Entering training camp, the defending champions are facing an off-season filled with departures. Forwards Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz signed with other teams via free agency, while defensemen Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey have also departed Pittsburgh.
With around $3 million in cap space, general manager Jim Rutherford still has one more hole to fill. The third-line center position, previously filled by Bonino, is vacant. Rutherford added defenseman Matt Hunwick and backup goaltender Antti Niemi during the summer to add depth to the club.
Jim Rutherford has a couple options regarding adding a third-line center. He can trade for a center, meaning that he would have to give up a player or two within the system, or he can use an offer sheet to his advantage. An offer sheet is given to a restricted free agent by an outside team.
The Detroit Red Wings, who are facing severe salary cap problems heading into the season, have a restricted free agent of their own who cannot work out a deal. The Red Wings are currently $3 million over the salary cap.
Andreas Athanasiou is a 23-year-old upcoming star who had a successful first full season in the NHL. Athanasiou played 64 games with Detroit and put up 29 points, including 18 goals. Athanasiou plays with great speed and like the Penguins, has talent.
Athanasiou would fit right in with the Penguins at the third-line center position, and would also receive powerplay time with the second unit. The Penguins could create special duo’s on each of the top three lines, with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel on line one, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist on line two, and Athanasiou and Phil Kessel on line three.
So how could the Penguins add Athanasiou to the team without giving anything up? An offer sheet to Athanasiou would put the Red Wings in a tough spot because the Penguins could offer the 23-year-old a deal worth $3 million per season, which is a contract that the Red Wings cannot afford.
The result would be the Penguins giving up a second round pick to the Red Wings because of compensation purposes.
If the Penguins can add Athanasiou without giving up a roster player, it would make them a lock to be a contender for yet another Stanley Cup.
Throughout the past few seasons, Crosby and Malkin have had to miss time due to various injuries. With Athanasiou able to jump up to the first or second line for a few games, the Penguins can afford to be without their stars during parts of the regular season.
A center core of Crosby, Malkin, Athanasiou, and Carter Rowney could propel the Penguins to a legit chance at the three-peat.