Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin center Zach Sill laughed it off when he was compared to Sidney Crosby.
Head coach John Hynes didn’t.
No, the comparison doesn’t have to do with goals or point totals, but rather how a center can make his linemates better.
Crosby does it with points, Sill does it with energy and a relentless work ethic.
Well into his fifth AHL season — all with the Penguins, Sill has been a fourth line center for the majority of his career. It’s a role that he redefined for the Penguins. With Sill at center, the fourth line isn’t a “last resort,” but rather a trio of forwards that bring a unique element that Hynes relies on in all situations at all stages of the game.
Not only is Sill’s fourth line about energy and hard work, it also includes heavy doses of winning defensive draws, puck possession and forechecking.
Just like Crosby setting up his wingers for gaudy goal totals, Sill’s linemates find themselves becoming more well-rounded players.
“He’s reaching that stage of his career,” Hynes said of Sill’s ability to make his wingers better. “A lot of times to get guys going we put them with Zach. He definitely makes guys better and he definitely helps them jumpstart their game.”
And their careers.
Over the last five seasons, many of Sill’s wingers were heavyweight enforcers who earned their keep with other teams simply by their effectiveness after the gloves were dropped.
But skating on a line with Sill, those same players played just as tough, but were able to bring other elements as well.
Take Wade Brookbank, for example. Before he returned for his second stint with the Penguins in 2009, he was viewed exclusively as an enforcer, bouncing between the AHL and NHL.
During the 2009-10 season, Brookbank and fellow tough guy Jesse Boulerice were Sill’s wingers. Brookbank matched his career high with 68 games played and even appeared in four playoff games. He found himself on the ice not just to protect his teammates, but in situations that required defensive responsibility or an aggressive forecheck, adding two more elements to his game.
This season, noted heavyweight Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond is the latest tough guy to skate on Sill’s line, and he is taking a regular shift and logging minutes in late game situations when wins are on the line.
“I hate to say it, but my job is not to score 25 goals, I have a different role,” Leblond said. “Playing with a guy like Siller, he understands that and he makes me look better every shift with forechecking, bringing strong defense and getting momentum. You do benefit from a playing with a guy like that.”
As quickly as Sill shrugs off the comparisons to Crosby, he downplays the compliments and gives the credit to others. He said his wingers make him better, and none of it would be possible without Hynes’ willingness to roll four lines throughout every game.
Still, Sill can’t hide the pride he has in being a player his coach can count on. It’s an attribute that dates back to his junior days with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. From 2007 to 2009, Sill put up two seasons with decent point totals of 26 and 24, but he was far from the team’s leading scorer.
Back then, Sill’s job was to be a top penalty killer, win the defensive zone faceoffs and bring energy. Those seasons in Moncton is when Sill truly grasped the value that can come from an effective fourth line and being a player his coach can trust.
“It might not be when we need a goal, but when we’re protecting the lead and it’s late in the game, or a defensive draw when your team is counting on you,” he said. “It’s a role I try to excel at and I take pride in the fourth line.”
And when Sill excels, so do his wingers.
Leblond said when he played with other teams, opponents’ fourth lines weren’t really discussed during pre-game meetings. But when it comes to the Penguins, the fourth line is something that should be a part of the conversation.
“Fourth line guys, they’re kind of like unsung heroes,” Leblond said. “Usually it starts from the center and Sill is the kind of guy that does everything right. You know what to expect and he brings it every night.”
Having perfected his fourth line role with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Sill’s next goal is to replicate that success with Pittsburgh. Now in his fifth season with the organization, Sill is still waiting for his first call-up to the big club. When it comes he knows exactly the approach he’ll take.
“I feel I kind of fell into the fourth line and I’ve always been that player, now I want to carry what I have here to the NHL,” Sill said. “At the NHL level, I’d be more simple than I am here, but I’m still going to bring the same penalty killing, the energy and be out there for those defensive zone faceoffs.”
And perhaps he’ll make his NHL fourth line wingers better players as well, just as he’s done with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“Zach has built his game and his reputation and he’s the real backbone of our energy line,” Hynes said. “He has a lot of respect in this league and he’s reached that stage in his career.”