The 6-foot-6 Czech Republic native Radim Zohorna, who is in his second North American season, is getting a hard look at center in the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp. Zohorna has been gifted with Evgeni Malkin linemates Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker.
Zohorna, 25, electrified the Penguins bench in a few games last season, including his first NHL goal. He scored four points (2-2-4) in eight games before being sent back to the WBS Penguins for further seasoning and North American adjustment.
In training camp, Zohorna has displayed his skating ability. The big man can move. And his finishing ability, too.
“He can move. He’s a big guy, but he also loves passing the puck,” Kasperi Kapanen said. “He makes great plays. And, once he gets a chance to shoot, he puts it in the net.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins lineup will be without top center Sidney Crosby for a handful of regular seasons games as he recovers from wrist surgery. The lineup will also be without Evgeni Malkin for two months or more. Malkin’s absence (and ugly knee scars) creates a gigantic hole in the middle of the Penguins lineup, and maybe, just maybe, the 25-year-old Czech can fill the void for a couple of months.
“…We have some options. ‘Big Z’ is one guy that potentially could play that type of a role for us,” Sullivan said.
Zohorna signed with the Penguins as a Euro free agent before last season. In addition to the four NHL points, he scored 11 points (3-8-11) with the WBS Penguins in 12 games. While many wondered if the tall forward, who weighs 220 pounds, would be a power forward, he showed more finesse than strength. The Penguins org gave him marching orders to learn to play between the dots and harder in battle areas.
So far, so good.
But Sullivan hedged his bet in the following sentence, too.
“You know, Evan Rodrigues, I think, has real good offensive instincts. He can play center. He can play wing. He’s another guy that that that we could play in, you know, in our top nine at of center position if if if we needed him to. So there’s a number of different guys that have the ability to play those roles and fill those roles.”
Not exactly a vote of confidence.
In classic Sullivan fashion, he put the onus on the players to win the job in the coming preseason, which the Penguins begin on Monday vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena.
“And we’ll just see how it goes. You know, we’re just going to watch the camp and watch players develop and evolve here,” the coach said. “And I think the exhibition games will tell us a lot when we have an opportunity to play in those.”
Rodrigues has become Sullivan’s Swiss Army Knife. He’s played both wings and center during his brief 42-game Penguins career. After trading his rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the Kasperi Kapanen deal, the Penguins re-signed Rodrigues as a UFA when Toronto did not tender a $2 million qualifying offer.
Rodrigues is listed at 5-foot-11, 184 pounds though he might be a little less on both. The job is within his reach, even if Zohorna has a much longer wingspan.
“I think it’s still early to make any sort of assessments at this point. I’m trying to, quite honestly, to reserve any judgment here until we watch more of a complete body of work,” Sullivan concluded.
In camp, Rodrigues has been centering would-be rookie, Nathan Legare and Dominik Simon. Both Simon and Legare are more likely to begin the season with the WBS Penguins than the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the preseason games will matter for them, too.
After a few years of stability and nearly pointless training camps, the Penguins now have work to do, positions to fill, and Sullivan is dangling that figurative carrot above Zohorna and Rodrigues.
It’s been a long time since the Penguins leaned on a big Czech in the lineup.