After four games in which consistency has been elusive, the Pittsburgh Penguins have won two, lost two, looked great, and looked sleepy. The injury scare of Kris Letang and Noel Acciari was short-lived as both were full participants at practice Friday, but changes are coming to the Penguins lineup.
It’s Big Z’s big chance, and there appears to be change brewing on the struggling third pair.
Forward Jansen Harkins cleared waivers Friday after being pointless in four games and a part of the ineffective third line. Now Radim Zohorna, who was one of the last cuts in camp after a few offensive outbursts in the preseason, gets his chance in the Penguins lineup.
It was Zohorna, with clear eyes, that he feared this season may be his last chance, “And I’ll do anything for it.”
Why it will work: Zohorna is faster than he appears. He’s got soft hands and creativity. Zohorna has been on the cusp of the NHL for a year, playing eight games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and a pair with the Calgary Flames. He uses his reach well and creates a wide obstacle on the forecheck.
Harkins had a few opportunities, but his inconsistency mirrored the line’s invisibility. The only way to go is up.
“I thought (Zohorna) had a real solid camp for us. Every year he comes back, he’s stronger, his fitness level improves, and he’s more comfortable in the surroundings,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s played a number of games for us. His confidence level increases. I think he realizes that he can play in this league and could be an effective player. … He’s just a more polished version of himself. And I think he has more of a comfort level in his own game and the surroundings.”
Why it won’t: Zohorna is 6-foot-6 but does not effectively use his size in tight areas. He doesn’t throw his size and weight around to dominate his space like he could. In 35 NHL games, he has 11 points (5-6-11) but had only one point (1-0-0) in 10 games last season.
For a long-term lineup stay, he must assert himself. A little bit of ink on the scoresheet would go a long way.
One-timer: I’ll take a pass. It could go either way. Like Drew O’Connor, Zohorna had a big preseason, but that’s a different situation than the regular season, especially this season, as many teams are already eyeing the playoffs. It’s fair to say that Zohorna will get a chance and control his own fate. That’s all any player can ask.
Penguins D Pairings
While Ryan Graves struggles to adapt to the Penguins system, Kris Letang has played very well in the first four games. The top two pairings are set, even as they seek a greater level of comfortability and consistency. However, the third pair with P.O Joseph and Chad Ruhwedel has been a problem, especially one Wednesday against Detroit.
Sullivan split the pair in practice Friday. Ruhwedel skated with Ryan Shea on the left. Joseph skated with John Ludvig on the right. Sullivan could go with either new pairing on Saturday against the St. Louis Blues.
Since Ludvig also filled in on the forward lines at practice Friday, it seems Joseph will get a sea. It appears Ruhwedel will stay in the lineup, and Shea will make his NHL debut.
It’s an earned honor for Shea, who has surprised many from the first day of camp, and simultaneously a curiosity as to why Joseph will singularly pay for the struggles.
“I don’t really like my first couple of games. I have to regroup a little bit and move from there,” Joseph said Wednesday.
Friday, Sullivan concurred with Joseph.
It’s unclear if Sullivan prefers Shea on the left instead of the right, which is why Ruhwedel (will likely) stay in the lineup, or if Sullivan feels Ruhwedel is playing better than Joseph.
One-timer: It seems the 33-year-old Ruhwedel is mightily struggling, as he did late last season. The third pairing proved Wednesday that even if the top two pairings play close to 50 minutes, the third pairing can still have a great effect on the outcome. In this case, that effect was negative.
The Penguins would seem to have a much greater incentive to get Joseph on his game. The 23-year-old defenseman has the talent to be a lineup staple for a long time. He also has far more talent than the troop of defensemen who may take his spot.
It’s a complex decision with a few layers. Perhaps Sullivan is spurring Joseph to his better game, something that wouldn’t work with the same efficacy with Ruhwedel, whose ceiling is much lower.
Regardless of the decision and reasons for it, the Penguins remain strong at the top of their lineup and d-pairings but weak on the bottom. It’s a bad sign the Pittsburgh Penguins are turning to Ryan Shea and Radim Zohorna for answers.