PITTSBURGH — Dominik Simon and Tanner Pearson appear to be healthy scratches, Saturday when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Calgary Flames and head coach Mike Sullivan is sending a message to those players as much as he is rewarding the young, scrappy players who will take their place.
Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger will be in the lineup in place of Simon and Pearson, who have been mainstays this season. However, not only have Simon and Pearson gone cold, they’ve failed to make an impact on the ice beyond the scoresheet as the Penguins enter the home stretch.
“When we’ve got a healthy group here, we’ve got a very competitive roster, so there’s going to be a competition for roster spots,” Sullivan said. “The players that have come up and we’ve inserted in the lineup have played extremely well.”
Those players he’s referencing are specifically Blueger and Aston-Reese.
And this stretch run is as much about getting ready for the playoffs as it is making them. For the first time in several years, the Penguins playoff position is not guaranteed. They lead the Carolina Hurricanes by just one point for the final Eastern Conference spot. And the Hurricanes are on the upswing.
Simon, 24, is a second-year player who makes just $750,000 and such things are not uncommon. The zippy little winger often makes his centers better with good puck retrieval and subtle plays to spring them to open ice, but even those have gone cold in recent weeks.
This season, Simon has a respectable 21 points (7g, 14a) in 48 games but like his play, the points have fallen off as the season gets more serious.
“I’ve had these conversations with Dom. He’s a good playmaker. He can hang onto pucks down low, he’s strong on the wall and he’s a sound two-way player,” Sullivan said. “But I think he’s got to bring a little more urgency to his game and a little more execution.”
Pearson, 27, has also stumbled over the past month. Pearson started hot with the Penguins but has received since a two-goal outburst on Jan. 11. Pearson has just three points in 13 games since. Worse, the Penguins winger who frequently side-saddled Evgeni Malkin was not contributing to the line.
“When (Pearson) came to us, he was hard on the forecheck, he was physical when he had opportunities. He was really good at going to the net and making it hard on opponents goaltenders and forcing (opponents) to defend the net front. He was good on the wall,” Sullivan explained. “That’s the game he brings to our team and when he’s going, he has some scoring touch.”
This season has gone sideways for Pearson, who was once one of the young players who helped the LA Kings win the Stanley Cup. However, Pearson had just one point in 14 games with LA before being dealt for Carl Hagelin in November.
And Pearson has again gone cold with the Penguins.
“I’ve had that discussion with him over the last couple of weeks, and trying to define (what he brings to the team),” Sullivan continued. “We communicate with all of our guys what their roles are and how to help us win.”
The Penguins won two straight before their home game against Calgary, though the Penguins gave up 90 shots in the previous two games. The Penguins overall were not out-chanced, but the lines which contained Pearson were outshot and underwater with scoring chances, too. In Wednesday night game against Edmonton, Pearson along with Phil Kessel and Nick Bjugstad were out-chanced 10-2.
Meanwhile, Blueger scored a goal and was a disruptive force on the forecheck. Aston-Reese has also pushed play with Matt Cullen on the fourth line. Both Blueger and Aston-Reese can kill penalties, which is something neither Pearson or Simon are adept.
It could be a while before the scratched players crack the lineup, as the Penguins hone in on their identity which veers more towards Blueger’s and Aston-Reese’s contributions. In addition to Sullivan sending a message to Simon and Pearson their play must improve, the more significant signal to all players is the Penguins again have a deep and competitive roster.
And that’s a message every coach wants to send.