Four men enter, two men leave. Eventually, three will leave. That is the final battle for a Pittsburgh Penguins roster spot.
Brian Boyle, Drew O’Connor, Sam Lafferty, and Radim Zohorna. They are the four players vying for the open roster spots. The number of spots is currently variable, pending the health of Jake Guentzel and Zach Aston-Reese, who are in the COVID protocol. Aston-Reese has been in the protocol for nine days and experienced mild symptoms. Guentzel was asymptomatic and has been out for, but neither has returned.
Sidney Crosby will be back approximately five games into the season. That’s three spots unavailable, eventually, so the above quartet is fighting for a spot in the press box at the NHL level or making another forward the 13th type while they grab ice time.
“As we get closer to the regular season, the priority starts to weigh more on the on preparing the team from a detail standpoint for Game One. Part of that design is–when you look at some of the groups that we put together for practices–the intention there is to get close to the semblance of our roster,” Sullivan said. “That might not be the exact one, but close to it so that we can work on our team concept in utilizing those practices that are so critically important to us as far as getting on the same page.”
Based on practice lines on Wednesday, the top three Penguins lines were:
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines
The Penguins fourth line revolved around Brian Boyle at center and O’Connor on the wing (they rotated). Lafferty and Zohorna cycled in on the other wing.
So, for this moment, we can assume the final decisions are to keep Simon, who is on a two-way contract. Lafferty will probably get a bus ticket, and it appears Zohorna is on the losing end, at least today.
The Penguins’ penalty kill may take center stage, and probably should, regarding the final few decisions. The NHL’s 27th ranked PK can’t wet the bed again this season.
“Some of these things are going to be important deciding factors when we’re talking about the final roster spots on who can fill what roles,” said Sullivan. “So, there are multiple objectives in mind, but as far as the penalty kill is concerned … part of it is just actually assessing what we have and who we think can get the job done.”
Sullivan continued to speak highly of Zohorna, more highly than the coach needed to make his point or defend his player. The takeaway is the Penguins organization is excited by Zohorna’s tomorrow, even if he’s not entirely the best fit today.
On the plus side, if Zohorna or O’Connor goes to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins as a center, they will likely get to pivot Sam Poulin and/or Nathan Legare. The Penguins top forward prospects were excluded from practice on Wednesday in advance of a team meeting. Perhaps Poulin or Legare will get another preseason game, but the practice group is the NHL club.
Plus a couple.
P.O. Joseph and Juuso Riikola worked as the Penguins’ fourth defensive pair on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh Penguins Defensive Pairings
Defenseman Mark Friedman had a “maintenance day” per head coach Mike Sullivan. Friedman blocked a shot on Tuesday night, and Sullivan reported Friedman was a bit sore. So, we can’t glean anything from the third pairing, though Ruhwedel’s inclusion in the lineup on Sunday is a good indicator that he had the “lead” over Friedman for the third pair, right side.
The bigger question is if the Penguins will carry eight defensemen with Juuso Riikola or send the Finnish d-man to WBS to play (and save the salary cap space).