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10 Thoughts on the Penguins’ Summer



Pittsburgh Penguins, Phil Kessel trade
Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, March 3, 2018: Photo by Michael Miller

It hasn’t been the most eventful summer for the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is the first summer since 2015 in which there wasn’t a parade to Point State Park. No Justin Schultz memes. No photos from neighbors which caught a Penguins player sleeping off a good beer buzz and yet the Penguins have managed to assemble a team worthy of another Stanley Cup.

Despite the lack of events, the Penguins did have plenty of drama in the early going. Losing tends to bring dissent and friction. The Penguins organization had drama flare up but eventually tamped it down after the draft.

Ice is down at PPG, the rookies and prospects are soon headed to Pittsburgh to begin their battle for contracts, position and maybe NHL ice time. Here are PHN’s 10 Thoughts on the Penguins summer.

10. Signing Derek Grant is a direct acknowledgment the Penguins needed to be bigger

The Penguins didn’t need another center when they signed Grant on July 19. The Penguins already signed center Matt Cullen, but Grant is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. PHN Extra did a video breakdown of Grant–read it here. He isn’t fast (nor is he slow). Grant is a big body who goes to the net. Expect him to battle Matt Cullen for ice time and the Penguins to take every opportunity to use him against the Washington Capitals.

9. Bryan Rust is a better RW but will be used as an LW

The bet from here is that Dominik Simon is planted on Sidney Crosby’s right wing, which puts Bryan Rust on Derick Brassard’s left wing. The right-handed Rust, in my opinion, is a better right wing but the Penguins needs are greater than the slight difference between Rust on the right and left side. Fortunately, Rust’s game is simple and straightforward; it’s about speed, puck retrieval, puck pressure and battling all over the ice.

Rust could make a very fast, lethal third line: Rust-Brassard-Kessel.

8. Daniel Sprong v. Dominik Simon

Unless Sprong earns top line right wing honors with Crosby, he won’t supplant Patric Hornqvist or Phil Kessel in the pecking order on the Malkin or Brassard line. Kessel can’t play with Crosby and Hornqvist’s game doesn’t seem like it would benefit a pass-first playmaker like Brassard. So Sprong and Simon will battle for first line RW, the loser likely plays fourth line RW.

Simon has a significant advantage because he is a smart player who seems to have a knack for playing with talented players and for putting himself in a good position. Sprong has not yet shown he is ready for the NHL. In fact, there’s no guarantee Sprong is in the lineup.

7. Sprong’s Situation Could End Elsewhere

There isn’t a guarantee Sprong even makes the roster, long term. He figures to get every opportunity, then a few more, to stick with the Penguins, but it’s entirely plausible that he’s not ready. The Penguins could face a serious decision to try to slip Sprong through waivers or deal him, probably for well less than his potential dictates.

Sprong’s play will be THE story to watch in training camp. He could be in the penthouse or the outhouse. It isn’t fair to Sprong, but who said life was fair?

6. Don’t make Jack Johnson a scapegoat

No Penguins free agent contract has brought the consternation of the faithful like Johnson’s ink on the Penguins page. Johnson may well go through a half-season or longer adjustment period. He may try to do too much in the early going. He may miss opportunities or be a step slower because he’s thinking instead of reacting.

All of those are very real possibilities. Based on social media comments, replies, and public interactions, no player worries fans like Johnson. Give him time. Phil Kessel didn’t show up until March of his first year. Johnson dealt with some dark family issues over the past couple seasons in Columbus. Players are human, too.

The bet is a fresh start with a talented team and less responsibility will unleash Johnson, if not immediately, eventually.

5. Tristan Jarry proved the NHL RFA system is broken

What team wouldn’t spend $1 million for a young goalie of Jarry’s pedigree? 30 of them if he’s an RFA. The Penguins paid Jarry a fair sum of $675,000 (when he’s in the NHL) and that money is guaranteed next year, but it’s very low for an NHL backup. It’s also low for a goalie who could soon be ready to become a starter.

4. As quickly as drama appeared, it disappeared

There was talk in the Penguins organization that Kris Letang and Phil Kessel could be…well, you know. That talk was not made up but as quickly as it was offered, it was put down. Was there an internal disagreement? Perhaps a brief window of conversations which yielded such unsatisfactory results that the ideas were scrapped? Or misconstrued conversations?

It’s hard to know for sure. It’s also hard to believe numerous media types from TSN’s Bob McKenzie on down were totally wrong. Credit Jim Rutherford for tamping out the fire which was starting.

Still, keep an eye on Justin Faulk. That’s one player who could rearrange things in Pittsburgh if the Penguins feel the need.

3. The Penguins are deep

Depth is not an issue for the Penguins. NBC / Pro Hockey Talk disagrees. I speak from experience of both sides– sometimes those closer to the team see things those farther away do not (and vice versa). From a distance, Matt Cullen and Derek Grant are shallow additions. Up close, they upgrade the Penguins fourth line, add leadership, grit, and heart. Statistically, they also add far more offense than the Penguins fourth line was able to muster last season.

Defensive depth is also not an issue. Jamie Oleksiak may still carry the bust label from Dallas and his ice reduction in the playoffs, but he was otherwise a revelation who adds a much needed physical element to the blue line. Justin Schultz didn’t garner the breakout headlines last season, but he should have for his defensive improvement. The Penguins are seven deep, and solid.

2. The Penguins stockpiled centers and that gives them tons of options

The Penguins have a cupboard full of centers, and Teddy Blueger waiting in the AHL. If any center (aside from Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of course) isn’t performing to expectation or isn’t gelling with linemates, the Penguins have options. If other needs arise, the Penguins have trade chips. If injuries, coaching preferences or bad luck emerge, the Penguins have options.

1. Good God Almighty, let’s go

The last two off-seasons have been painfully short. My suitcase was barely unpacked when it was time to get cranking, again. This summer has seemed to drag on indefinitely. The Penguins are the better team in the Metro, perhaps the second best in the East behind Boston. The Penguins could also be the fifth best team behind Washington, Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay.

It’s time to get to it and find out.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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4 years ago

The coverage and analysis of the Pens by your site is the best in the Pittsburgh area IMO. A few comments. As noted 81 can’t play with 87. Stats on this site have shown 81 can’t play with 71 either. Is this more of a reflection of 81 or 87 and 71? Of the other top teams noted in the article, would Simon play on any of their first lines? Philly’s first line? IMO Simon playing on the top line is not Stanley Cup winning material. I’m uncertain if the blue line is the highest paid overall in the NHL.… Read more »