PITTSBURGH — The gigantic new scoreboard at PPG Paints Arena showed the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 shootout winners over the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was the first preseason game for both organizations, and neither side put many NHL regulars in the lineup, instead opting to hand out opportunities with the NHL sweaters.
Saturday, coach Mike Sullivan detailed the Penguins’ decision-making process. He said the coaching staff was reserving judgments on several players, instead opting to evaluate preseason games and how well players seized their chances.
At least one player kicked hard at the door Sunday, and if it continues will give Sullivan a tough decision.
A few players made good on that chance, though the bright lights of the NHL arena shined negatively on a couple of others, too.
As the top-line center on Sunday, Radim Zohorna played the part effectively and with a surprising level of dominance.
It’s one thing to convert on a few training camp opportunities, but Zohorna showed a two-way game Sunday that very well could vault him from talented AHL’er projections to the NHL roster conversation.
He was a different player than last September when he battled for a Penguins roster spot before being lost to the Calgary Flames via waiver claim. The Flames waived him not long after claiming him, but the Penguins did not reclaim him. Instead, Zohorna spent most of the season in the AHL with Calgary and Toronto organizations, getting 10 NHL games between the two.
The 26-year-old Czechian center, who is 6-foot-6, maybe 7, used his wing span and streamlined skating as a disruptive forechecker to create offense around the net.
“I actually loved his game. I love his conditioning. (Over) the last three days, every time we’ve done the skates, he’s gotten better than the previous two years that he was here,” said coach assistant coach Mike Vellucci, who acted as the head coach in the first of the split-squad games Sunday. “He was scoring in the scrimmages. And then I just thought today he played a sound game defensively, winning faceoffs.”
Zohorna had only one assist Sunday but appeared to deflect the Penguins’ second goal. He also set up the play with a takeaway and offensive zone puck possession, ultimately leading to P.O Joseph’s point shot that was intended for him to tip (the puck instead deflected off defenseman Adam Boqvist, who was guarding Zohorna near the net).
Radim Zohorna was the best player on the ice. He created offensive chances, including an odd-man rush, with defensive zone work and multiple turnovers via a smart forecheck. His only negative was a losing faceoff record (5-8).
Big Winner: Zohorna.
Drew O’Connor was one of the NHL regulars and isn’t in great danger of losing an NHL spot, but a good training camp and preseason would go a long way toward cementing his position, too.
He’s well on his way.
O’Connor was equal to Zohorna and strong on the puck during the first couple of periods. O’Connor also had one assist on three shots but flashed the power forward game that should be enticing to Penguins coaches.
For example, on one second-period sequence, he held the puck near the mid-wall, stick handling away from one defender, then used his skates to avoid another before striding toward the net and letting loose a good shot. He shows assertiveness in the gritty areas and is willing to use his body to win the puck.
Honorable mentions: Sam Houde–he’s playing well. Showing good speed and aggressiveness. Mark Friedman–flexed his NHL ability and just looked better than most of the talent on the ice.
And a few players who didn’t help themselves in their first preseason action…
Isaac Belliveau. Unfortunately, the former fifth-rounder has not taken the next step in his development. He was slow to adjust to the rush and was burned for a breakaway by not turning to catch a rushing forward. The speed of the game looks greater than Belliveau. Wheeling, not Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, might be his landing spot.
Alex Nylander. I’ll take flak for not praising Nylander, but I didn’t think he capitalized on his chance as he could have. He scored a goal and a nice shootout goal, but his play away from the puck was not exemplary. In his analysis of Nylander’s game, Vellucci’s praise included a veiled acknowledgment of Nylander’s inconsistencies.
“His offense has always been there. It’s the details of the rest of the game that he’s been working on, and that’s where he showed the improvement. He’s always going to score because he’s so gifted and talented offensively, but he’s got to work on the rest of the game,” said Vellucci. “The guys in Wilkes did a great job with him over the last year or two, just getting him to fine-tune those details. Defensively, playing without the puck, work ethic, tracking, all those things we want to measure here in Pittsburgh, and he’s done a great job.”
With a crowded field fighting for jobs, Nylander’s offense could shine brightly, but he won’t get the chance if coaches aren’t sold on his complete game, especially in a bottom-six role. He’s one of those guys who has to stand out to win a job, much like Zohorna.
Nylander’s offensive zone work will attract fans, and more demands that he be on the NHL roster. Coaches will judge him on his puck support and defensive zone coverages.
Libor Hajek. Just like the camp scrimmages, he was caught by the forecheck. He needs to get faster going back on pucks; he does so tepidly, and it costs him pucks. He was quiet Sunday, and playing beside Mark Friedman, who has NHL chops, could have been a good opportunity. Hajek wasn’t bad, but he didn’t grab attention, either.