Austin Wagner delivered nothing less than an eye-opening performance Wednesday night in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Wagner knew his time to make the NHL club was running out, that the PTO he signed to attend camp guaranteed nothing, and he could become an AHL player again. So, with the opportunity before him, he launched into every Red Wing he could.
Wagner forechecked, he scrapped, and he made life miserable for the Red Wings, who he felt came for a congenial preseason skate. He wasn’t having any of that and used perhaps his last chance to show the coaches what he could bring.
“I thought I did a good job of playing the body a lot of the time. As bad as it sounds, making their guys worry more about me than the game … they were coming after me and other guys because we were just playing physically, and they didn’t want to play that way,” Wagner said.
When was the last time a Penguins forward gave a quote like that?
PHN spoke with Wagner after the game, and he wasn’t shy about admitting he knew he had to make an impression to make the team. At 25 years old, he’s been around long enough to know the situation and where he fits into it.
It was probably the most refreshing and honest talk we’ve had with a player in a long time. There were no cliches or hopes. As he did on the ice, Wagner let rip, finally. He wasn’t happy with his camp or early games but found his stride Wednesday.
“Having spent the five years in L.A., obviously no one knows what to expect of me (here),” said Wagner. “I thought I had a bit of a slow start to camp, the scrimmages and the practices. I don’t think I utilized my game to the best of my ability.
“(Skating). That’s what’s going to make me effective and make me stand out. So it is something that’s the biggest part of my game and the physicality. Wherever I am, it’s stepping up too. And you know, somebody goes out there — I feel like I don’t have to fight Ryan Reaves — but at least mixing it up, getting in a scrum of they go (our guys). Be a part of the game.”
Coach Mike Sullivan also noticed Wagner’s energetic performance, which included everything from a couple of odd-man rushes to goading Detroit scoring winger Lucas Raymond into coincidental roughing penalties in the third period.
When asked about Wagner after the game, Sullivan gave rousing praise for his gritty winger with “contagious” energy.
“I’ll tell you, he’s made an impression on this coaching staff. He’s a terrific teammate. He brings a lot of juice on the bench (and) in the locker room. He brings us some energy, and I love that about him,” said Sullivan. “Just getting to know him as a person, he’s just a good teammate. I can tell how engaged he is and how competitive he is. And I believe stuff like that is important. It’s contagious. And so that’s been evident to us.”
It was the second time in a couple of days when Sullivan’s tone changed, and he heaped genuine praise on a player fighting for a roster spot. The impression Wagner made on coaches was evident.
But not every player can make the team.
And therein lies the great mystery of the next few days. For the first time in recent memory, Sullivan and the Pittsburgh Penguins have real decisions to make regarding their final roster. There won’t be a winner by default or an unworthy winner (or two).
The next few days and decisions are going to be telling. Even if they are imperfect players, Sullivan has options to form the Penguins’ bottom six. There’s some skill, plenty of speed, grittiness, and energy to choose from.
“I think we’ve got a number of players that have the potential or the capability of playing in Pittsburgh and helping us. And so, from that standpoint, it’s really exciting. Not everybody can make the roster. That’s just the reality of it,” said Sullivan. “And so we’ve got some really difficult decisions to make, and we’re trying to watch each game as it comes.”
An accounting of Wagner’s night against Detroit would be a series of hits, undocumented scraps, agitation, created turnovers, and a few more facewashes.
In a building that typically houses a skilled team without much truculence or feistiness, Wednesday’s loss against a team that brought their NHL stars was a departure from the norm. The Penguins had something to prove and took advantage of Detroit’s soft game.
“I think he brings good speed size. He’s got a bit of a power game, and he knows what he is. He plays within himself,” Sullivan said. “He plays a north-south straight ahead game, has some good awareness away from the puck, (has) a defensive conscience … So, he’s made an impression on our group. Like I said, I love his personality. I think he’s a great teammate.”