CRANBERRY — In an unusually long media availability, at least by coach Mike Sullivan’s standards, the Pittsburgh Penguins bench boss both downplayed and affirmed analysis of the line combinations he created on Day 1 of training camp.
In short, yes, many of the Penguins’ lines he put together represent a pairing or trio the coaches want to test. And, no, don’t read too much into anything, because some of those lines aren’t what they seem.
Sullivan put trade acquisition Reilly Smith with Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust with Sidney Crosby, creating two pairs of players that can reasonably be expected to stick when the pucks count on Oct. 12 against Chicago at PPG Paints Arena.
Other decisions, such as Vinnie Hinostroza with Crosby and Rust, are probably auditions for other roles.
“So the first thing I would say is, don’t be too much in the lines. We have different objectives for how we can put the teams together,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to create some competitive balance first and foremost, so that we have NHL-caliber players on all of the teams … And so that’s part of it.”
Navigating through the simultaneous confirmation and denial, we can also see that Sullivan expects Jeff Carter to be a part of the top 12 forwards. Following a season panned by most, Carter skated with July 1 free-agent signing Noel Acciari Thursday on what looked like the foundation of a regular-season fourth line.
However, it was the head coach referencing that pairing as an example of pairings that intrigued the coaches which removed the guessing from analysis.
“Then we put some combinations together that we’re intrigued about, that maybe, ‘Hey, maybe we go with,’ ” Sullivan said. “For example, do we play Noel Acciari with (Carter) and Matt Nieto or something like that?”
As a side note, coaches also put 2023 first-round pick Brayden Yager on the same camp team as Sidney Crosby. It was less a treat for Yager, who admitted at the draft to idolizing Crosby, than an opportunity for coaches to expose the prospect to Crosby’s work habits up close.
Penguins Camp Battles Won’t End
It was a subtle point to which even we’ve alluded in the past, but Sullivan speaking of it openly should apply a little extra heat to those who “win” a spot on the final roster.
Just because a player, such as Sam Poulin or Rem Pitlick, doesn’t survive the last cuts doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road.
“I think it’s a healthy competition that will continue pushing us to be the very best. And we’re going to have some very difficult decisions to make … We believe we’ve got a lot of depth this year,” Sullivan said. “And because of that, there’s going to be a lot of challenges for roster spots. I also think it will make Wilkes-Barre a much more competitive team, and I don’t envision that competition ever going away. I think that’s something that we want to try to create as an organization.”
A report over the summer also indicated that Sullivan stressed the importance of rebuilding a competitive roster for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to Fenway Sports Group ownership, even before the group hired president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas.
It seems that came to fruition.
The influx of experienced NHL players with the desired skills sets (speed, tenacity) and a bit of offensive instincts will greatly improve what was a somewhat lifeless American Hockey League affiliate last season.
Those veterans sent to the AHL and a couple of youngsters will continue to apply pressure to the NHL players.
Perhaps even Jeff Carter.