, both of whom would be a downgrade from what Brassard would likely do.

Brassard’s initial debut with the Penguins following the trade had its ups and downs and probably didn’t work exactly as planned, but it was also only a 26-game sampling. Sometimes it takes time for a player to adjust to a new team, system, etc.

The other issue with moving one of their centers to the wing? They already have a lot of wingers. Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hornqvist are the top ones. Then there is Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, free agent addition Jimmy Hayes (potential AHL player), and a crop of youngsters that includes Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, and Zach Aston-Reese. Moving one — or two — of the centers to the wings is going to take one of the latter group out of the equation, either relegating them to the press box or back to the American Hockey League.

Sprong, the team’s top prospect, is expected to be on the roster but he hasn’t fully seemed to gain the trust of the coaching staff to this point in his career and, quite honestly, his situation has reached the “believe it when you see it” point when it comes to his playing time and spot on the roster.

Option 2: Somebody gets traded. Crosby and Malkin are obviously on the untouchable list, while Cullen and Grant were just signed so they are not going anywhere, either — at least not yet.

That leaves Brassard or Sheahan, with Brassard probably being the most likely player to be used as trade bait because of the value he might still bring back and the fact he has the largest contract and the Penguins are firmly pressed against the league’s salary cap.

The optics of that would certainly be bad because it would look like they are admitting that acquiring him in the first place was a bad idea (it wasn’t), and they probably wouldn’t get back the value they gave up to get him. His value to them as a third-line center is more than it is as a second-line winger or as trade bait.

Option 3: Don’t worry about it, somebody is going to get hurt and depth is good. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Evgeni Malkin has played more than 70 games in a season just two times in the past nine years. Cullen is going to be 42 years old. Grant is a bit of a mystery because he really hasn’t produced at an NHL level outside of this past season when his shooting percentage was 18 percent. The glut of centers will probably take care of itself.

One thing you have to say about Jim Rutherford is that he recognizes his mistakes and is not afraid to correct them, with Mike Johnston and the way he undid all of his offseason moves a year ago being the two most notable examples. After opening last season with only two NHL quality centers on the roster (something that definitely hurt the team) he made sure this summer that is not going to happen again.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Six NHL teams that made themselves worse this summer (so far)

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A good rule of thumb in sports is that if you are not doing anything to make your team better, you are actively making it worse.

Earlier this week we looked at six teams that have done the most to make themselves better this summer (so far) and it’s only natural to take a look the other side of that spectrum with a few teams that have managed, one way or another, to make themselves worse.

We still have a few months to go before the season begins so none of these rosters are complete or final and there is still time for all of them to find ways to improve.

Just consider this as an offseason progress report through the draft and the initial free agency signing period where the biggest moves tend to get made.

1. New York Islanders — The New York Islanders hired the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach and a Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup champion general manager and none of it is going to matter in the short-term.

John Tavares is gone. They lost Calvin de Haan. They acquired a bunch of fourth liners to go with the rest of their fourth-liners and are paying the entire group a ton of money. Robin Lehner should be a little bit of an upgrade in net, and they still have Mathew Barzal to build around, but you can not replace John Tavares with Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Valterri Filppula and come away looking better.

Losing Tavares stinks, and given the circumstances there probably was not much else they could have done to keep him from going to the Maple Leafs, but that doesn’t mean you have to compound the problem by making all of the other corresponding roster moves.

2. Ottawa Senators — What is really scary here for the Senators is the fact they have not even traded Erik Karlsson yet.

This might be the worst situation of any team in the NHL given everything that is happening with this organization, on and off the ice.

They absolutely had to trade Mike Hoffman but even that made them look bad because they ended up getting a worse return for him than the team they traded him to did. When Karlsson is sent out this might be an early contender for worst team in hockey.

3. Montreal Canadiens — You can’t really blame them for Shea Weber being injured and missing the next five-to-six months following surgery.

You can blame them for trading P.K. Subban for an older player with a worse contract whose career already has a ton of miles on it and was likely to start breaking down physically before that contract expired.

