Two road games down and two home games coming up. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ first week of preseason has thus far been more interesting than we may have guessed a couple of weeks ago as a few players getting the sunlight they and the Penguins needed to make potentially lasting judgments. Sunday, Penguins assistant coach Jacques Martin said after the first two preseason games, the team would begin to experiment with lines and defensive combinations. Those two games are up.
Several players have begun to earn a greater look through the rest of preseason while others have failed to catch the spotlight. The Penguins should be thrilled with the number of prospects emerging from such a thin talent pool. Ryan Haggerty and Juuso Riikola have turned heads, while Anthony Angello has knocked a few heads. Sam Miletic has also shown well in camp, though he’s raw and about to enter his first professional season.
1. Jack Johnson is the Real Deal
Johnson’s stocky silhouette is unmistakable on the Penguins blue line. The Penguins haven’t had a defenseman shaped like a fire hydrant since Douglas “Crankshaft” Murray in 2013. Fortunately, Jonson is much more mobile but has shown that mean streak.
Johnson also unleashed a few heavy shots from the top of the zone, Wednesday night. One took paint off the post and probably damaged the puck in the process. Johnson and defensive partner Justin Schultz could form the best pairing of their careers. That’s not exaggeration or hyperbole. They really could be special.
Wednesday night, Johnson played like a veteran in a preseason game. He picked his spots. He dished a few hits, stepped into the zone a few times, and otherwise showed a good step and breakout passing. As the new guy, Johnson has something to prove. He has attacked camp with energy, from the drills to his first preseason game.
2. Calen Addison–Good Start
The first-period sequence showed Addison’s skills. His speed allowed him to skate deep into the offensive zone on the forecheck then he adjusted to the situation and quickly re-established a center ice presence. Within moments, he intercepted a Red Wings clearing attempt at the blue line and started the Penguins offensive possession.
Addison was also surprisingly smooth on the power play with regular point Justin Schultz. Addison showed an ability to find open ice to receive passes and lanes to make them. He isn’t far off from the NHL level on the front 100 feet of the game.
However, in his own zone, he was too soft on the Red Wings who wanted to control the slot. Addison gave forwards space in the scoring zone. Goalie Tristan Jarry made a few dandy saves on deflections and good chances, which could have been nullified with tighter positioning.
Penguins assistant coach March Recchi said Addison is going to be a good player, “Very impressive. Very competitive. He’s got great poise,” he said. “He tries to play the right way. As he gets stronger and stronger, he’s going to be a heckuva player.”
3. Daniel, Daniel Sprong
He was hit hard in the first two preseason games. Considering neither game was regular season intensity, that stands out. Sprong didn’t get caught with his head down, but he was caught by opponents who marked the kid. In 2016, veteran defenseman Brandon Manning injured Connor McDavid on purpose. It’s one of the things hockey does to make youngsters pay their dues, especially youngsters who rub some veterans the wrong way.
It will be worth watching if Sprong is the continued recipient of aggressive hits.
Regarding play, Sprong has had a rough go lately. After an explosive start to camp, Sprong struggled on some key elements in his next scrimmage. He had trouble on a couple of occasions getting out of his own zone. He had a couple more rough moments against Detroit, Wednesday night, too. In the second period, after receiving a crisp breakout pass on the mid-wall, he had plenty of time and space to make the next move. Instead, he threw the puck to the middle of center ice, where three Red Wings intercepted and quickly transitioned. It was a terrible giveaway.
The initial excitement of Sprong riding shotgun with Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby should be tempered with the reality that it was probably a camp scrimmage arrangement more so than a specific audition.
PHN asked Crosby about Sprong, Sunday. Crosby could have answered the question in many different ways. He instead smiled and said when guys have a few training camps they get more assertive, and that’s the biggest difference with Sprong. Read it as you will.
Wednesday night after the Penguins 3-2 loss to Detroit, assistant coach Mark Recchi said, “He hasn’t stood out like we would hope right now, but we gotta keep working with him, keep getting him games, keep getting him comfortable here. He’s a good young player and we expect more.”
“He’ll have lots of opportunities in the next four games.”
Perhaps PHN’s prediction that Sprong would begin the season on the fourth line right side isn’t so far fetched. Besides Sidney Crosby, would there be a better linemate than Matt Cullen?