By MARK MADDEN
For months, I implored Penguins GM Ray Shero to trade Jordan Staal for a scoring winger, or for Staal to be permanently moved to wing. The talent imbalance between center and wing didn’t seem to make sense.
One Stanley Cup later, well…shows what I know.
Shero’s three-center model won’t be copied because it’s nearly impossible to assemble three centers the caliber of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Staal. The intent is clear: Dominate the ice from slot to slot through skill, speed and physical play. Don’t underestimate Crosby and Malkin in the latter department. Sid’s a bull. Geno can be nasty.
The middle of the rink is where games are decided. Talk all you want about winning the battles on the wall, but the Penguins’ wings are primarily reasonably-priced puck retrievers who can funnel the disc to the centers.
The versatility of all three centers enables mixing and matching. The combining of Malkin and Staal (with Malkin playing wing) proved invaluable in the Pens’ victory at Philadelphia Oct. 8. Uniting Crosby and Malkin has long been a viable option. Craig Adams or Max Talbot (once he’s healthy) can fill in at third-line center as needed.
With a salary cap, you’ve got to pick your poison. You choose areas of depth and lack thereof. Shero has chosen to make wing a low priority. The Stanley Cup says he made the right decision. Wing can always be patched up via free agency. The position will be strengthened in a big way when Eric Tangradi and Luca Caputi arrive in Pittsburgh for keeps. The Penguins may peak when those two mature.
GMs that believe Shero can’t keep all three centers indefinitely may be whistling past the graveyard. Look at the current model and the contracts involved. Not only is keeping Crosby, Malkin and Staal possible, it’s likely.
Will it always win a Stanley Cup? No. But Shero’s three-center model figures to win a few more. If you want to build a championship hockey team, dominating the middle of the rink is the perfect place to start.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).