For the entirety of preseason and Pittsburgh Penguins training camp, P.O Joseph was the spare part. He played outside the top-six pairings. There were persistent whispers that the new regime atop the organization didn’t view him as highly as the old staff did.
Joseph sweated out the final few hours on Sunday. The trajectory of his career hung in the balance. He could be in a new NHL city within 24 hours or, worse, banished to the AHL for the fourth straight season.
But the Penguins got it right, and Joseph will get his shot and, for the first time, be on an NHL team’s Opening Night roster.
“It’s exciting. It was stressful for the last couple of hours, but I’m really excited to just start things,” Joseph told PHN. “I was just trying not to think about anything. The last few days, I’ve been just enjoying the little things that I do. And honestly, I was just waiting for that message from the coaching staff and stuff. … It was a long last couple of days, but I’m really happy with the result.”
And he should be. It’s been a long journey. despite being just 23 years old.
For all intents and purposes, it seemed Ty Smith had the third-pairing job. The 22-year-old defenseman was a near-permanent presence beside Jan Rutta. It looked less an audition than a foregone conclusion. Smith flashed his offensive skills, ran the second-power play in practice, and played in most of the preseason games beside Rutta.
P.O Joseph played beside Mark Friedman, Taylor Fedun, and other non-top-six defensemen until the final preseason game.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Joseph had his best game in the exhibition finale, when he played beside second-pairing guarantee Jeff Petry. Associate coach Todd Reirden affirmed Joseph was NHL-ready last week. Head coach Mike Sullivan often nimbly chose his words when discussing Joseph, but he, too, praised Joseph’s game after the Penguins squashed the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night.
“You know, after a long camp like that, and to be able to see the ice like that, it was a good challenge. I really wanted to jump on it and enjoy the time. And I think I did pretty good there,” said Joseph.
It seemed like too little, too late. National reports echoed that Joseph would be placed on waivers. But those reports were incorrect. Sullivan stayed true to his word that every last opportunity and the final preseason game would factor into team decisions.
I didn’t necessarily think one game could swing the organization’s decision.
Maybe one game didn’t swing the decision 180 degrees from Smith to Joseph, but cumulative factors pointed one way. Joseph’s stellar and steady play at full speed stood in some contrast to Smith’s game, which is equal parts high-end offensive talent and a bit of defensive confusion. Smith can get turned around in defensive transitions and get a bit messy in the defensive zone.
Joseph likely would have been claimed on waivers if the Penguins tried to assign him to the WBS Penguins. Smith had a free pass to the AHL.
Coldly, the organization preserved its nine-man depth on the blue line. The Penguins slipped Mark Friedman through waivers, and by putting Smith in the AHL, retained all nine NHL-caliber defensemen when it appeared they would be down to eight.
Talent never has been an issue for Joseph, but properly applying his skills has been. As he did one week earlier, Joseph was trying too hard against the Buffalo Sabres. He forced neutral-zone passes and pushed at the wrong moments.
He settled down, but the uneven performance in his next-to-last opportunity could have been a death knell.
Instead, Joseph raced around the net, snapped a crisp outlet pass, and joined the rush for a scoring chance on his first shift. His game was smooth sailing from there.
Smith will get some time to iron out his game, so defensive mistakes don’t offset his offensive output.
Joseph is a more reliable defenseman, though he won’t put up the same offense numbers or create the same pressure. Joseph can play at speed, move the puck forward, and, at worst, be a steady Chad Ruhwedel-like presence on the third pairing.
At best, getting the Pittsburgh Penguins call could give Joseph the confidence to trust his skills and let his game grow to its fullest potential. He’s got speed, vision, and offensive instincts — when he trusts them.
Joseph didn’t give up.
And the Penguins didn’t give up.
And they made the right decision.
More immediate, Joseph will get his first real chance at the NHL since a 16-game run from late January through February, 2021.
At practice Monday, Joseph cycled through the third pairing with Jan Rutta and Chad Ruhwedel. Sullivan might yet choose to go with a Rutta-Ruhwedel tandem.
Mike Sullivan Hedges
One of the biggest indicators of his status during camp were the tepid answers and qualifiers on the subject of Joseph. The opportunities were a little different, just as the pauses and roundabout answers always hinted that Joseph had an uphill battle.
Even after making the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster, Joseph still didn’t have a sure spot on Monday night.
“We’ll take each game as it comes and try to make the best decisions from a lineup standpoint,” said Sullivan. “These decisions are very difficult, and this roster is constantly evolving. So I think that’s the nature of our business.”
In 20 NHL games, Joseph has five points, including one goal. There’s much more talent in Joseph than he’s shown in most of his NHL time. There’s always his first handful of games in January, 2021, when he was the Penguins’ top-pair defenseman with John Marino. The duo played for more than 25 minutes and drew rave reviews.
But Joseph had been nearly invisible since. He’s gotten his foot in the door. Now he has to nail down a role.
“Whether it’s here in Pittsburgh or in Wilkes-Barre, his game continues to grow and develop. I think when P.O’s at his very best, he’s a solid two-way defenseman. He has the ability to help us get out of our end,” Sullivan said. “He uses his mobility, his skills, and he’s got decent offensive instincts that can help us in the offensive (zone). He uses his mobility and stick skills to defend. So that’s the defenseman we see as part of the defensemen group.”
The little qualifier “when P.O is at his best” is indicative that coaches aren’t fully confident in him yet.
But for the first time, Joseph will have every opportunity to earn that confidence.