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Penguins Camp Blog: Is Sullivan Playing it Safe, or Challenging Prospects?



Pittsburgh Penguins prospects PO Joseph

The path to the NHL is short and linear for only a very select few. For the rest of the hopefuls and prospects, it’s more like trying to follow me on Rt. 528 north out of Evans City, Pa, when I’ve decided for some two-wheel therapy. The path has ups and downs, sweeping turns you don’t expect, the smell of horse manure, and hopefully, in the end, it was a lot of fun. The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool is dealing with a few of those twists and turns this week.

Head coach Mike Sullivan separated his remaining 48 players into two groups on Wednesday. Essentially it was the NHL players group and the WBS Penguins group. All of the Penguins’ prospects under 23-years-old were in the minor league group. Anthony Angello and Drew O’Connor were in the NHL group.

Sullivan opened the door to swapping players in or out of Group 1, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

“I don’t think you’ll see drastic movement, but there will be numbers. There could potentially be a handful of guys that get moved into that first group,” Sullivan said on Wednesday.

Let’s paraphrase–“Here’s the roster that we’ll probably bring to Pittsburgh but let’s see if it lights a fire under any of the prospects.”

Sullivan is both a master tactician and an excellent team psychologist. The Penguins’ success over the past five seasons despite dealing with an injury bug infestation that is nearly biblical speaks to the coach’s ability to motivate a team and get the most out of lesser players.

Yes, if I had a team in transition with middling talent, pluggers, and grinders, I’d open my wallet wide to hire Sullivan. But I digress.

But in Sullivan’s motivation tactics, here’s a thought: What if Sullivan is testing one or a few of the Penguins’ prospects? Drew O’Connor is a nice player but he’s not going to change the NHL team. Anthony Angello adds size and a bit of snarl, but he’s not fourth-line magic able to match up against the opponents’ top line.

Nor will either add much or any offense to the Penguins already depleted offensive game. So, is Mike Sullivan playing it conservatively or did he just serve the prospects a steaming plate of hate that they can digest and use as fuel?

My favorite expression regarding sending almost-NHL-ready prospects to the minors: Send them down, let them build some hate and anger.

Will P.O. Joseph, Nathan Legare, or Sam Poulin take the challenge and bare their teeth in their next opportunity? Then the one after that?

Pittsburgh Penguins Effort?

No one really did that in the first preseason game. On Wednesday, fans who were at practice were treated to Mike Sullivan’s real feelings about the loss to Columbus on Monday night, as his voice boomed off the concrete walls during a chalk-talk. Since it wasn’t on the record, I can only report that fans heard it. Let’s just say he wasn’t pleased with the effort in several areas.

“I thought there were a lot of good things in the game. I know we’ve got a long way to go. And I think both of those things were evident in that game,” Sullivan said Wednesday morning.

That was the clean version, and it’s why he concentrated the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool in Group 2, not Group 1. Had Joseph, Legare or Poulin brought their A-game, chances are the practice roster would be different.

But the NHL is not for B-games. All three may be (OK, they ARE) more talented than the fringe players in the top group. Still, until the prospects show it consistently and show the professionalism necessary to earn a coach’s trust, that talent is merely potential.

We don’t yet know who will get into the lineup for Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres. The guess is that a few of the prospects will get another chance or three. After all, how could a coach not want Nathan Legare bombing away from the circle on the power play or throwing shoulders in the corner? How could Joseph’s potential to be an all-around top-four NHL defenseman not tantalize a coach?

But neither won a job on Monday night when given a chance, and that is a prerequisite. The job interview must go well, and while Joseph was steady and Legare had a couple of high points, neither had their best. Both could have shown more effort, more physicality, more energy.

Not everyone is a Cam Lee-type who Sullivan noted was “a trier,” but you have to show the necessary urgency to make it to the NHL. A prospect has to bring their best not just in one game but all of them.

The good news is the Pittsburgh Penguins Big 3 (Joseph, Poulin, Legare) didn’t play poorly. They’ll get more chances, and perhaps, maybe, possibly, being in Group 2 will build the necessary hate, and Sullivan will smile as he gets the best out of another talented player.

More from camp:

Human Side: Penguins Goalie Domingue Lacked Effort, Lost Motivation, Belief Before Pens Call


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Kris Peterinelli
Kris Peterinelli
1 year ago

Some reality. Of the guys on the “NHL roster” team, who can be sent down without having to clear waivers? O’Connor I think is the only one. I have hopes for Legare, Poulin and Hallander, but did Rust, Guentzel, Sheary or any of the others in the cup runs come straight from juniors or college right into the NHL? Nope. So these guys need some time in a truly professional league. I think this is the perfect plan for what will be a transitional year for the organization. Get a solid group of young guys together in W/B and let’s… Read more »

1 year ago

Simon is also on a two way contract, but you are right. Let the young players grow together. Unless one of them kicks down the door for an NHL spot. So far none of them have done that.

1 year ago
Reply to  Rob

People mistake my comments on Dom Simon as animus or dislike. That is not accurate. My issue is with Sullivan who’s stubbornness has forced roster changes that have harmed the team in my opinion. Sullivan’s dislike and that’s accurate , led to moving Ian Cole , moving Reaves for Brassard and all the lost 1st round picks , moving Sprong for Pettersson , etc. Read this “During the 2018-19 season, Sprong made the Penguins out of training camp but was traded to the Anaheim Ducks early in the season for defenseman Marcus Pettersson. Sprong rumoredly having a falling out with… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Katz

It very well may be Sullivan’s last run in Pittsburgh. Or this years team may once again exceed expectations. Time will tell. Sullivan may go, Malkin and Letang may go, and the rebuild may begin. Only the players playing the games will decide.

Doug Ukish
Doug Ukish
1 year ago

Ride & Write on!!
Enjoy the day/ride.

German Pens Fan
German Pens Fan
1 year ago

Coach Sullivan, the master tactican with 3 consecutive first round losses…
Well, I’m no Sully fan but I respect his victories, back to back, awesome.
But that’s the past, with this kind of hockey you won’t win another cup.

Let Legare, Poulin and POJ play in the AHL, let them get experience. Call ups are just a matter of time because it’s the Pens, the Champions of man games lost.