The Pittsburgh Penguins combed the college free agents and have culled a couple of prospects from the draft and could carry a raw, but talented taxi squad for the 2020-21 NHL season. General manager Jim Rutherford flung the door wide open for his prospects to earn places both on the team and the newly created taxi squad.
As part of the new season, the NHL created a four to six-player taxi squad which will provide teams with immediate “callups” in case of injuries or COVID-19 infection. Financially, the extra squad will function as an on-site minor league team. Players on one-way contracts who are not waivers exempt will have to clear waivers for the Penguins to place them on the taxi squad.
And, just like burying a veteran contract in the minors, CBA rules limit salary cap savings to the first $1.075 million.
The Penguins plucked a pair of touted college free agents, Cam Lee from Western Michigan, Drew O’Connor from Dartmouth, and Josh Maniscalco from Arizona State. It would be a big surprise for Lee to make the leap to the NHL, but perhaps not as much of a surprise for Maniscalco who lit up the scoreboard at ASU, or O’Connor who was loaned to a team in the Norwegian Elite League.
You mean you didn’t knock off work at noon on game days to catch the action?
“We’ll see how guys are playing and where they’re at and the level of their game. We have some prospects capable of being on the taxi squad,” Rutherford said. “And we have some guys who are going to be knocking on the door to make the team. We really like… Lee and O’Connor.”
The short training camp will begin on Jan. 3, last 10 days or less, and exclude exhibition games. The regular season will begin on Jan. 13, and teams which are salary-cap strapped like the Pittsburgh Penguins could shrewdly stack their taxi-squad with an extra NHL player Young players will have much less time to acclimate and to prove themselves. And, teams will make the very crucial judgment call if players will benefit from practicing with the NHL club or playing with the AHL club.
Especially for a young defenseman like Maniscalco, it is a tough call. Forwards like O’Connor typically have an easier transition, though O’Connor left Dartmouth after his sophomore year. The 22-year-old forward was under 6-foot in high school but sprouted to 6-foot-3 while at the university.
“We’re going to have a competitive camp and that will dictate who ultimately stays on the taxi squad,” Rutherford concluded.
UPDATE: Capfriendly.com shows O’Connor scored 10 points (6g, 4a) in seven games. We reported that neither HockeyDB nor EuroHockey.com showed O’Connor accrued statistics. We thank our readers for alerting us to the stats at CapFriendly.
Lee, 23, was loaned to Bratislava Slovan of the Latvian league. The left-handed defenseman ripped up the competition for 11 points (2g, 9a) in 14 games.
The “prospects” kicking at the door Rutherford alluded to are top forward prospect Sam Poulin and top defenseman prospect Pierre-Oliver Joseph. However, Poulin cannot be assigned to the taxi-squad because he is just 19-years-old. He would be returned to the Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL.
Though he could play up to seven games before the Penguins burned the first year of his entry-level contract.
Joseph, 21, is a classic case of being close to ready for the NHL but needs more ice time to smooth rough edges. The Penguins already have five left-side defensemen and carrying Joseph for the taxi-squad may be tenable in a short stint, but doubtful for the entire season unless the Penguins project he will get playing time.
The Penguins will have an uphill climb to make the playoffs in the extraordinarily competitive Atlantic Division. The compressed 56-game schedule could be a boon or bust for the Penguins, too. However, the one area the team could make work for them is the taxi-squad.
Will the Pittsburgh Penguins stock it with depth veterans or invite the kids. First, we’ll find out who is ready for it.