Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan declined to name players who may have raised their stock this weekend. Sullivan instead opted to cite a player’s full body of work as the primary baseline for decisions. In reality, Sullivan didn’t have to name the players whose stock rose or fell over the weekend. Some of them were obvious, such as Juuso Riikola.
If the Penguins decide to keep a full 23-player roster, they will likely carry two goaltenders, 14 forwards and seven defensemen. However, defenseman Juuso Riikola’s weekend put him solidly in the conversation for an NHL roster spot. Perhaps the Penguins could keep eight defensemen and only 13 forwards.
Matt Cullen: Stock UP
It wasn’t exactly a secret that Matt Cullen was having a good training camp. However, Cullen was a rock star, Saturday. It’s one thing to work hard in practice, it’s another to skate around defenders in game action. Cullen showed slick stick handling, cycling in the offensive zone and he crashed the net for a pair of goals.
There were legitimate questions if the soon-to-be 42-years-old Cullen still had anything left. Saturday, Cullen showed himself to be the Penguins best fourth line center. The Penguins depth probably forces Cullen to the LW because the differential is greater from Cullen to Riley Sheahan on the left wing than the differential between the two at center. However, there are several scenarios in which the Penguins put Cullen at pivot and stack the fourth line, too.
Derek Grant: Stock Down
Grant showed surprising speed on a couple of occasions and solid play, Saturday. However, he has not yet shown himself to be better than Cullen, Sheahan, or Zach Aston-Reese. Grant has shown well but not impactful. It’s a stretch to write his stock is down, but the rising stock of others, by comparison, lowers Grant’s rating.
Grant was placed on Team 2, this week. Team 2 was the Penguins camp team comprised of expected minor league players. Most of them were sent to WBS Penguins, Sunday night
Zach Aston-Reese: Stock Up
He pulled the upset of camp when he earned a spot on Team 1, ahead of Grant. Aston-Reese has been given prime opportunities to play beside Evgeni Malkin, then was solid with Matt Cullen. Aston-Reese was good on the wall and held up his end of the bargain with Cullen; the pair cycled down low and produced offense.
Aston-Reese is a better skater than last season and can fill the right or left wing, which could come in very handy pending the Penguins final decision on Daniel Sprong. If Sprong isn’t ready for the lineup on a regular basis, Aston-Reese can very capably play fourth-line right wing, or elsewhere in the lineup as a left winger.
Juuso Riikola: Stock WAY UP
In a prime-time spot, Riikola was a primetime player. He skated around the Columbus Blue Jackets defenders and hit their top forwards. Sunday, he kept pace with the zippy Red Wings in a sloppy game. He was less noticeable against Detroit but the Penguins generally had a down game.
Riikola impressed everyone in camp and the start of preseason. In a different situation, he could be a lock to make the roster. Instead, Riikola will join a few players on the bubble who could be NHL players with other teams. Even Mike Sullivan smiled when breaking down his game and Sullivan admitted he was surprised by Riikola’s physicality.
Riikola could unseat Chad Ruhwedel as the seventh defenseman, though the likeliest course of action is to send Riikola to the AHL for more testing and seasoning. After this weekend, if the Penguins sustain an injury on the blueline, you Riikola could be the person to play ahead of Ruhwedel.
Daniel Sprong: Trending Down
You want to hear that Sprong is close. That he’s getting it and improving daily and will be ready to roll with Sidney Crosby and score 40 goals. It just isn’t realistic for a player to improve his complete game as much as Sprong needed to improve his, in such a short period of time. Unfortunately, Sprong is being forced to learn the fundamentals and the constructs of the game. Puck support can be a matter of feel, but being stronger on the wall is a matter of desire.
Sullivan mentioned both of those areas for improvement, in addition to a list of others which the Penguins coaches are communicating to Sprong on a near-daily basis.
Worse, Sprong has one assist in three preseason games and only five shots. Both Sprong and the Penguins had hoped for more by now, however realistic or unrealistic those expectations may be. If Sprong is to play on the top line when the bright lights matter, he’ll need to be more productive to offset the lack of other aspects.
Our prediction that Sprong would be the fourth line RW may have been spot on. Such a low-pressure situation and time with Matt Cullen may be the best course of action. If frustration sets in, things could get worse. It will be a huge week for Sprong’s career.