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: