The training camp seemed to pass by in a blink. Just a moment ago, we were shocked that Sidney Crosby had wrist surgery on the eve of training camp, and now the Pittsburgh Penguins have completed camp and five of six preseason games. Sullivan promised an NHL-heavy lineup on Saturday in Columbus, and so Friday could be eventful for the Penguins.
Thursday night, the Penguins lost to Detroit, and the shortcomings of their top prospects were on display in the 4-2 loss.
It’s about time for the prospects to collect their things, get the handshakes and pats on the back as they load the car full of their gear, clothes, and knowledge gained at the NHL level. Most, or all, of the Penguins prospects will head to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the care of head coach J.D. Forrest.
“Their raw talent has been on display. You can see why they were drafted where they were. I think you can also see some of the immaturity in their game and where they need to learn certain details to develop a more mature game,” Sullivan said.
And with that, Nathan Legare, Sam Poulin, P.O. Joseph, Filip Hallander, Kasper Bjorkqvist will almost certainly head to WBS.
Legare showed well at times, but all of the Penguins prospects displayed a lack of consistency, and none forced Sullivan to make a tough choice.
No, Sullivan’s tough choice will come down to Drew O’Connor. And only O’Connor.
There is one wrinkle to note: COVID protocol.
Both Zach Aston-Reese and Jake Guentzel are in the NHL COVID protocol. Aston-Reese has been away from the team for 11 days as of Friday. Sullivan reported Aston-Reese did experience a few symptoms, and that was the reason for his absence. Guentzel has only been in the protocol for five days and is asymptomatic.
Will either be available for the Penguins regular season launch on Tuesday? The NHL set the rules not to punish teams when vaccinated players test positive, so the Penguins will be able to replace both on the roster for the time necessary by placing them on IR retroactively.
The Penguins may also put Crosby on IR, but after the team released photos of Crosby taking shots at an individual practice, perhaps he won’t even miss the projected five games.
If you can predict the course of COVID through an individual, there are a few scientists who would like a word.
Projected Pittsburgh Penguins Roster
We put a question mark beside Crosby because it appears he’ll return sooner than later. If he misses Tuesday in Tampa, he’ll return not long after.
Boyle sticks on the “final” Pittsburgh Penguins roster for several reasons. Not just the additional physicality that he brings, or the experience factor, but Boyle is the best penalty killer among the group vying for the spot, and he’s the best center among O’Connor and Zohorna.
In the short absence of Sidney Crosby and the long-term absence of Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins need center depth. O’Connor is a better winger than a center. Zohorna hasn’t yet shown the explosive snap at center, at least at the NHL level. We’ll take Sullivan’s word that he was a reliable two-way center in the AHL last season, but he wasn’t productive at the NHL level in the preseason.
Boyle is also the best option for a 13th forward because he doesn’t need to play every day to continue refining his game.
In small part, Simon sticks because O’Connor doesn’t have to clear waivers, and Simon does. Also, Simon just makes other players better. There’s no worry or wonder what Simon brings. He’s earned a trust factor.
“…Dom was really good. Not only did he score a goal, but I thought he was stiff on the puck (Thursday). He makes plays and wins puck battles, and he makes plays out of traffic,” Sullivan said.
It’s a tough call between O’Connor and Simon on the whole, but Simon’s ability to play both wings and NHL experience. Simon’s ability to increase the offensive output of those around him.
“I thought Drew O’Connor had a strong game (Thursday). He’s really developed his two-way game. It’s come a long way,” Sullivan said Thursday night following the Penguins loss to Detroit. “He’s playing with confidence. We’ve utilized him on the power play tonight. He was part of the penalty kill–we had him killing with Brian Boyle. I thought he did a good job on the kill, as well.”
O’Connor’s PK usage does make us wonder if the Penguins will keep him ahead of Simon, but the team should have enough penalty killers with Aston-Reese, Brock McGinn, Boyle, and Teddy Blueger. Even Kasperi Kapanen got some PK work in the preseason.
If Aston-Reese isn’t ready, O’Connor figures to get the shot. He’s earned it. The unknown is if Zohorna gets a spot if Guentzel isn’t ready. Perhaps Zohorna’s offensive potential is better for a top-nine role, but Zohorna is waivers exempt. Lafferty and Angello must pass through waivers if sent down.
7th D: Mark Friedman.
P.O. Joseph didn’t do enough to win a job in the preseason. The smiling defenseman who brings an air of youthful enthusiasm, and a bit of fashion sense, to the Pittsburgh Penguins will be ready sooner than later. Consistency will be critical. So will a bit of hate. Joseph will need to hate playing in the minors and be ready to grab his next opportunity with both hands and not let go.
Juuso Riikola has played the last couple of games at the right, but that seems more like seasoning than it does an audition. Riikola has been a frequent preseason player in his four-year NHL career.
Will the Penguins keep Riikola as an eighth defenseman, and thus 23 players, or risk losing him to waivers and send him to WBS so that he can play every day?
Chad Ruhwedel has the inside track on the third-pair right side. He had a poor game on Thursday night, but Mark Friedman hasn’t leaped past him on the depth chart, either.
We’ll see if Friedman’s leg is good enough to go Saturday and if Sullivan gives him a chance to win the job with the NHL regulars. Perhaps this battle goes into the season with both players getting opportunities until one wins, or GM Ron Hextall acquires help.