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Penguins Signings Put Joseph, Ruhwedel on Hot Seats; Dubas Creates Battle Royal



Celebration after OT victory against CBJ 3/7/23

Wednesday morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins confirmed they signed right-handed defenseman Mark Pysyk and left-handed D-man Libor Hajek to PTOs to attend training camp next month. Fulfilling a hope he expressed when he was hired, Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has created a competitive training camp, and it is a battle royal that could have a more lasting impact on the Penguins roster.

Last summer, Pysyk signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings, then was almost immediately injured while training. He suffered an Achilles injury and then a setback in January. He didn’t play a game for Detroit.

Before the injury, Pysyk skated well. He also has some offensive instincts and is responsible in the defensive zone, though he doesn’t score many points.

Current third-pairing placeholder Chad Ruhwedel deserves not an ounce of criticism, and he’ll get none here. He’s maximized his career potential and is a reliable, steady defenseman. However, he’s a borderline NHL talent, and his biggest plus is that he’s not a negative.

If Pysyk is fully healthy, he will probably supplant Chad Ruhwedel as the Penguins’ third-pair defenseman.

That’s the easy part of the analysis.

Hajek, a 25-year-old lefty defenseman, presents a potentially impactful signing. He’s young, and he’s also over 6 feet and 200 pounds. Those two qualities alone make him worth a look.

Presumably, he’ll compete directly with P.O Joseph, Ty Smith, and Will Butcher, who signed a two-way deal last month, for the left side of the third pairing.

Hajek split last season between the New York Rangers and their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack. Hajek moves well, doesn’t score points, and knows how to protect the defensive zone. He played 16 NHL games and 24 AHL games last season.

At 6-foot-3, 203 pounds, Hajek is also substantially larger than every Penguins defenseman except Ryan Graves.

It seems Joseph’s spot is in trouble, and he’ll have to compete hard for it.

It also seems the glut of LHDs means the Penguins organization wants more than Joseph gave last season.

With respect to Smith and Butcher, they are depth. I appreciate that many PHN readers are high on Smith’s potential. Still, the cold reality is that he’s probably a borderline guy capable of a long-term substitute role or a regular role on a lesser team. Smith is creative in the offensive zone, but the considered view here is that he lacks the speed and defensive zone coverage to be a trusted regular, at least with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Smith, too, was to get a shot to supplant Joseph, but the additional signings should also tell you something about his career projection.

Hajek could be a good counterbalance to an offensive defenseman. He scored just one goal (1-0-1) in 16 NHL games last season and doesn’t profess to be a scorer. Projecting forward and assuming he earns a contract out of training camp, Hajek could be the right depth behind Graves and Marcus Pettersson, balancing Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson.

Conversely, Joseph’s two great strengths are speed and often untapped offensive potential. When Joseph plugs in, he looks like a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman capable of carrying the puck, distributing it, and defending his own zone.

Yet Joseph, 23, is also prone to recede to the background, playing a safe, vanilla game.

Now Joseph has a lot of competition, and it’s clear that the job is not his by default, but he must win it. It could be the springboard to unleash the full potential of the former first-round pick. It could also shuffle him back or make him an expendable bit of Penguins trade bait.

Joseph has more offensive potential and speed than the group, and Hajek might be the best defender. There are a few ways to mix and match the available defenders as the fifth, sixth, and seventh defensemen.

Dubas wanted a competitive training camp. He’s succeeded, and the battle on the Penguins blue line, at least for the third pairing, now looks like a battle royal. Whoever responds well to the competition will have a job in October but probably not feel too comfortable for quite a while.

It seems Dubas has pulled off another set of good moves that will make the Penguins deeper and probably better, one way or another.