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.