BUFFALO — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ final cuts will probably occur within the next couple of days, but the final deliberations have already begun. Radim Zohorna, Vinnie Hinostroza, Austin Wagner, Colin White, and Jansen Harkins have submitted their final answers, and the coaches are putting together a lineup with help from management upstairs.
The Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 7-4 Friday at KeyBank Center. Sullivan spoke about Harkins before and after the game as a precursor and a snap analysis after the preseason’s final bell.
Get the PHN player grades and analysis from the Penguins game here.
Harkins, 26, was the late entry into the sweepstakes. The Penguins claimed him on waivers from the Winnipeg Jets Monday. The coaches weren’t entirely familiar with the low-minute forward who split last season between the Jets and the AHL, with nearly twice as many AHL games.
Yet it seems Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has been watching.
“I thought he had another really strong game. He’s made an impression on us in the short time he’s been here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Friday before the game. “We’re trying to learn his game a little bit more intimately than we know it … the people in our hockey operations department, Kyle included, think very highly of Jansen. And I see why.”
Dubas pounced on Harkins, who has shown speed, some grit, and comes with impressive AHL offensive totals. He had 25 goals and 50 points in 44 AHL games last season.
Friday, Harkins had a few prime scoring chances early in the Penguins’ win. Despite just a few days in a Penguins sweater, the forward seems to have caught Sullivan’s eye.
“He has good size. He can really skate. You know, he chased down a couple of pucks (Friday) to negate icings, and he’s got a real good shot,” Sullivan extolled. “He’s got a good release, and he’s got good velocity on his shot. He’s shown an ability to score at the American League level. Whether or not he could do it at the NHL level, time will tell. A lot about this game has impressed us to this point.”
Negating icing calls is the type of thing that will earn an NHL locker stall in the same room as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins lacked that hustle or spark last season when their late March and early April nosedive earned them tee times instead of puck drops during the NHL playoffs.
On some of the hockey pages, Harkins is listed at 182 pounds. That stat is clearly outdated. In person, Harkins’ physique shows he has hit the weight room with a vengeance. He is listed on the NHL site as 197 pounds, which is far more accurate.
His hit totals are not eye-popping and usually less than one per game, though his blocked shot totals are a bit higher. Like Sullivan, we’re learning a bit more about Harkins’s game, and he’s undoubtedly learning a bit more about the game the Penguins want to play, too.
Friday, he skated on a line with fellow roster hopeful Colin White and Lars Eller, who was credited with a goal by crashing the net, taking a hit from a defenseman, and deflecting the puck with his body as the net came off the moorings.
Harkins was a minus-1 but saw a lot of minutes against talented Buffalo center Dylan Cozens and winger Victor Olofsson. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but nor is the situation ideal.
Sullivan also gave Harkins 46 seconds of power play time. Harkins had a couple of near misses at the net. Perhaps popping one of those would have pushed his candidacy over the line.
It’s difficult to read Sullivan’s thinking on the Penguins’ roster battle. In the past week, he’s offered genuine praise for Zohorna, gushed on Wagner, and answered honestly about Harkins.
“Obviously, Kyle and our hockey ops department have scouted and highly recommended him,” Sullivan said Thursday.
When a president and GM “highly recommends” a player, that probably goes a long way in a coach’s office. Harkins hasn’t disappointed, but neither has Dubas in his objectives to create a competitive NHL camp and strengthen the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
There are more NHL-worthy players than spots in the Penguins’ lineup. The remaining players remaining have done their jobs.
Now it is Sullivan and Dubas on the clock, but it sounds like Harkins will get a shot with the Pittsburgh Penguins.