Parsing head coach Mike Sullivan’s coach speak is a chore unto itself. The Pittsburgh Penguins bench boss is adept at dangling carrots to players while not providing many clues to his thinking or what may lie ahead. The Penguins have a pig pile of young players in camp, including nine new forwards.
And Sullivan will have to sort out who goes where in a hurry.
New faces such as Kasperi Kapanen and Colton Sceviour will mix with prospects like Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare.
After Sullivan’s first media availability of the “season” on Tuesday, the hockey season is officially upon us. Training camp begins on Sunday, and it sounds like Sullivan has a pretty good idea of what to expect.
“I’m looking forward to watching some of the younger guys and seeing some of their progress,” Sullivan said. “But having said that, we have a fairly good handle on where everybody is at. We’ll try to create a competitive camp and allow guys the opportunity to perform…”
The Penguins will likely have a vacancy on the fourth line’s left wing. Sullivan did not offer a specific timetable for Zach Aston-Reese’s return but offered the stocky winger is on the expected schedule. Aston-Reese had shoulder surgery after the NHL postseason in August and was projected to be out until mid-February.
There could be a good battle between several players for the spot. Last week, GM Jim Rutherford said the team planned to bring tough agitator Jordan Nolan to camp on an AHL deal. Free-agent signing Evan Rodrigues could also factor into the decision making process.
Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello, who both made their NHL debuts for the Penguins last season, will also figure into the forwards mix. The Penguins currently have 24 players on NHL contracts, but the maximum is 23.
“We, as a coaching staff have an idea of where we’d like to start as far as line combinations and defense pairs,” Sullivan said. “We’ll put these guys together and see how they perform…”
Multiple depth players with NHL deals figure to be placed on the Pittsburgh Penguins taxi squad if they pass through waivers.
The young players in camp and the new faces battling roster spots will not have preseason games to prove their bonafides. As a result, Sullivan is prioritizing 5v5 scrimmages in training camp and will go through at least one game day simulation.
“We think we’ve put a pretty good plan together on how to establish the foundation of our team concept,” Sullivan said. “But also allow the opportunity for these guys to get into 5-on-5 scrimmage play.”
The Penguins held a mini-training camp in July ahead of the NHL postseason in August. The team scrimmaged four times and went through one game-day sim then, too.
Perhaps the biggest decision Sullivan will make is regarding 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin. PHN did a full scouting report on Poulin’s progress and have spoken to opposing coaches. Poulin received praise from all corners including in our video report.
The Penguins will begin their 2020-21 NHL season (more like the 2021 season, right?) on Jan. 13 in Philadelphia. The Penguins will play in the Atlantic Division, and their schedule will feature only division opponents. The Pittsburgh Penguins will play each division rival eight times, and the top four teams in the division will make the playoffs.