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PHN Analysis: Penguins Opportunities, Disappointments, & New Blue Line Battle



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nylander

Not every player has seized the opportunity to show Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas that they must be included on the opening night roster. While Radim Zohorna has sparkled and Sam Poulin has notched a couple of goals and largely solid play, a few others in that mass of bodies fighting for space have receded to the background.

That’s the purpose of a competition, isn’t it?

A few of those performances highlighted, or lowlighted, the Penguins’ 4-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday.

Jonathan Gruden, Joona Koppanen, and Corey Andonovski were at the bottom of an avalanche. The line was on the ice for only one shot on goal and five attempts.

They looked worse.

It’s been a disappointing step backward for Gruden, who made his NHL debut last season. Koppanen also played in five NHL games last season for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.

However, it would be fair to cross both of the list of serious contenders for an NHL job.

This writer/analyst is also slightly disappointed by Rem Pitlick’s performance. The spunky forward, who had 16 points in NHL 45 games last season and a solid reputation for offense at the preceding levels, has been largely invisible and sometimes out of place.

There’s always time to reverse course, but Pitlick is chugging for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on the Lehigh Valley locomotive.

There’s also Colin White. The experienced NHL center figured to be a prominent figure in the battle for a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater and would allow the Penguins to put Noel Acciari, who struggles on faceoffs, on the wing.

However, White has been conspicuous by his absence.

In addition to Zohorna, obviously pouring everything he has into this fight, and Poulin, Vinnie Hinostroza has also popped. Hinostroza, 29, has played 360 NHL games in his career, and his speed has been eye-catching. He’ll not make anyone forget Jake Guentzel, but he might be a nice short-term addition beside Sidney Crosby as a puck retriever and tenacious forechecker.

Has anyone seen Andreas Johnsson?

The potential Danton Heinen replacement has been invisible both in scrimmages and preseason games. His job is to get pucks on the net and snipe a few of them, but it has not gone well.

He skated on the left wing with Sam Poulin and Avery Hayes against Detroit. Poulin and Hayes were noticeable, which only exacerbated the negative judgment of Johnsson’s camp.

Alex Nylander

The projected wunderkind, who has toiled in the minors for most of his seven-year career, has offensive talent. The rest of his game was the problem.

He underwent a significant renaissance last season and earned his way back to the NHL. In his nine-game stint, he was intensely focused on defense and the backcheck, but some of his defensive work seemed to stifle his offensive gifts disproportionately.

He had big moments Sunday against Columbus but struggled in a few, too.

Wednesday at practice, Nylander was skating on a line with Evgeni Malkin. He was also on top of the second power play unit with P.O Joseph.

Since the Penguins host the Buffalo Sabres Thursday, and Sullivan indicated veteran regulars would begin to trickle into the lineup, take it as a sign that Nylander will get a shot.

It’s showtime.

If Nylander does not make the team, perhaps a lesser team without Stanley Cup aspirations will take the waivers gamble and be the last leg in his journey to eventually becoming an NHL regular or forever mired as a tweener too good for one league, not good enough for the next.


It was general consensus that Alex Nedeljkovic played well on Tuesday.

I would agree, at least in the first period. A couple of the second-period goals were soft, and his misplay on Dylan Larkin’s tight-angle shot from the goal line struck me as odd. The goalie didn’t shove off his bottom foot to the far post to make a hard save but sort of turned and stuck out his glove.

Larkin paused briefly and then whistled a wrister into the mostly open net.

Nedeljkovic got small in traffic, allowing one, if not two, that way.

He made plenty of good saves but could have made a couple more. Judge that as you will.

Magnus Hellberg probably is not a serious challenger, but in a few months, Joel Blomqvist could be.

Mark Friedman & Ty Smith:

The plucky defenseman skates well enough to be in the NHL. He has a bit of big-league experience, and he’s got a healthy amount of sandpaper in his game, though sometimes too much.

After Mark Pysyk succumbed to another serious lower-body injury, Friedman is now the primary competitor to Chad Ruhwedel for the third pair role, beside P.O Joseph.

Friedman has looked like an NHL defenseman in preseason, and PHN has well chronicled his desire to stick around. However, Sullivan trusts Ruhwedel as a steady, dependable, no-mistakes defender. Friedman is more of an adventure and prone to take penalties.

Ty Smith has unraveled since last season when he had a competent stretch in the NHL. He seems to have lost the thread in the defensive zone and was noticeable for the wrong reasons against Columbus and Detroit.

Dont Be Surprised: Penguins Off-Wings

You may see Sullivan began mixing wingers on their off-wing. He’s spoken in-depth and passionately about recent findings that wingers on their off-wing create better breakouts and, thus, puck possession because they’re going back in the defensive zone on their forehand.

He’s also spoken about the resistance to the idea from veterans accustomed to their strong side.

“The challenge of some players (is) having never played their off-side. And so we’re trying to put players in their respective comfort zones. Also, we don’t want to put players in positions where they don’t have a certain comfort level,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “And so we don’t force players under that scenario, but we’ve made our players aware of why we feel the way we feel (that way) — we break down our breakouts every game. We do a breakout study at the end of every season with a huge sample size. It’s amazing to me how effective we are at gaining the zone and our success rates when that first touch on the wing is a forehand.”

The preseason would be the ideal time to shuffle a few things.

Lest anyone forget, Sullivan is a master of staying on trends and creating a few. The NHL is still adjusting to his overhaul of the 2016 Penguins…