Assistant coach Jacques Martin and then Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan cautioned against reading too much into line combinations and defense pairings early in training camp. Martin specifically looked to the third preseason game as the point when ideas and combinations would get serious. While many of us and even a few of the players were excited by the early camp combinations, the Penguins coaches were merely getting a look at individual talents and spreading the wealth of veterans around camp. But today is the third preseason game and the Penguins line combinations are about to get real.
That means Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon and Derek Grant will take center stage. The winners get an NHL sweater and a cherry spot in a dynamic lineup. The losers may be forced to binge-watch The Office for a list of tourist spots in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. And nobody wants to go down there (Insert Michael Scott catch-phrase here).
Sullivan cautioned against reading too much into specific combinations, Friday, “I wouldn’t read into them quite yet,” he said. “We’re obviously trying to put certain players in position where they can be at their best and trying to put combinations together that allow those players that we think are challenging for the roster to help them play at their best. We’re moving some guys around to see what sort of chemistry may evolve. There’s a lot of thought process going in.”
Zach Aston-Reese told PHN (on the Pittsburgh Sports Live YouTube channel) that’s it’s better to act like you’re a bubble player than assume you’ve made it.
Aston-Reese pulled the first upset of camp. He displaced NHL-contract forward Derek Grant on Team 1, which is made up exclusively of the NHL players remaining in Penguins training camp. Team 2, is (almost) exclusively players ticketed for the WBS Penguins, and the Penguins placed Grant there.
Grant is the only player with an NHL-only contract on Team 2, and Aston-Reese is the only player without an NHL-only contract on Team 1.
The Penguins are giving Aston-Reese a golden opportunity and could be willing to expose Grant to waivers to keep Aston-Reese at the NHL level. Grant and Aston-Reese will play today.
And the plot thickens.
Daniel Sprong was gently called out by assistant coach Mark Recchi, Wednesday night, “He hasn’t stood out like we would hope right now, but we gotta keep working with him…” he said.
Sprong has played beside Sidney Crosby since the first day of training camp but the placement falls under Sullivan’s caution the Penguins are putting players fighting for spots in position to look good. However, it is also Sprong’s chance to convert that sunlight into the coveted top line RW spot.
Waiting in the wings is Dominik Simon. Like Sprong, Simon also signed a two-year, $1.5 million contract this summer. The Penguins really like Simon and so does the locker room. Sidney Crosby reportedly wanted to keep Simon on his wing, last season. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound forward has a little shade of Pascal Dupuis in his game which likely appealed to Crosby.
Simon, 24, is dogged on the puck and tenacious on the wall. He didn’t finish enough chances in his rookie year but he created plenty of those opportunities. He scored only four goals in 33 games last season and when the Penguins were desperate in the playoffs, they shuffled Simon around the lineup. Unlike Sprong, the Penguins are more confident in Simon’s overall game and he’s not getting the first audition because he doesn’t need it.
Recchi promised Sprong would have a lot of opportunities for the remainder of the preseason. How much a player can grow or improve in four games is another matter. Sprong could quickly change the dynamics with stronger play and put himself in serious contention for the sidesaddle Crosby role.
Sprong will play today, likely with Crosby. Simon will not dress.
For Crosby and other veterans who will play today, the game is merely a tune-up. For the few youngsters battling for NHL ice, today is the first day of auditions. It’s time to raise the curtain and pretend the bright lights matter. For Aston-Reese, Sprong, and Simon, those lights this weekend do matter. That will be a fun note to an afternoon preseason game.