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Penguins Offseason: Can O’Connor & Poehling Solve the ‘Old’ Problem?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

In the Pittsburgh Penguins’ obvious need to add some youthful energy and an ounce of exuberance, does the organization at least have the basis for a few young players to be inserted in the lineup?

While some may answer an emphatic yes, the answer is a definite … maybe.

The Penguins have a trio of players 25 and younger who competently filled bottom-six roles. Ryan Poehling, Drew O’Connor, and late-season call-up Alex Nylander were not out of place on the NHL roster, though each faced unique struggles which could and should give a new GM pause before going all-in on any of the three.

All three Penguins “youngsters” are RFAs already in their mid-20s and arbitration-eligible, but none figure to break the bank, though Poehling might get a raise because of his NHL experience.

The first on-ice hurdle for all three was consistency.

Poehling, 24, had experienced a few bites at the NHL apple with Montreal and but didn’t stick in the lineup. With the Penguins, he seemed to fill his roles solidly, at least when he was healthy. Either on the wing or the middle, his speed showed well. His closing rate on the puck and puck carriers is striking, especially in person.

Poehling recorded the fastest mph (25.5) of any skater in the NHL this season.

His role with the team next season will depend as much on need as his performance, but he’ll be on the Penguins roster, barring a trade.

Ryan Poehling Season Grade: B-

The critical question is if he can handle the elevated duties of third line center. Poehling had only 14 points (7-7-14) in 53 games.

That’s not good enough for a regular third-line center but is solid enough for a fourth-line center. However, that brings up the Jeff Carter conundrum. Carter could not handle the third-line role.

Should the Penguins put Poehling in the 3C role and hope for the best? No. The empirical evidence is not on Poehling’s side. In 138 NHL games split between the Montreal Canadiens and Penguins, Poehling has only 36 points.

He filled the role admirably as the Penguins and coach Mike Sullivan had no alternatives, but a successful team needs more production from the third center.

Poehling has also struggled to stay healthy. That shouldn’t be overlooked on an old team that is usually one of the most injured in the league.

So, Poehling’s future is with the team, but external acquisitions and availabilities will determine the capacity.

Drew O’Connor:

At multiple points in his NHL career, O’Connor has faded into the wallpaper. The 6-foot-3 potential power forward is three years removed from his collegiate career at Dartmouth.

He has speed and some power in his game when he chooses to use it. A couple of goals were scored, including a “get out of my way” move against the Tampa Bay Lightning in early March that showcased his true potential.

However, he had only 11 points (5-6-11) in 46 games and slipped from third to fourth-line duty.

Drew O’Connor Grade: A

O’Connor, 24, faded in his first chance this season, and it looked like he had accepted his fate as an occasional traveler on I-80 from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Pittsburgh and back again.

But then, somewhere in mid-January, he decided he liked NHL paychecks and forced coach Mike Sullivan to keep him in the lineup.

That’s the way it’s supposed to happen. Young players with O’Connor’s pedigree, or lack thereof, are supposed to kick down the door to their opportunity. If you can’t do that, you don’t deserve the spot.

O’Connor grabbed it with a solid two months. Playing the wing beside Jeff Carter or Ryan Poehling, he played well. O’Connor also did what Kasperi Kapanen failed to do. He stabilized a line with Carter, the maligned 37-year-old Penguins center who was on the wrong side of the puck all season.

However, O’Connor did fade in the final weeks. He had only three shots in the season’s final six games, which was a significant drop for a player who had 12 shots in the six-game segment before that.

The last segment drop is the reason O’Connor didn’t get an A+.

However, the forward should be a fixture in the Penguins’ lineup, though he may need a reminder or two next season that he can be scratched — to keep the youthful desperation.

If O’Connor decides he is a power forward and uses his speed on the edge with his long reach and underrated strength, he could chip in 15 goals. Maybe more. But he has to dedicate himself to that next level of performance and consistency.

Can the Pittsburgh Penguins rely on both O’Connor and Poehling?

It’s still tentative. Neither should be given a free pass into the 2023-24 Penguins lineup, and the organization should have contingency plans and competition for those spots. Neither O’Connor nor Nylander reached a point of being above reproach or indispensable.

But both earned a good chance and first right of refusal on the gigs next season.