If the Pittsburgh Penguins were eastbound and down, they would have a long way to go and a short time to get there. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has added several new players around the established team core, but the upheaval will create more challenges for head coach Mike Sullivan who must cobble together a new lineup.
The Penguins a long way to go after winning just one of their last eight postseason games in the last two years, and the COVID training camps mean Sullivan has less than 10 days to get his team together and make several crucial decisions.
There are no less than a handful of lineup fitments, player evaluations, and line juggling, which Sullivan must complete. Camp begins on Jan. 3. The Penguins opener is in Philadelphia on Jan. 13.
Some decisions can be made and unmade as veterans earn their place or give it away once play starts. Sullivan is no stranger to juggling the lines based on how his players are performing.
“(Sullivan) has a feeling of the game. He knows when guys are playing above their peak,” Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told PHN in May. “You can’t teach that. You have to know your players. That’s (hockey) IQ.”
To that end, we could see Jared McCann become Sullivan’s Swiss Army knife. One period at center, one period back on the wing.
We could see winger Jake Guentzel with Sidney Crosby, but we could see Guentzel and Jason Zucker temporarily flip spots. Given Sullivan’s stated preference for Guentzel with Crosby, we’ll assume those two begin the season together, but after that…don’t use too much ink on your lineup sheets.
You’ll also notice, we haven’t allowed much space for prospects such as Drew O’Connor or Josh Maniscalco. The reality is camp is too short. Those players will have only a few days to acclimate and pop. Perhaps not even John Marino would have made the team last year if camp were little more than a week long.
For the prospects to earn a place, they’ll probably have to do it the old fashioned way — Through the AHL and injury call-ups.
5 Decisions Mike Sullivan Must Make
5. Sam Poulin.
Should he stay or should he go? Sullivan will have to let us know. If he goes, the third line could be in trouble. The Pittsburgh Penguins 2019 first-round pick failed to make the unbelievably loaded Team Canada roster and would be returned to juniors should the Penguins not keep him on their 23-player roster.
There won’t be exhibition games for Poulin to prove himself, either. He’ll have a week to show Sullivan he is ready.
“He plays a complete game … he adapts to the players around him,” former QMJHL coach Jon Goyens told PHN. “(Poulin) is physical. He added a hard reverse hit to protect himself.”
PHN Thinks: Yeah, he’ll get a spot. I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on it, but I like his chances. Poulin may not be fully ready, but he’s more ready for the pro game than toiling in the Q for a few months. The third line or even fourth line is a great spot to ease him into the NHL.
4. Who is Jared McCann?
McCann has a wooden chest full of toys but hasn’t yet played with all of them at the NHL level. He’s fast. He’s got a good hockey IQ, and he’s got a wicked wrist shot. What’s not to love? However, the former first-round pick has not scored more than 35 points in any of his five NHL seasons.
Is Jared McCann the third-line center? Is he the best option for LW on the third line?
PHN Thinks: Shuffling him around the lineup won’t help; convincing him he’s a 25-goal scorer might. McCann’s ability to be a Bryan Rust-type winger is why filling the 3C spot with someone else is so crucial. In the words of Evgeni Malkin, “I tell him, shoot the puck.”
3. Will Evan Rodrigues get a shot?
The scrappy but slight forward loaded up on the score sheet when he played with Jack Eichel during his senior season at Boston University. However, the NHL path has not been smooth sailing. Rodrigues hasn’t yet cracked double digits goals in any season.
His best was nine markers with the Buffalo Sabres in 2018-19 before coach Ralph Krueger took over.
The Penguins acquired Rodrigues at the trade deadline with Conor Sheary for Dominik Kahun. The Pittsburgh Penguins traded the RFA Rodrigues to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the Kasperi Kapanen deal in August, then signed Rodrigues when Toronto declined to tender a $2 million qualifying offer.
Rodrigues has been well traveled since March. He has energy. He’s spunky. But after 199 NHL games, is he an NHL player?
The forward can play all three positions, and the Penguins are a little bit thin at RW. Will Sullivan give him the chance to earn a spot, and where would it be?
PHN Thinks: Rodrigues was clearly one of the best players in the Penguins training camp 2.0 in July, leading up to their postseason thud against the Montreal Canadiens. Rodrigues didn’t dress for any of the four games.
His energy could replace some of the voltage lost when the team traded Hornqvist. Rodrigues could look terrific beside the equally speedy and spunky Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev on a fourth line.
It’s time to find out what Rodrigues has to offer.
2 & 1. Just who in the world will be the third and fourth liners?
Yes, I cheated, but it’s that important with a dozen questions unto itself. Will it be Jankowski, McCann, or Blueger in the middle? Does Tanev have enough offensive game to be a third liner? (History says no).
Mike Sullivan doesn’t have to worry about setting his defense. The biggest decision on the blue line will be which players are put on the practice squad.
However, the bottom two lines are a jumbled mess, which Sullivan will have to sort. The left-handed Poulin appears to be capable of playing RW, which helps tremendously. Rodrigues, Jankowski, Nolan, and even players we saw last season, such as Sam Lafferty, are absolute question marks in a regular role.
PHN Thinks: Rolling four lines in a compressed 56-game schedule will be important, so shorting the fourth line to create a third line won’t pay dividends for long.
Everything hinges on the 3C role. If Blueger takes the spot, he could form a very defensively responsible and speedy third line with McCann, but producing enough offensive pressure would be a concern. That would also leave the fourth line vacant for Jankowski, though it’s doubtful he and the spare parts could defend the opposition’s top line as effectively as Zach Aston-Reese-Blueger-Tanev, did.
Normally, the first week of camp is about giving the kids a look beside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; toss them into the deep end and see how they react.
There will be little time for playing around this year. Kasperi Kapanen needs to establish chemistry with Crosby and Guentzel. Zucker could use more time to sync with Malkin and Rust. And the third line puzzle can’t be a game of Perfection that pops out the pieces every 60 seconds.
We’ve run the scenarios in every way possible. Our gut says the Pittsburgh Penguins have an abundance of wingers, and McCann will be the third-line center.
We like Rodrigues to get a real look. We like Lafferty ahead of others on the fourth line with Blueger and Tanev.
Of course, Jankowski could set everything straight. And that’s the biggest thing to watch in camp.