Penguins look to reconstruct third, fourth lines


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By most accounts, there will not be a lot of high-end talent available when the NHL’s free-agent signing period begins at noon today.

Matt Niskanen, late of the Penguins, is generally regarded as the top defenseman available, while Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson figure to generate the most attention among forwards.

The dearth of big-name players likely won’t bother the Penguins, though. Aside from seeking a winger for Evgeni Malkin — Nikolai Kulemin remains the favorite — their emphasis is expected to be on upgrading their third and fourth lines.

There are numerous candidates for those roles, although most have flaws to go along with their merits.

Here’s a look at some of those players, their salary-cap hits from 2013-14 and their games:

• C Brian Boyle ($1.7 million) — He has exceptional size (6 feet 7, 244 pounds) and is a good defensive forward and faceoff man. A strong playoff showing for the New York Rangers might push him out of the Penguins’ price range.

• RW Blake Comeau ($1 million) — He has a good shot and offensive instincts, although he tends to run hot-and-cold as a goal-scorer. Comeau got a career-high 24 for the New York Islanders three seasons ago.

• RW Adam Cracknell ($600,000) — Though versatile and heady, he doesn’t have much of a finesse game and doesn’t always take full advantage of being 6-2, 210.

• C Vernon Fiddler ($1.8 million) — He is an accomplished agitator, good faceoff man and is highly responsible in his own zone.

• RW Nick Johnson ($600,000) — Exceptionally hard-working and defensively responsible, he lacks the offensive skills to rise above a bottom-six role. Played 10 games with the Penguins before being going to Minnesota on waivers in 2011.

• LW Leo Komarov ($2 million, in Russia) — Spending a winter in the Kontinental Hockey League after playing for Toronto didn’t hurt his market value. Komarov has a knack for infuriating opponents and could be one of the most in-demand blue-collar forwards.

• LW Derek MacKenzie ($1 million) — Reputed to be a great team guy and reliable in the defensive zone, but is smallish (5-11, 181) and hasn’t been much of an offensive force in the NHL.

• C Manny Malhotra ($600,000) — Although a serious eye injury nearly ended his career a few years ago, he has overcome it and remains a very good penalty-killer and defensive forward.

• C Dominic Moore ($1 million) — Has been a solid contributor on three of the past five teams that have knocked the Penguins, for whom he once played, out of the playoffs. Moore is another guy whose strong postseason performance for the Rangers figures to be reflected in the offers he will receive, assuming the contract talks that continued Monday don’t keep him in New York.

• RW Kevin Porter ($537,500) — Despite being hard-working and versatile, he has finished with a negative plus-minus rating in each of his six NHL seasons.

• LW Benoit Pouliot ($1.3 million) — After having his intensity questioned for much of his time in the league, Pouliot was outstanding for New York during the playoffs, scoring key goals that are a good bet to be rewarded in the contract he receives. He definitely appears to be on the Penguins’ radar, providing he wouldn’t break their budget.

• C Zach Sill ($550,000) — Spent most of 2013-14 with the Penguins’ minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, but did enough hitting and agitating during a 20-game NHL cameo to suggest he can be a capable fourth-line center at this level.

• RW Jesse Winchester ($600,000) — Plays well defensively and while short-handed and gives an honest effort every time he goes over the boards, but makes only occasional appearances on the scoresheet.

• C Daniel Winnik ($1.8 million) — Can play all three forward positions and is sound defensively, although he sometimes doesn’t play as big as he is (6-2, 207).

• LW Harry Zolnierczyk ($550,000) — Not a difference-maker, but rarely went unnoticed in his 13 games with the Penguins in 2013-14. Definitely could fit in on a fourth line.

•NOTES — The Penguins extended qualifying offers to their six restricted free agents — forwards Brandon Sutter, Nick Spaling, Jayson Megna and Bobby Farnham and defensemen Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson. That preserves their right to match any offer one might receive from another club or to receive compensation if they opt against matching the offer. … James Neal said he was attending Niskanen’s wedding Friday in Virginia, Minn., when he learned he had been traded to Nashville.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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