Is Nugent-Hopkins A Fit As Penguins Third Line Center?

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By Jacob Messing

With the NHL season a month away, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins remain without a legitimate third line center.

General manager Jim Rutherford has been active on the trade front since taking over the team in 2014, and if the Penguins are serious about eyeing a three-peat, reinforcements will likely come in that form.

“There’s a couple of guys I could acquire right now,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I feel like there’s another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens,” adding that the search could continue into the regular season.

The team has been linked to 26-year-old Matt Duchene and 23-year-old Alex Galchenyuk, among others, as it searches for a replacement for Nick Bonino, who signed with the Nashville Predators on July 1.

The price tags on Duchene and Galchenyuk may be too expensive for Pittsburgh, as the pair of former third-overall picks have shown strong promise and have higher ceilings than their best offensive seasons.

The team will likely need to look elsewhere for a third-line center, and former No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may come at a cheaper price.

A Nugent-Hopkins Overview

The 24-year-old Canadian has failed to reach the high expectations set for top draft picks, and has been quickly surpassed on Edmonton’s depth chart by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Although he’s coming off his worst career point total with 18 goals and 43 points in 82 games, his average ice time was also at its lowest since his rookie season in 2011-12.

By accepting his role as a third-line center, Nugent-Hopkins could reverse this statistical trend. The two years in which he averaged more than 20 minutes on the ice, the Canadian posted close to 60 points. There’s no reason he can’t get back to that form.

The Penguins arguably boast the top one-two punch of centers in the NHL and a sturdy two-way center behind them -- see Nick Bonino or Jordan Staal -- makes a big difference to the team. Nugent-Hopkins has four years left on a $6 million AAV contract, which would cement the Penguins third-line for the foreseeable future, but more on that later.

The biggest asterisk to a potential deal -- as to any -- is the price point. Edmonton’s center depth doesn’t exactly outshine Pittsburgh’s, and losing Nugent-Hopkins for a team that labels itself a contender doesn’t make a whole lot of sense -- that is, until you look at the $12.5 million and $8.5 million contracts McDavid and Draisaitl signed this offseason, respectively.

A Potential Trade

Any deal the Oilers make would involve a roster player or players. One name that makes sense is Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist. The 30-year-old Swede has one year left at $4.25 million and would be able to ride shotgun to McDavid, as he has proved the ability to keep up with Sidney Crosby in the past.

But Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli would need more than just Hornqvist’s expiring contract if he were to relinquish Nugent-Hopkins. He could look to acquire one of Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, or Tom Kuhnhackl, who are each set to become restricted free agents following the 2017-18 season.

Pittsburgh’s current cap space of $3.2 million, plus Hornqvist’s $4.25 million, would give the Penguins enough room to bring in Nugent-Hopkins straight up, but would cause future cap problems when other contracts expire in 2018. Trading away a restricted free agent would help alleviate that problem.

Chiarelli would also likely need to add more to the deal for Rutherford in case a former first-overall pick wasn’t enough for the Pittsburgh GM, which would likely be a middle-to-high-end prospect, likely from the blue line.

The Result

In the aftermath of this hypothetical trade, Pittsburgh solidifies itself down the middle while being able to replace Hornqvist from within. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, and Phil Kessel are wingers locked in the top six.

The last spot could be taken by top prospect Daniel Sprong, KHL free agent Danis Zaripov -- with whom Evgeni Malkin publicly stated he’d like to play -- or Bryan Rust, should Pittsburgh retain him.

Edmonton would receive a two-time Stanley Cup champion to flank McDavid with while bringing in another Stanley Cup winner in whichever pending restricted free agent they were able to land to add depth to its forward group.

The addition of two Penguins would shift budding players like Ryan Strome and Jesse Puljujarvi into smaller roles while they continue to develop at the NHL level.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.

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