You can also blame them for fumbling Alex Galchenyuk‘s career and then trading him, one-for-one, for a player that doesn’t address their biggest issue (goal-scoring) and has scored just 18 goals over his past 163 games. By comparison, Galchenyuk scored 19 this past season and the only time over the past four years he scored less was when he scored 17 in 2016-17 … in only 60 games.

They also brought back Tomas Plekanec on a one-year contract after he wasn’t particularly good for them a year ago and is now one year older.

It is going to be a lonely year for Carey Price, especially if they finally complete a Max Pacioretty trade.

4. Vancouver Canucks — I just … I just do not get it. I just do not get what is happening here or what the plan is or how the Canucks plan to get better and rebuild this team back into something that is worth watching. There is nothing wrong with adding Jay Beagle or Antoine Roussel to your team in a bottom-six role if you are contending team because they could probably help out and be useful in such a role.

But why — WHY!? — if you are the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has not made the playoffs in three years and has won fewer games than every team in the NHL (Vegas excluded) during that stretch, do you need to not only sign them, but sign them to matching four-year contracts?!

Do they necessarily make the Canucks worse? Probably not, because it’s not like the Canucks’ bottom six last year wasn’t a disaster, but how do long-term contracts to bottom-six players make the long-term situation here any better?

Combine that with the fact that Henrik and Daniel Sedin (still productive players a year ago) are retired and the fact that Brandon Sutter is probably going to have to take on an increased role as a result and it just looks like another bleak season on the horizon in Vancouver.

5. Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks’ biggest issue in 2017-18 was goaltending thanks to the combination of Corey Crawford missing most of the season while none of his replacements were up to the challenge of filling that spot. As the 2018-19 season draws near we still have no real concrete update on Crawford’s status as he recovers form his mystery “upper-body injury” and their approach to improving the depth behind him was to sign, quite literally, the least productive goalie in the NHL (at least among goalies that have received regular or semi-regular playing time) over the past six years.

Chris Kunitz might still have a little something left in the tank as a depth player and the price is certainly right on him, but the addition of Ward and the uncertainty around Crawford is scary.

They have been mentioned as possible landing spot for Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, and that would be a great way to improve a defense that has rapidly declined in recent years. Whether or not they can get it done remains to be seen, but the roster as constructed (as of this moment) looks similar to the one that disappointed a year ago.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — With all due respect to Jim Rutherford, Mike Sullivan, and Sergei Gonchar and everything they have accomplished over the past three years I am going to need to see something from Jack Johnson to prove he will not drag their defense down the way he has literally dragged down every defense he has played on throughout his career.

Matt Cullen was an incredible depth player on their past two Stanley Cup winning teams, is by all accounts a great locker room presence, and costs next to nothing against the salary cap. That is all great for the Penguins. But he is also going to turn 42 years old this season and father time eventually comes for everybody. You could argue that it started to get the best of Cullen in 2017-18 when the Minnesota Wild were absolutely caved in possession-wise when Cullen was on the ice. Are they really better than they were at the end of the season, even when taking into account the likelihood that Derick Brassard has more to offer than he showed in the playoffs? Not convinced.

Rutherford’s tenure in Pittsburgh has been a healthy mix of brilliance and head-scratching decisions. You can not argue with two championships in four years. But that does not mean he is above criticism or second-guessing because just last summer he had an offseason that made the roster worse and resulted in him jettisoning every player he acquired within a year. This summer so far does not look much better.

At the same time, also not convinced that he does not have another blockbuster up his sleeve that will turn the look of the offseason around. That is just how it goes with Trader Jim.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins make it official with Jack Johnson; bring back Matt Cullen

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced two free agent signings on Sunday afternoon — one that was expected, and one that kind of came out of nowhere.

First, the Penguins made it official and signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. News of that potential signing first broke last week and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pen was going to be put to paper on that deal.

Along with that news, the Penguins also announced that veteran center Matt Cullen is returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Cullen was an important depth player on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.

The addition that is going to get the most attention here is Johnson because that is a pretty significant investment in a player whose career has been … let’s say … polarizing. You either love his combination of size and the skating ability he had earlier in his career that helped make him such a prized prospect entering the league, or you absolutely hate the objective evidence his NHL career has produced.

He is coming off of a brutal season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He will also turn 32 years old this season and the Penguins are taking a might big gamble that they can “fix” what has ailed him.

Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit might not be bad if it was on a shorter-term deal. But a five-year commitment is a lot for a player you’re trying to repair, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not there is anything there to salvage when it comes to his play on the ice.

The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation (he talked on Sunday about wanting to join a winning environment) and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years (Rutherford said he would always put his money on Gonchar).

The problem is those aren’t exactly perfect parallels to look at.

In the case of Schultz and Oleksiak, the Penguins were dealing with young players in their mid-20s that were stuck in bad situations, they gave up minimal assets to acquire, and were able to help put them into more favorable situations and get a little more production out of them. And in Oleksiak’s case the jury is still very much out on how much he really has improved because it’s still such a small body of work in Pittsburgh.

With Johnson, he is 32 years old, has probably already started to lose a step from where he was when he younger, and has a decade long track record to show just what type of player he is. The results are not encouraging.

Just about every team Johnson has played for has performed worse — significantly worse — from a goals and shots perspective with Johnson on the versus him off of the ice. Observe the difference in shot attempts (CF%) and goal differential (GF%).

That is not an encouraging trend.

Now, one of two things will happen: They will either play Johnson in a top-four role and bump one of Olli Maatta or Justin Schultz down to the third pair, or they will play Johnson in that third-pair role alongside Jamie Oleksiak. Both options present their share of problems. With the former, you’re playing what is probably an inferior player over a better play (is Johnson better than either Maatta or Schultz? I am not sold on that).

With the latter, it just means you committed five years and all of your newfound salary cap space to a third-pairing defenseman when you probably could have gotten the same (or maybe even better) play for less.

It just seems like a big investment to make in a player you’re hoping can improve a decade-long trend of play and that you’re simply hoping for the best on.

The Cullen signing is an interesting one, only because it does not seem immediately clear where he will play or how he will be used.

The Penguins already have four centers under contract with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan in place. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that one of Brassard, Sheahan, or Cullen will see significant time on the wing.

Cullen, a long-time favorite of Rutherford, was great for the Penguins in a fourth-line role before signing with Minnesota. His departure (along with the free agent departure of Nick Bonino) resulted in the in-season trades to acquire Brassard and Sheahan.

Cullen ended up scoring 11 goals for the Wild this past season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins, Rust agree to four-year extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-signed their playoff wizard and two-time Stanley Cup champion forward Bryan Rust to a four-year contract worth $14 million.

The deal carries an average annual value of $3.5 million for the forward, who had a career-year after scoring 13 goals and amassing 38 points in 69 games this season. It’s a nice bump in pay for 26-year-old, who made $640,000 last season.

Rust, a third-round draft pick in 2010, became best known for his playoff scoring prowess during the Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2015-16 and 2016-17, scoring 13 times in 46 total games.

He’s also become quite the clutch player when facing playoff elimination, scoring 10 goals and adding an assist in 18 games.

Pittsburgh fans will remember Rust fondly for his two-goal effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference final, a game the Penguins won 2-1.

Rust’s new deal puts the Penguins roughly $5 million under the cap going into next season, likely forcing them into trading away a roster player.

Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak is their lone restricted free agent (he was qualified on Monday) while they have forwards Carter Rowney, Tom Kuhnhackl and Riley Sheahan are set to become unrestricted free agents come Sunday.

Talks with Sheahan are ongoing, despite the Penguins not extending him a qualifying offer on Monday.

Carl Hagelin is set to become a UFA after next season, so perhaps his name gets thrown into the ring. He’s making $4 mill this season. The Penguins trade deadline acquisition in Derick Brassard, set to make $3 million, will also become a UFA after next season.

And there’s always that speculation about Phil Kessel that never seems to end.

Why Senators should give Avalanche their first pick this year

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The Ottawa Senators hold the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft on Friday night.

In most situations this would be seen as a big opportunity for a struggling team to potentially find an impact player and perhaps a franchise building block.

This, however, is not most situations.

Before the Senators decide which prospect they might be adding to their mess of a franchise they have another pretty big decision to make; A decision that will not only impact the future of a teenage hockey player, but also the potential direction of two franchises.

They have to decide if they are actually going to keep the pick or send it to the Colorado Avalanche.

Part of the package the Senators sent to the Avalanche in this past season’s Matt Duchene trade was a conditional first-round draft pick. The Condition on the pick was simple. The Senators get to choose whether they send the Avalanche their 2018 first-round pick or their 2019 first-round pick. When the Senators made the trade they were just a few months removed from a trip to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals where they were a double overtime goal on the road from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

They had every intention of making the playoffs again and were probably assuming their decision regarding the 2018 first-round pick would revolve around a pick that was much later in the draft. Instead, the bottom fell out on the Senators’ 2017 Cinderella story and the team finished what would turn out to be a disastrous campaign with one of the worst records in the league. Things have only managed to get much worse for the organization after the season ended.

At first glance, the easy answer here for the Senators might be to keep the guaranteed No. 4 overall pick and hope the 2018-19 season goes better, leaving the Avalanche with a later pick in the draft. After all, giving up a top-five pick is no small thing and is not an easy thing to sell to your players or fanbase. You should be planning on getting a potential All-Star there.

Every indication is that the Senators are going to do just that. Back in April general manager Pierre Dorion said they were keeping the pick, while Sportsnet’s Chris Johnson reported on Wednesday that still seems to be the case.

The Senators should not do this.

As difficult as it might be, the smart play here for Ottawa is to just take the painful hit that is giving up a top-five pick, send it to Colorado right now, and just get the entire thing over with.

The problem for the Senators is there is a very real possibility the 2018-19 season is going to go even worse than this past season did. That means the 2019 first-round pick could be even higher than fourth overall.

Let’s consider the big picture here.

First, there is nothing to indicate that the 2017-18 season struggles for the Senators were a fluke.

They were every bit as bad as their record would indicate and they earned that dismal 67-point output.

If anything, the outlier was the 2016-17 season when they went on their stunning run through the Eastern Conference playoffs. That team was consistently beaten in the possession game and was carried by great goaltending and a superhuman performance in the playoffs by Erik Karlsson. Anyone paying attention to the way that team played had to know that for as magical as their playoff run was, the whole thing was a house of cards always teetering on the edge of a collapse.

The collapse happened this past season.

The Senators not only finished with the second-worst record in the league, they were once again completely decimated when it came the possession game finishing as a 47.2 Corsi team, the third-worst mark in the NHL. Something to keep in mind about that number is that over the past five seasons there have been 23 teams that finished a season with a Corsi number of 47.2 or worse.  Out of that group, only six of them came back the next season and improved their point total, and one of them was the 2014-15 Sabres who quite literally had nowhere to go but up after finishing an 82-game season with only 52 points.

But it’s not just from a statistical standpoint that things look bleak for the Senators’ chances next season.

Consider what the roster could look like.

Derick Brassard is already gone having been traded at the deadline to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mike Hoffman, one of their leading scorers from this past season, has already been traded this summer. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan, and Zack Smith could also all be dealt in the coming days and weeks.

[Related: Senators trade Hoffman for underwhelming return]

Even if all three return there is not much reason for optimism that things are going to go better.

If any of them go (or even if just Karlsson goes) then the team could potentially bottom out this season.

The downside to giving up the pick is that it sends a message to the players still on the roster that management thinks they are going to be worse than they were a year ago.

But if Karlsson goes — on top of all of the other subtractions that have been made in recent months — they have to know that is a possible, if not likely, outcome anyway.

It also removes what could be a season-long distraction as the standings get watched on a nightly basis as everyone looks at what potential pick will be going to Colorado.

The reality with the Senators is this: The franchise has turned into a complete disaster and it is quite possible that it has yet to reach rock bottom on the ice.

It probably needs to go all in on a teardown right now and start from scratch (preferably with a new owner, too). If that happens the 2018-19 team is going to sink to Ted Murray “tank for McDavid” Sabres levels. That means potentially giving up would could truly be a franchise changing player in the long run if they put off the decision to send a first-round pick to Colorado until next year.

Take the hit. Give up the pick this year. Start the rebuild and hope that the lottery balls fall in your favor next season.

Related: Senators face long odds in ‘winning’ Erik Karlsson trade

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.