Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck between Chris Kelly #22 and Viktor Stalberg#24 of the Ottawa Senators in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 25, 2017. (Getty Images)
The Penguins have a surplus at wing, and not enough centers. At some point, the former figures to supply the latter.
Wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong impressed at prospects camp, and were already highly thought of. Their inevitable presence in Pittsburgh at some point this coming season increases the glut, and the likelihood of deals.
So, looking at the Penguins’ wingers, who stays and goes?
Jake Guentzel is untouchable. He scored 50 goals in 98 games between the American and National leagues this past season, his first full professional campaign. He’s got the magic touch in front of goal, can play either wing, and is a great fit on Sidney Crosby’s line.
Moving Guentzel to third-line center because center is his “natural” position is insane. Did he exit the womb with “center” tattooed on his forehead?
Phil Kessel would be on the market if the Penguins hadn’t won the Stanley Cup. His relationship with Coach Mike Sullivan won’t improve when assistant coach Rick Tocchet departs to become head coach at Arizona. Kessel’s quirky style frustrates Sullivan. Tocchet acted as the buffer and conduit.
But Kessel packs a $6.8-million cap hit, and his quirks are no secret, so he goes nowhere. Kessel’s impact can’t be argued, though he’s simply got to shoot and score more. His shot total (229) and goal total (23) were both his lowest for a full NHL season since 2007-08, his second NHL campaign.
Patric Hornqvist isn’t unique by NHL standards, but he’s almost unique by Penguin standards. He drives the net, crowds the blue paint and is effective down low. Hornqvist can play on any line and contribute, and provides a crash-bang option for Crosby’s line -- albeit one which Crosby doesn’t prefer. The Penguins need to keep Hornqvist.
Bryan Rust can fly. He has eight goals in 15 career elimination playoff games. He’s better at right wing, but competent on the left. Rust isn’t indispensable, but a lot of other teams want him.
Carl Hagelin scored six goals, way too few considering his $4-million cap hit. But his speed and forecheck help forge the Penguins identity. Hagelin isn't likely to fetch much in a trade anyway.
The Penguins didn’t surrender a first-round pick to turn around and trade the fruit of that deal, Ryan Reaves. Josh Archibald, Tom Kuhnhackl, Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson are small potatoes. Anyway, right now Rowney is the fourth-line center. Aston-Reese and Sprong aren’t immune, but aren’t likely to be swapped.
That brings the discussion to Conor Sheary.
Sheary had a rotten playoff: Just two goals in 22 postseason games. He was a healthy scratch for Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference final against Ottawa. Sheary’s past chemistry with Crosby only showed occasional flashes. He’s mostly been replaced by Guentzel in that regard.
Sheary is still a valuable talent. He can play either wing. He’s got great offensive skill and instincts. He had a good regular season: 23 goals and 30 assists in 61 games.
But if Sheary doesn’t skate on one of the top two lines, his value diminishes greatly. He’s minuscule, and lacks bottom-six grit.
How valuable would other teams see Sheary? He was an undrafted free agent, so Sheary has been passed over by every team.
If GM Jim Rutherford can’t land the third-line center he wants by using a wing, perhaps a defenseman will be dangled, or added to a multi-player package. But you need at least eight NHL-caliber defensemen to get through a season, so the Penguins really don’t have extra at that position.
One thing is certain: Whatever moves Rutherford makes should be assumed to be correct. For reasons that are obvious, shiny and silver.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).