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The Penguins Already Have Their Third Line Center

Sheahan is outproducing his well liked predecessor, so why demote him now? Photo by Michael Miller.

Wait, are the Penguins looking for a third line center? Really? Why hasn’t anyone brought this up until now?

Jim Rutherford has been looking for that elusive third center since last summer, but the end is in sight with the trade deadline right around the corner. With the Pens finally clicking and looking like Stanley Cup front runners once again, it would make sense for them to plug this “hole” that has been bothering them upwards of seven months.

But talks seem to be starting to die down, or at the very least getting far less exciting. A third center now sounds like a luxury with the emergence of Riley Sheahan.

That’s not just my opinion. Rutherford thinks Sheahan can handle to job, too. As Josh Yohe of The Athletic reports, Rutherford said:

“I feel good about him there. With the way the lines are balancing out now, yes, I do think he’s playing at a level where we are happy with him as the No. 3 center.”

And Rutherford is right to have faith in him. He has turned in some fine performances since the calendar turned to 2018.  He also has started to outproduce what his predecessor Nick Bonino did last season.

Here’s what Sheahan averages per 60 minutes of play at even strength with the Penguins compared to what Bonino did last season.

Stats from 5v5 play.

Bonino may have a slight edge in goals, but Sheahan averages more points and got more goals started with primary assists (A1/60). More of Sheahan’s shot attempts reach the goal (STHr%), and the Penguins possess the puck more with him than with Bonino (Corsi For%).

And then there are the two skills Sheahan is really on this team to do: win faceoffs and kill penalties. According to Puckbase.com, he entered play Tuesday with the 16th highest success rate in the NHL for faceoffs (54.9%). That’s 5.8 percentage points higher than Bonino averaged last year (48.1%). When in a defensive zone, that figure jumps to 56.5%.

On the penalty kill, Sheahan is seeing 5.3 opponent goals per 60 minutes of ice time. That’s 1.9 goals fewer per 60 than Bonino’s special teams units did in 2016-2017. He gave the special teams a boost after struggling the first couple weeks of the season when he was acquired from the Red Wings on Oct. 21. On that day, the Penguins allowed nine goals on 42 power play opportunities (78.6% penalty kill rate). From Oct. 22 to entering play Tuesday, they have killed 84.3% of those opportunities.

The Penguins don’t need a third line center to be spectacular. They just need someone who pairs well with Phil Kessel. As Jason Mackey penned for the Post-Gazette last week, Kessel isn’t the easiest guy to be on a line with, but Sheahan has eventually learned how to play with him. Sheahan told Mackey:

“He thinks the game at such a high level, you just have to get yourself open, expect the puck to land on your stick, and when you get it, just try to get it to him and let him use his shot. I think it’s been going a little better the last couple of games. It’s been fun.”

If Sheahan can get Kessel to click on the third line, the Penguins have the best offense in hockey. Once again, Kessel and Sheahan have been a better pairing than Kessel and Bonino were last season.

Stats from 5v5 play.

Bonino and Kessel did get a shot off at a slightly better clip (SF%), but the new pairing holds the puck more (SCF%), has a better rate of getting a scoring chance (FF%) and a better shooting percentage (On Ice SH%). Kessel still does his best work away from the third line, but the offense is trending upwards when he plays with that group.

Mike Necciai of The Hockey Writers penned a piece this week where he also compared Bonino and Sheahan. He brought up two excellent points midstory. The first is Bonino, like Sheahan, was a slow starter. Bonino is fondly remembered for how he finished a season, not how he started it. If Sheahan is given the same luxury, he could do the same.

The second is Sheahan’s shortcomings were magnified by the Penguins’ superstars’ slumps. Necciai writes:

“In other words, while everyone was pretty disappointed in Sheahan’s first two months (myself included), a deeper look into what the Penguins had prior shows that the concern wasn’t necessarily warranted. The early-season lack of production from Pittsburgh’s stars likely spotlighted the struggles from their depth centers a bit more this season.”

I think Necciai hit the nail on the head. It took awhile for the Penguins to get going this season. While there was quiet confidence that Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang would eventually heat up, there was little optimism around Sheahan. He was never supposed to be the third line center. He became the whipping boy, the symbol of everything that was worse from a team that hoisted their second straight Stanley Cup a few months prior. Now, his surge is coinciding with his team’s ascension in the standings. He may be just riding their hot streak, but he’s been clicking for a month and a half.

The Penguins could probably still use another center just for depth purposes alone. A Matt Cullen reunion makes so much sense it almost hurts. Mark Letestu could be a good depth piece. Either way, think fourth line addition rather than third. If Rutherford could somehow swing a trade for someone’s second line center or Derick Brassard, he should obviously go for it. The difference is two months ago, a deal like that would have been a necessity. It isn’t, anymore.

Fans have been clamoring for the Penguins to get a Bonino-quality player to shore up the third line. Rutherford did. It just took him a little time to settle in.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

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