It’s over. Training camp has ended, and the Pittsburgh Penguins can look ahead to the 82-game grind, making the NHL playoffs and taking the first step of the journey that counts on Tuesday when the regular season begins. The mistakes they made in preseason akin to Tweets that were never sent, words unspoken and do not count.
That’s true for most Penguins, anyway.
In the most unsettled and open training camp of head coach Mike Sullivan’s tenure, the Penguins found a few takers for the open jobs. In the end, the winners made themselves known, and the losers of the opportunity did the same.
There were a few standout training camp performances. Tongue-in-cheek, I joked last week that Drew O’Connor was the runaway winner of the Ryan Haggerty training camp MVP award. Haggerty lit up Penguins camps and preseason for a couple of seasons but wasn’t a serious contender for an NHL gig.
O’Connor, 23, was the easy standout. He tied for the team lead with three goals and forced his way into the conversation for an every-night spot.
He wasn’t the only one to be successful.
Top 3 Pittsburgh Penguins Camp Performances
1. Drew O’Connor
Three goals. Killed penalties. O’Connor even played center when head coach Mike Sullivan was holding open auditions for the fourth-line center position.
Sullivan is a coach who appreciates players who will do anything to be in the lineup and those who seize opportunities. O’Connor is 6-foot-3 and could add size to the Penguins lineup. He also brings an intelligent game, which includes a bit of offense.
The question Sullivan will answer any moment now is — is there room for O’Connor?
2. Dominik Simon
Simon is the silent assassin. He deftly picks pucks off the walls and moves the puck into scoring areas. Offensive chances magically appear when Simon is on the ice, but it’s not magic as much as Simon’s willingness to play in the dirty areas.
“He’s stiff on the puck. He’s good in the battle areas. He plays a real good give-and-go game. He’s a conscientious player,” Sullivan noted last weekend.
As some fans derisively note, Simon has earned Sullivan’s trust, and he played well in preseason. His lines seemed to be the offensive drivers each night, and he knows how to play defense, too. Simon signed a two-way deal with the Penguins, but the bet is that he doesn’t have to use the “two-way” part. NHL paychecks will be in his immediate future.
3. Kasperi Kapanen
Among the NHL regulars, Kapanen played in most of the preseason games. Sullivan tasked Kapanen with adding more layers to his game, including penalty killing, power-play point duty, and simply dominating the play.
Check. Check. And check.
Kapanen could well be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ next star player.
Good but Not Great
Legare had some high spots in camp. His second-period last Friday in Buffalo was eye-popping. He had several high-quality scoring chances of his own making. He stole a breakout pass for a great chance in the slot. Legare also fought his way to the net for a few whacks and deflections.
However, the 20-year-old winger also disappeared in other moments. If he can elevate his effort and intensity to mirror his bright spots–oh boy, look out.
Boyle didn’t have to be great. He had to show the Penguins he could still play. The 36-year-old experienced NHL player is a glue guy, a monster penalty killer, and a fourth-line center type. Boyle didn’t try to show he could score 20 goals or had dynamic offensive talent. He showed he could capably pivot a checking line, kill penalties and be what the Penguins need.
Zucker zipped around the ice with Kapanen on a line with Evan Rodrigues. He didn’t dominate like Kapanen or show himself to be a 30-goal player in waiting. But, he did show some motivation to wash away the taste of last season’s 18-point output.
“I was awful (last season),” Zucker said in the first days of training camp. He was pretty good in camp, and that bodes well for the Penguins.
5 Pittsburgh Penguins Who Missed Their Chance
The Penguins 6-foot-5 winger had a chance to assert himself into the conversation for a fourth-line NHL role. Instead, he was on waivers on Saturday. He didn’t distinguish himself in camp and watched O’Connor zoom past him.
“He was fine…” is how Sullivan began one critique of Joseph’s play.
Perhaps the most disappointing training camp because so much was possible. Joseph, 21, wasn’t bad in camp. No, he didn’t whiff as much as he didn’t seize the day. Carpe Diem. Yolo. Joseph played it safe, played conservatively.
For a moment, we wondered if he could push one of the left-siders to the right to make room. We wondered if he could simply leap-frog an NHL regular.
Soon, but not now.
Joseph had the most to gain but didn’t give the Penguins coaches a reason to keep him around beyond his tantalizing potential. We didn’t grade Joseph as an A or even a B+ in any of the preseason games.
He’ll be back.
Pettersson had some rough moments in the preseason. He did not look quicker or stronger. Instead, some forechecks got the better of him as well as net-front battlers.
The Penguins defenseman needs to be better in the regular season. He can’t suffer those losses, especially with circumstances thrusting depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel beside him.
Poulin showed he could be solid positionally and hold his own on the walls. That’s about all he showed. The Penguins’ 2019 first-round pick otherwise didn’t make an impact in the preseason or camp scrimmages, either.
The heavy 6-foot-2 winger who bulled his way to offense in the QMJHL needs to show more of that power forward mentality and be more aggressive in his chances. The puck doesn’t follow background players.
He had a chance to win his first NHL starting job. Instead, he took a head-scratching spearing penalty. Sullivan didn’t bother sticking up for his player–“it was what it was.”
Friedman was Hextall’s first player acquisition last February when he snagged Friedman off waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers. The defenseman was injured shortly into his Penguins tenure and fumbled his last chance in the preseason.