CRANBERRY — Change swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the off-season, and the results will soon bear fruit or beget more changes.
We’re at the next stage of the Penguins training camp, and coach Mike Sullivan separated the NHL players and those who are still battling for a roster spot from those who appear to have lost.
The Penguins’ camp cuts shortened the roster to 47 players and two groups on Monday, with the NHL players or prospective NHL players in one group and those ticketed for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins or unemployment in the other.
Sullivan, who likes to caution media not to read too much into situations or personnel combinations, didn’t sugarcoat this one.
“It is what it is,” he conceded.
Among the roster-contending forwards in Group 1 were Radim Zohorna, Vinnie Hinostroza, and Alex Nylander. Sullivan configured the Penguins’ lines to begin the acclimation process for his regulars, but also one significant tryout. For the most part, the Penguins’ lines appeared as they could on opening night.
Bryan Rust skated on Sidney Crosby’s right wing, but Rickard Rakell played his off-wing on Crosby’s left. Lars Eller had Matt Nieto and Drew O’Connor, while Noel Acciari skated between Jeff Carter and Austin Wagner.
Hinostroza cycled in. As did Zohorna.
But what about Evgeni Malkin?
Malkin was on a line with Reilly Smith and … Alex Nylander. Sullivan didn’t bother waiting for the inevitable questions about Nylander’s audition and confronted it without prompting.
“He’s a guy that potentially could play up (in) our lineup. So he’s a guy that we also think has played pretty well and was deserving of that today,” Sullivan said. “And that’s one of the reasons why we put him there.”
Nylander had a goal Sunday, set up by Zohorna. Nylander’s offensive pedigree has never been in question. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and the Buffalo Sabres hoped they had a dynamic offensive force.
Seven years and far more AHL games than NHL games, Nylander stands on the precipice of an opportunity that could change his career arc forever, finally shoving him into the bright lights of the NHL and away from long bus rides and late-night cheap Chinese food of the minor leagues.
He’s played more than 12 NHL games in a season only once and spent two full seasons and then some in the AHL before breaking that streak with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.
Nylander, 25, had 50 points (25-25-50) in 55 AHL games last season but only two points in his nine-game Penguins stint that included some great games to start before tailing off. He was pulled for several games and later reinserted into the lineup.
Jake Guentzel Factor
Guentzel’s off-season ankle surgery opened a temporary spot in the Penguins lines (with a domino effect) and on special teams. Guentzel’s LW absence is being filled by Rakell, whose RW absence is being filled by Bryan Rust, whose second-line absence is being filled by Nylander.
“Inevitably, you’re more than likely going to see Jake on that left side (with Crosby). That’s probably a safe assumption,” Sullivan conceded with a bit of a smirk at the obvious conclusion.
Guentzel eventually on the LW with Crosby. Water is wet. Dog bites man.
Guentzel also vacated a spot on one of the power play units. Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, and Erik Karlsson are the staples. Rickard Rakell, Bryan Rust, and Guentzel are candidates to be the fifth wheel on PP1 and a prominent part of PP2.
Wednesday, Nylander was at the top of the second power-play unit flanking P.O Joseph.
“In the meantime, we’ve got to find some options in our top six, and we’ll explore some different options. Alex Nylander got an opportunity to play with (Malkin) and Reilly Smith today. You know, Alex is a talented kid. He’s got real good offensive instincts,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins will probably slide to a singular point with left and right flanks but a lot of movement. Nylander was frequently cycling toward the blue line and the point in practice.
His potential ability to fill a top-six role and power play time gives him a significant advantage over Zohorna and the others competing for the one or two open spots on the Penguins roster.
Of course, it’s only a potential until he performs well. His audition will begin Thursday when the Penguins host the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena.
Malkin can be an easy center to play with when the puck is on his stick, but the wingers cannot be irresponsible or lazy defensively. As much as creating or finishing chances, Nylander must show coaches that he can balance the responsibility with offensive opportunity.