The Pittsburgh Penguins coughed, sputtered, and faceplanted last April. Despite having a nearly 90% chance to make the playoffs just a couple of weeks before, the Penguins’ March and April nosedive resulted in an extra long off-season and the highest Penguins draft pick in over a decade.
The 2022-23 failure also opened a clean slate for bottom-six forwards and players hoping to reclaim regular NHL spots.
Bargain free agent signings Vinnie Hinostroza, Joona Koppanen, Matt Nieto, Andreas Johnsson, and defenseman Will Butcher could play for the AHL’s WBS Penguins or land a spot with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The same goes for Alex Nylander, who re-signed before the Fenway Sports Group hired president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas.
The interesting “little” moves that Dubas stockpiled through the first part of July very well might be the little moves that change the tenor and tone of the Penguins organization, and they might do so without adding a dollar to the Penguins’ salary cap squeeze.
Quite bluntly, the WBS Penguins were dreadful last season.
Also bluntly, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bottom-six was not good enough.
By adding a few bottom-six NHL players, including Lars Eller and Noel Acciari, Dubas put the pillars in place to rebuild the bottom half of the Penguins’ lineup but also fulfilled one of his early stated goals.
Dubas said he would make the Penguins training camp and roster more competitive, externally and internally.
He’s done that and may not be done adding.
The cascading effects are several and all beneficial. Unlike the last few seasons, the Penguins will have players pushing for playing time both on the NHL roster and from below.
Getting too comfortable or complacent is hard when several players fight for a spot. The last time the Penguins had such competitiveness was in 2015-16 when young players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl battled for ice.
While the Penguins won’t have much youth battling for playing time, except Sam Poulin and Valtteri Puustinen, the effect of NHL veterans wanting to stay in the show may be just as advantageous.
Coach Mike Sullivan will also have a little toybox to find different combinations of offensive styles and defensive responsibility. For example, Johnsson scored 20 goals with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018-19.
Is he the next Danton Heinen?
Hinostroza and Nieto are fast, can kill penalties, and are defensively responsible. Hinostroza has offensive instincts, but his lack of size has limited the goal lights throughout his career, though he did notch 13 goals in 62 games for the 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres.
Butcher, 28, has 275 games of NHL experience before spending all of last season with the AHL’s Texas Stars. He scored 43 points in 65 AHL games. The lefty defenseman will provide immediate competition for P.O Joseph and Ty Smith or give Sullivan a veteran option when injuries occur.
Some, none, or all of the depth signings could be in the NHL lineup this coming season. Penguins fans may yawn when discussed individually, but as a group the signings will at least provide a significant upgrade to the WBS Penguins team, creating a better environment for prospect development a maybe a few more wins for the loyal Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans.
Even if none of those players make the NHL roster in October, their very presence or threat of their presence should elevate the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, too.
That’s a long way from the stale, locked lineup of last season, and to be effective, the strategy doesn’t need to add a dollar to the salary cap structure.