CRANBERRY — Mike Sullivan hates young players. The Pittsburgh Penguins are too old. And young players never get a chance.
Those are the barbs lobbed at the Penguins on a daily basis, and the spreadsheet indeed shows the Penguins roster is the oldest team in North American pro sports. Their average age is approaching 31 years old.
As one veteran player quipped to PHN, “Around here, I’m young!”
However, the lack of youngsters in the Penguins lineup over the last handful of years is a complex issue that has much less to do with Sullivan than the available opportunities and the players themselves. After all, there are scant players who were denied chances with the Penguins but succeeded elsewhere. Some have, but they first had opportunities with the Penguins.
However, opportunities are limited.
One of the Penguins’ success stories is Bryan Rust. It’s been nine years since the 2010 third-rounder (80th overall) went through the rocky process. He was called up and demoted a couple of times. He was put on the fourth line and not given a lot of responsibility, but he seized his chance to be a contributing fourth-liner before eventually becoming a well-paid scoring winger.
“It is difficult. Depending on circumstance, you might only have one game to try and prove yourself. You might have more. Whatever the situation, you have a finite amount of time,” Rust said. “And those times (can be) very few for you to show your best. And there are situations year to year where there may not be a full-time spot open. So you’ve got to keep doing it. You’ve got to keep doing it consistently. Try and be the first guy called up from (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton). And when you are, you’ve got to make your mark.”
Rust was one of the “WBS crew” that filled in when injuries decimated the 2015-16 Penguins, and he was one of the players to punch his ticket, though it wasn’t until 2019-20 that he reached the 20-goal plateau. It’s been some time since Rust went through the school of hard knocks, but he remembered it well.
“For me, when I first came up, I wasn’t playing a ton of minutes. I wasn’t in a ton of overly important situations, I guess you could say,” said Rust. “I think for me, it was just work as hard as you could every shift. Don’t turn it over. Make the right play. Get it out of your zone, get it into the (offensive) zone, and then work as hard as you can.”
Rust’s battle to make the NHL began with former coach Mike Johnston, a coach known for being able to work with young players, and it still took a couple of seasons after his four-year college career at Notre Dame. Such is the nature of the NHL. Winning games is important for competitive teams; there aren’t many teams able to absorb unproductive growing pains merely hoping a player figures it out.
Industry insiders admit the gap between the NHL and AHL has been growing. It’s an accomplishment to reach the NHL, but another journey entirely to acclimate to it.
“The reality is this is a competitive business, and guys are competing for roster spots. The question we try to answer before every game is which group of players gives us the best chance to win,” said Sullivan. “I know that sounds like a simplistic point of view, but the reality is that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. There’s competition for those spots as well. And everybody’s competing, and it’s healthy competition. I think that helps us be the best of ourselves because we’re pushing one another to be at our best.”
The Penguins currently have about a handful of players trying to figure out how to make that leap from the AHL to NHL regular. For a player like Drew O’Connor, the struggle is seemingly coming to an end. After a few seasons of recalls, demotions, healthy scratches, and limited duty, O’Connor is starting to reach his potential.
For others like P.O Joseph, Jansen Harkins, and Valtteri Puustinen, the journey has still more obstacles to overcome. Puustinen was benched in the third period in the Penguins’ 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. He’s played just 14 NHL games.
Joseph has played just 11 games this season after a full campaign in 2022-23 and winning a regular role in training camp. After a string of healthy scratches, he was thrust back into the lineup last week after John Ludvig’s injury. Harkins has played 23 games with two assists but has recently earned more playing time.
It’s not a linear process.
Newbies generally go through a few phases in maturation at the highest level. There’s the beginning, which is fueled by adrenaline, but what follows is the hard part: figuring out how to access their best game after the adrenaline wears off.
“The reality is these guys that are on the bubble, trying to establish themselves in the NHL, they have to push their comfort zone to another level. When they first (come up), my experience in coaching players … they play on a lot of adrenaline (and) emotion,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “There’s a ton of energy. And then the grind of the schedule and the grind of the NHL sets in, and that’s where the consistency of bringing it day in and day out presents the challenge for young players … I think the biggest thing — and I think you can establish it through your practice habits — is just building a foundation that you can rely on with good habits.”
It’s not an easy path. For every Rust who figures it out, there are a dozen players who don’t. The Penguins AHL squad in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a half dozen players who seemingly got over the hump but are hoping to restart their NHL career. Colin White, Alex Nylander, Vinnie Hinostroza, Will Butcher, and Ty Smith have significant NHL experience but have been banished to the AHL for additional work or because there isn’t space at the NHL level.
It’s not easy. A young player might get eight minutes to earn another NHL game. Both O’Connor and Rust told PHN about their early moments and the pressure to produce. Young players may not know if they’ll get another shot if they screw up.
It’s a process. O’Connor presented the most interesting note about figuring out how to stick around.
“When you’re playing in games when you’re called up, you don’t really know if you’re going to get the next game. So it’s like you’ve got to earn everything,” said O’Connor. “I think you’re focused a lot on how you’re playing and always worried about if you are doing the right things.
“As I play more games, some of that stress kind of goes away. My focus has shifted to more of ‘How can I help the team win’ versus ‘How can I just stay afloat?’ That’s the mindset shift that comes with just playing games.”
For Rust and O’Connor, their insights into the path behind them came from the heart. Their answers were absent the normal cliches players have been coached to spout and came with just a wisp of appreciation.
They’re the fortunate ones who figured it out, albeit after a few chances.
For Puustinen, Joseph, Radim Zohorna, and Jansen Harkins, getting over the hump remains a goal, not yet an accomplishment. When or if it happens will depend on them as they’ve been given the opportunity.
“That’s a daily endeavor. Some players adjust quicker than others. Everyone’s a little bit different,” Sullivan said. “My experience as a coach in this league is just watching players. A lot of times, the players themselves are going to dictate when that jump is actually made.”
For PHN+ subscribers, I’ve also included the audio version of my chat with Rust: