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Harkins Makes Penguins’ Bottom-Six Mix Even More Crowded



Jansen Harkins

CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins are only one week away from the start of their 2023-24 season.

They do, however, still have a pretty lengthy to-do list to get through before Chicago comes to PPG Paints Arena next Tuesday evening.

They have to try to develop some cohesiveness — and, more important, some productivity — in a No. 1 power play that has boundless potential but has been slightly less menacing than a sedated kitten during its first two exhibition games.

What’s more, president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas, his staff and the coaches have to cobble together a regular-season roster that not only will allow the Penguins to contend for a playoff berth, but that will fit under the NHL’s $83.5 million salary-cap ceiling.

And then there are the jobs that haven’t been claimed during the first week-plus of training camp, like those on the bottom two lines. At least the No. 4 unit, anyway.

After practice Tuesday, Mike Sullivan declined to specify how many bottom-six positions continue to be contested — “I don’t know that I can give you a definite number of how many spots are open,” he said — but acknowledged that “there’s a few.”

The next opportunity for players to show they merit a place in the Opening Night lineup will come Wednesday, when Detroit ventures into PPG Paints Arena at 7 p.m. for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ penultimate preseason game.

The competition for those blue-collar forward positions, already one of the primary events in this training camp, added another participant Monday, when the Penguins grabbed winger Jansen Harkins off waivers from Winnipeg.

He joins a group that includes the likes of Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto, Vinnie Hinostroza, Alex Nylander, Sam Poulin and Rem Pitlick, among others, vying for a position, although guys like Acciari and Nieto appear to be relatively secure and Hinostroza and Nylander have gotten some work on the top two lines during this preseason.

“We’re looking for guys who can bring us conscientious play,” Sullivan said. “Who can make sure they make good decisions with the puck. Who can be strong on the (boards). Who make us hard to play against. Who can be good on the forecheck. They’re strong in the puck-pursuit game and they’re hard on our opponent’s defensemen.

“Then, if they have ability to play on special teams in some capacity, that’s an important aspect, so we can spread the minutes accordingly, like we prefer, so we don’t overtax certain guys in certain situations. And then we have the ability to use  the bench.”

Although the Penguins liked enough of what they’ve seen from Harkins to put in a waiver claim on him, he remains something of a blank sheet for some of the people who will determine where he’s working a week from now.

“We’re going to try to familiarize ourselves with his overall game,” Sullivan said. “Kyle and his Hockey Ops department is more familiar with his game than the coaching staff, but we’re going to try to put him in some games here and get an opportunity to see (him), first-hand.”

A show of offensive ability could work in Harkins’ favor, because the Penguins are hoping their bottom two lines will generate more scoring this season. Although he had just 13 goals and 14 assists in 154 NHL games with the Jets, he put up 25 goals in 44 games with Winnipeg’s top farm team in 2022-23.

“He’s shown an ability to score goals at the American League level,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see if, potentially, that could translate (to the NHL).”

Regardless of his offensive output, Harkins skates well and is considered a responsible player at both ends.

“He has good size (6-foot-1, 183 pounds),” Sullivan said. “We think he could potentially help us in the puck-pursuit game. He brings an element of physicality to our game. By nature of that, he’s going to make us hard to play against.”

While Harkins isn’t likely to turn up on the Penguins’ top line, he did end up with a locker-room stall between two of its members, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

“I don’t know what kid from Canada doesn’t want to come here and sit next to these guys,” said Harkins, who was born in Cleveland but grew up in Vancouver. “Super-cool. Super-cool day for me. I’m just trying to kind of soak it in and just enjoy.”

Harkins said matter-of-factly that “my goal is to play in the NHL, and I think I’m definitely a good enough player to be here.”

However, he won’t have much time to prove that before roster decisions are made, since the Pittsburgh Penguins’ final exhibition game is Friday in Buffalo.

“I’m going to get a couple days of work in,” Harkins said. “And see where I land.”