As part of the NHL Return to play, which should launch later this month or in early January with training camp, the NHL is heavily considering expanded rosters, up to 26 players. Since the AHL will not begin to play until February, teams including the Pittsburgh Penguins figure to keep a few extra prospects or depth players.
But beyond the first 22 players, who makes sense for the Penguins?
The current proposal laid before the teams and players is to allow an expanded roster or “taxi squad” of 26 players. The additional players would draw an AHL salary but get NHL benefits (such as daily per diem).
Don’t get too excited, though. If the proposal is approved, there will not be a line of prospects at Penguins practices.
Typically, NHL rosters allow up to 23 players, but the Penguins and other teams have often adopted a 22-player roster to save salary-cap space. The Penguins prospect pool isn’t deep, and nor do they have a plethora of players fighting for roster spots.
The most obvious choices are P-O Joseph and Sam Poulin. The top Penguins prospects will be able to hang around, soak in more of the NHL life, and learn what it takes to be an NHL player.
That is especially true of the 19-year-old Poulin because he missed most of the two-week July training camp due to secondary exposure to COVID-19.
When the AHL fires up their season in February, however, why would the Penguins keep Joseph in the Pittsburgh press box? At best, Joseph would be the fourth Penguins LHD, though he does have some professional experience on the right, too. However, Juuso Riikola figures to be the primary depth LHD and Chad Ruhwedel the primary right-side depth choice.
Getting ice time and putting the finishing touches on his game will be more important for Joseph than press box nachos.
Poulin has already played five games in the QMJHL and been in camp with Team Canada for nearly a month. Poulin is battling to make the 2021 WJC Team Canada roster but is not a favorite to be one of the top 12 forwards.
Perhaps adding to the Penguins total is Zach Aston-Reese. The fourth-line winger should be ready sooner than later, after his offseason surgery. Otherwise, Evan Rodrigues will be in the lineup.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines
Guentzel – Crosby – Kapanen
Zucker – Malkin – Rust
McCann – Jankowski – Tanev
Rodrigues – Blueger – Sceviour
Extras: Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty.
Dumoulin – Letang
Pettersson – Marino
Matheson – Ceci
Extras: Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Zach Trotman
Goalies: Tristan Jarry, Casey DeSmith.
As you can see, the Penguins will quickly fill 25 spots without Joseph or Poulin. It won’t matter if the Penguins expose Trotman to waivers, so the team will conceivably keep Joseph, at least until there is additional ice time elsewhere in the organization.
The team may also be wise to have a third goalie. This offseason, the Penguins signed former Vegas Golden Knight depth goalie Maxime Legace to be ready for emergency NHL action. Legace would be No. 26.
Unless the Penguins send Lafferty to the AHL or expose Angello to waivers.
The expanded rosters specifically help the Pittsburgh Penguins with Poulin. Under ordinary circumstances, the Penguins would not keep him on their 22-man roster unless he shoved others aside to earn a regular spot. Under the expanded roster proposal, the team could easily keep him around for most of the season, allow him to play nine games, and not burn a year of his entry-level contract.
Imagine Poulin on the right-wing of the third line? Or left wing with McCann at center. Suppose Poulin can claim a spot. That allows head coach Mike Sullivan to shift Mark Jankowski throughout the lineup, wherever he is best suited.
Under the best-case scenario with Poulin, the lineup looks significantly better. At worst, the only Penguins first-round pick since 2014 should get a valuable taste of NHL exposure.
The Penguins have nothing to lose and everything to gain with the expanded rosters. And it just may be a huge gain.