The Pittsburgh Penguins received temporary salary cap relief Tuesday and allowed the external Penguins trade speculation to quiet when they placed Bryan Rust on LTIR and were able to exceed the salary cap limit by more than $3 million. Rust’s injury means the Penguins are down to just 12 healthy forwards, so the Penguins called up prospect defenseman John Marino.
Marino’s call-up gives the Penguins nine healthy defensemen on the roster. Three players swapped out of the extra pairing Wednesday at practice. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. A multitude of questions should arise from a unique situation, mostly because it doesn’t make sense to have three extra defensemen but no extra forwards. There were no good answers offered by the Penguins on Wednesday.
How could Marino’s development be best served by subbing on an extra pairing at practice rather than playing big minutes in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton? How will Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola or Marino stay sharp if they’re sharing the limited reps of the extra pairing?
“It can be a challenge, but my approach with our guys has always been just trying to be straightforward with them and communicate to everyone where they stand,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ll do that with all of our players. If we’re going to be the team we hope to become, everyone is going to have to embrace their roles.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t a handbook for a ninth defenseman. Three defensemen would need to be injured or woefully ineffective before the ninth defender sees NHL ice. Marino was already in Wilkes-Barre. He had to drive back to Pittsburgh one day after making the excruciatingly boring drive to Wilkes-Barre (there isn’t a more monotonous passage in Pennsylvania than hours on I-80).
So the callup wasn’t about convenience.
The hard answer is that Marino’s development is not best served by eating press box nachos. Carrying eight defensemen is not the norm, but the Penguins did so last year and it was effective after Justin Schultz suffered a broken leg because the team mixed and matched pairs for months.
But everyone is currently healthy. And now the Penguins three extra defensemen and no extra forwards.
What happens if a Penguins forward is injured or sick on game day? Multiple times last season a Pittsburgh Penguin player took warmups and was injured or unable to play due to illness. Patric Hornqvist was hit with a puck that caromed off the crossbar. Thursday, Alex Galchenyuk is a game-time decision.
Currently, in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, forward Joseph Blandisi has NHL experience. Sam Lafferty played in the first four preseason games and acquitted himself well. He too could serve as an emergency insurance policy should the Penguins need an extra forward but both remain in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Should Galchenyuk not be able to go on Thursday, it is hard to imagine Lafferty or Blandisi getting a police escort from the airport to make the opening faceoff, which could mean the Penguins play shorthanded.
The Penguins are living dangerously to accommodate nine NHL defensemen.
The current Penguins roster only makes computes if there is something we don’t know, such as a brewing trade. However, that can of worms made GM Jim Rutherford lash out at a reliable reporter Tuesday, and defenseman Jack Johnson tamped down pending trade talk with PHN, too.
However, it is the answer which is the most plausible. And perhaps the only answer which truly makes sense. PHN was told earlier this week at least one player was surprised by the actions or lack of action Monday because he had been told to expect something different.
Carrying a boatload of defensemen would make be good business if a couple of them were injured or battling injuries, but the Penguins roster is healthy. Nor does there seem to be a competition for any of the spots, either.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be satisfied, but they have to be willing to embrace their roles and then we go from there,” Sullivan said. “From my standpoint, I’ll be straightforward with these guys and we’ll communicate as a coaching staff as best we can so everyone understands where they are at.”
The coaches can explain to players that they won’t play, but the overall question is why will they need to do it for three extra defensemen? The pending deals which may or may not be on Jim Rutherford’s desk have not materialized. He can be patient as evidenced by the long-awaited acquisition of Riley Sheahan a few games into the 2017-18 season but packing the roster with defensemen before it happens doesn’t help anyone.
And it could hurt the Penguins if they play with 11 forwards.
A Penguins trade is the only answer which makes sense because a steady diet of press box food doesn’t help anyone. Nor does carrying nine defensemen in the meantime.