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Penguins Shift: ‘Playing with Legends,’ Pens Young Guys ‘Bring Some Juice’ (+)



Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan hates young players. You’ve heard, seen, or said the oft-repeated derision when a younger player is banished to the press box, AHL, or sent away to another city. The Penguins’ prospect pool has produced scandalously few prospects in the past decade and almost none in the past handful of years. Yet, a trio of players not old enough to remember Y2K or the first run of the Backstreet Boys will hit the ice on Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens.

Yep, three players 25 and under will be in the lineup. P.O Joseph, Drew O’Connor, and Alex Nylander.

“When you get a nice mix of veteran guys, and you add some younger players into the dressing room, I think they bring a certain level of enthusiasm to the rink every day,” Sullivan said. “They love being at the rink. They love being around the locker room, and love being on the ice. These guys are excited to be here. And I think that enthusiasm is contagious.”

Getting a trio of guys not yet (or barely) old enough to rent a car into the lineup has taken a little while.

All three players had to force their way into the lineup. They were not given free rides or easy passes but had to fight past their own shortcomings and a stocked Penguins lineup.

Joseph, 23, has 136 games of AHL experience spread over three seasons. This season marks the first time he hasn’t started and won’t end with the WBS Penguins.

Joseph was the odd man out when the Penguins acquired Dmitry Kulikov at the NHL trade deadline on March 3. Still, he’ll be back in the lineup for the foreseeable future after Kulikov suffered a lower-body injury Sunday and will be out week to week.

“We’re getting closer to the playoffs. So these games are exciting, but they’re also really crucial,” Joseph said. “So I just want to come in and help the team as much as I can.”

O’Connor, 24, has been up and down numerous times in the past three years. He had an explosive start in his sophomore season (2021-22) with five points in his first six NHL games but never again recaptured the energy and productivity until now.

O’Connor’s statistics belie his impactful play on the Penguins’ third line over the last two weeks and his very visible contributions on the fourth line before that. O’Connor has only eight points (5-3-8) in 32 games, but there’s nary an analyst or scout who wouldn’t tout his turnaround.

O’Connor has 73 games of AHL experience, including 20 this season, compared to 64 NHL games.

In fairness, O’Connor has jokingly given PHN full permission to make up interesting quotes, so he doesn’t have to spit fire in his media availabilities. We’ll pass on that, but the burgeoning power forward is becoming more comfortable in all aspects on and off the ice.

For O’Connor and Joseph, it’s a long-awaited opportunity for the band of brothers forged in the gritty city of Wilkes-Barre to finally play together at the NHL level.

Earlier this season, Joseph admitted to PHN that he and O’Connor “are like brothers.” O’Connor also lamented that he and Joseph have never been able to land in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup at the same time.

Now is their chance.

And finally, the burgeoning comeback story of Alex Nylander, the 2016 first-round pick taken eighth overall. Nylander’s bloodlines run deep in the NHL. His father, Michael, was a long-time Washington Capitals center who buried more than a few big goals against the Penguins during the heated 1990s version of the rivalry.

Nylander’s brother, William, is a star winger with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nylander has 35 goals this season and has eclipsed the 30-goal mark thrice in the last four seasons.

Alex hasn’t quite led the same charmed NHL life, instead being exiled to the AHL after failed stints in Buffalo and Chicago. Instead, Nylander has played 121 AHL games over the last three years without even a courtesy cup of coffee with Chicago (2021-22) or the Penguins over the last two seasons.

Nylander, 25, has played three games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Tuesday will be the fourth, and he’s playing with some pretty good linemates, Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker.

“I know, I’m playing with legends, so I’ve just got to work harder to get the pucks to them. I think that our chemistry — It’s there. It’s growing a little bit by a little bit,” Nylander told PHN. “I think it’s just going to get better. And I’ve just got to keep working, moving my legs and being good on the forecheck, good in the D-zone, and the rest will come. The offense will come automatically.”

The new Penguins’ winger doesn’t yet have a goal but one assist. In the last two games, he’s provided some heavy backchecking and noticeable defensive support playing beside Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker.

Sulivan has noticed. His teammates have noticed. Perhaps with the benefit of maturity earned from hard knocks, Nylander isn’t getting a big head just yet.

“When you’re the third guy (high), you’ve got to be all the way to the D-zone, and I’ve been focusing on (it),” said Nylander. “It’s becoming automatic in the d-zone and on offense. I’ve just got to keep going with the way I’m playing, and it will be good.”

No, Sullivan doesn’t actually hate young players, but they do have to prove their readiness and seize their chances. For the first time in recent memory, three Penguins 25 and under — though none are Penguins draft picks — are grabbing their chance.

“I think (youthful enthusiasm) is good for everyone. And they bring us some juice. I think that’s important at this particular time of year,” said Sullivan. “These guys … The grind of the schedule is real. And making sure that we manufacture the enthusiasm necessary for us to be at our best is important. And I think these young players help us in that regard.”

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Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
12 days ago see Puustinen get a shot on the 4th line.

Randal stutler
Randal stutler
12 days ago
Reply to  Rich Filardi

I don’t think he fits 4th line . Less of a checker more a playmaker shooter type. Might get a shot next year maybe 3rd line.

12 days ago

They aren’t playing because Sullivan wants them, it’s due to injuries

Ujn Hunter
12 days ago
Reply to  BrianX

Right, but that’s not because they are “young”, it’s because the guys usually on the roster (not hurt) are better. This is their chance to take matters into their own hands.

12 days ago
Reply to  Ujn Hunter

Some of the guys on the roster being better than the younger guys is debatable.