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Sullivan Explains Practice Groups–Opens Door for Changes



Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan sliced his training camp roster into two halves on Wednesday, specifically the haves and the have-nots. The split was obvious. Those in Group 1 have NHL contracts and expected NHL jobs, and those in Group 2 do not have either.

That’s it. It’s over. Book your bus tickets to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Sullivan picked his folks, and the rest is an academic exercise.

The battles are not quite over, though that was a common assumption and reaction from social media and the airwaves on Wednesday afternoon.

P.O. Joseph, Nathan Legare, Sam Poulin, Radim Zohorna, and Sam Lafferty were the biggest “losers” in the split as they landed in Group 2. At the same time, Anthony Angello and Drew O’Connor joined 6-foot-6 Brian Boyle on the Penguins fourth line in Group 1.

However, it’s not quite the exile for Joseph and the crew. Sullivan leaned into his answer on that one.

“The answer is yes–you could see some changes. And I think when you look at our schedule–and we looked at this before we close our training camp–starting today, we have six practices that don’t include morning skates until opening night,” Sullivan began. “So when you think of it in those terms, that’s not a lot of practice time. So we’re trying to maximize the opportunity, even though we’re in the middle of training camp, to get the semblance of what we would consider our roster, understanding that there’s going to be some movement within that.”

Without twisting Sullivan’s words, understanding there will be movement means that Sullivan placed O’Connor and Angello in the top group, but that’s as much to give sunlight to others in Group 2 as much as it is to test the borderline players in Group 1.

Pittsburgh Penguins Needs

Specifically, Sullivan has mentioned a few times that he wants players for the penalty kill. The Penguins will have a disadvantageous position in which their bottom six players will be playing top-six minutes while Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are out of the lineup. Everyone takes a step forward to play a larger role, but that also opens up the gritty work that coaches are loath to hand to top-six forwards: blocking shots and killing penalties.

“The core group I think you saw together today, and I think that was obvious, but we’re trying to put groups together that gives us the opportunity to get substantive practices where we can continue to implement our team concept,” said Sullivan before adding the path forward to the Group 1 hopefuls. “…at the same time, we’re going to have exhibition games where we’re going to be putting guys in the lineup, and there will also be some movement.”

In Sullivan’s example, P.O. Joseph wouldn’t get PK time in the Penguins Group 1 practice. On Wednesday, Sullivan worked front-line players Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel on the penalty-killing unit to have some work. Letang will kill penalties in the season, but it’s a rarity that Guentzel would. However, the Penguins’ shortage of bodies could create a need.

Also, the newbies have to learn to kill penalties at the NHL level because–as Sullivan explained–if they don’t, it’s tough to find ice-time for a fourth-liner.

So, it’s an uphill climb for Joseph or Legare or Lafferty to climb into Group 1, but Sullivan opened the door for them as much as he took away the security for the others. The exhibition games are where we will see the performances, and if any changes are merited.

The Pittsburgh Penguins head coach was not an overall fan of the first preseason game on Monday night.

“I thought there were a lot of good things in the game. I know we’ve got a long way to go. And I think both of those things were evident in that game. There was a lot of sloppy play, and we know we got a long way to go,” Sullivan admitted.

His frank analysis coincided with ours, which posited that most prospects missed their chance to stand out. Maybe just maybe, one of the banished players will break out in Buffalo on Friday night or in Game 3 on Sunday at PPG Paints Arena.

And that is the decision and situation that Sullivan is hoping to create.

“I don’t think you’ll see drastic movement, but there will be numbers. There could potentially be a handful of guys that get moved into that first group.”

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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