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Penguins Roster Battles: Stocks Up, Stocks Down (and Zohorna Way Up)

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Radim Zohorna, Pittsburgh Penguins

Uncharacteristically, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not searching for talent at the bottom of their lineup but rather sorting through more qualified candidates than slots exist. The defense corps is in a similar state of affairs as three defensemen are battling for the left side of the third-pairing, and a fourth may be fighting for the seventh spot.

The Penguins’ salary cap may not permit them to carry a full 23-player roster which would also negate an eighth defenseman position that the team has carried in the recent past.

The battles began on the first day of camp. A few players have emerged and appear to be gaining the eye of head coach Mike Sullivan.

Penguins Lines battles (12th, 13th forwards):

Stock Down: Drake Caggiula. The traveled NHL forward can skate, and Sullivan called him “tenacious” and credited his “tenacity on the puck.” Caggiula has 278 career NHL games since entering the league in 2016 out of North Dakota as an undrafted free agent. He’s never played in the AHL, and despite surgery for a herniated disc in his neck last spring, Caggiula has quickly established himself as a likely inclusion on the Penguins roster.

Caggiula got the call with the Penguins stocked lineup on Tuesday night.

Then Caggiula was in the minor league practice group on Wednesday. Caggiula may have been passed up by the promise of a prospect.

Trading sideways: Ryan Poehling. The 2018 Montreal Canadiens first-rounder was included in the Penguins trade for Jeff Petry. Poehling has the street cred of being a first-round pick (25th overall) but didn’t stick in Montreal. He’s been quiet in the Penguins’ camp. We won’t say bad, as that would be inaccurate, but he’s not had standout moments or flashy spots that called attention to his candidacy.

Soft Trading: Josh Archibald. The gritty veteran returned to the Penguins after a tour of the NHL through two years in Arizona and three in Edmonton. While he hasn’t been a standout like Caggiula in training camp or the preseason games, he has the inside track because of his penalty-killing ability. He’s a known commodity who doesn’t necessarily need to “pop” to earn a job.

IPO: Radim Zohorna. Zohorna has 10 points in 25 career NHL games with the Penguins but has quickly fizzled in his previous big-league forays. At 26 years old, Zohorna must clear waivers but wasn’t seen as a primary contender for the opening night lineup — until Tuesday night, when he played very well against the Detroit Red Wings, then Wednesday, he was in the NHL practice group.

Sullivan specifically singled out Zohorna for praise on Wednesday afternoon, too.

He still has to win the job, but being on a line with Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn, and playing well, surely did not hurt his chances to get more opportunity — in Pittsburgh … or elsewhere.

Pittsburgh Penguins Defense:

Stock Up: Ty Smith. The 22-year-old defenseman is the same age as “competitor” P.O Joseph but has two years of NHL experience with the New Jersey Devils. He had a lousy sophomore season in Newark, which made him expendable. The Penguins sent John Marino to New Jersey for Smith and a third-rounder.

Smith has shown strong offensive instincts. He’s been one ahead of the curve, stepping into the offensive zone, carrying the puck deep, and keeping plays alive.

The left-sider on the third pairing will play with the steady Jan Rutta, who takes proper care of the defensive zone. Smith would be the perfect complement. Smith got the tap Tuesday night with the NHL regulars, which isn’t a guarantee but is a good sign he’s under heavy consideration.

However, Smith has not yet excelled in his preseason games and didn’t have any shots in Game 1.

Stock Down: P.O Joseph. The Penguins’ long-awaited prospect defenseman has been steady with only brief moments of showcasing his natural abilities.

He got a snoot full of the Columbus Blue Jackets top line on Sunday night. It wasn’t quite a fair fight as he and WBS Penguins stalwart Taylor Fedun faced the challenge, but perhaps that’s what coaches wanted to see — could Joseph not only survive but thrive? He could have done more on Sunday night.

Trading halted: Mark Friedman.

“I’ve been fighting for (ice time) my whole life, so I’m ready for the challenge,” he told PHN. However, he may be the default option if the others don’t “win” the battle.

His Pittsburgh Penguins future is cloudy, but the gritty NHL defenseman’s future probably isn’t. He can play both sides, provides some grit and a bit of offense, too. Someone will snap him up if he gets caught in a numbers game here.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Michael Hanczar
Michael Hanczar
2 months ago

Need guys who can kill penalties. Please don’t overuse the Rusty Razor. Third and fourth liners all need to be considered for PK.

Jay95
Jay95
2 months ago

As does Kapanen to maximize the value of his contract. I feel like it would keep him engaged and he’d be a huge threat with his speed and shot.

William Maloni
William Maloni
2 months ago

Because of his size (too light), I’ve said POJ can’t be an effective NHL D-man.

Nothing I’ve seen changes that.

Biggus
Biggus
2 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

You’re exactly right. POJ has virtually no value. He is only there because he is a former first rounder. Futures are the best they can hope for, otherwise they will have to package Mr weakling with something good to dump him

Rob
Rob
2 months ago
Reply to  Biggus

He will either clear waivers or get picked up by someone desperate for defenseman. I can’t see that he has any trade value at this point. Mainly because every gm knows that the penguins are going to be forced to put him on waivers if he doesn’t make the team. He can be had for free, then why give up a draft pick for him?

Biggus
Biggus
2 months ago
Reply to  Rob

Valid point, he just needs to go. I don’t like the wuss vibe he gives off, could be contagious

Pens' Igloo
Pens' Igloo
2 months ago
Reply to  Rob

A team could give up a lower round pick if they think other teams will also put in a claim on him. It won’t be much, but it would not be surprising to see a desperate team (a lot of teams have terrible defense depth) or a rebuilding team offer a low pick for the chance at a cheap, young defenseman that has some upside.

Timm
Timm
2 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

I’m sure people said the same thing about Marcus Petterson and he’s a starter making 4 million a year now. Tall, lanky, and not even that fast. He’s no Paul Coffey, but he’s a legit NHLer. POJ just needs to learn how to use his speed and agility to his advantage and not be the typical stay-at-home, brutish D man.

Pens' Igloo
Pens' Igloo
2 months ago

I whole-heartedly support giving Smith a long look in the pre-season, and if he really is the best option for that open LD spot, then you have to go with him. But man, that would mean exposing 2 of the defensemen to waivers and likely losing them to other teams. All of a sudden the strong depth on the blue line is gone and they’re an injury or two away from trouble.

Tough decisions coming up for the Pens’ staff.

Fredrick
Fredrick
2 months ago
Reply to  Pens' Igloo

TBH I think Hex will do some shopping and trade a defenseman or 2 if Smith wins the roster battle for a prospect or pick.