Erik Karlsson is a lock to be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 1 right-side defenseman when training camp opens Thursday.
Unless, of course, Kris Letang holds onto that designation, which has been his for many winters.
The hard truth is, there figures to be very little difference between the niches those two fill, no matter how they are labeled.
Barring variables like injuries and protracted slumps, it’s entirely possible that their average ice time over 82 games will end up being separated by milliseconds.
Letang is expected to be paired with Ryan Graves and Eriksson with Marcus Pettersson, although Mike Sullivan has not publicly divulged his plans for either pairing.
It seems safe to assume, though, that Karlsson and Letang will man the right side on the top two pairings, Graves and Pettersson the left.
Things are not quite as settled on the No. 3 defense tandem.
Sure, P.O Joseph is a pretty clear favorite to work the left side and Chad Ruhwedel’s experience here gives him an edge on the right, but both can expect challenges for their jobs during the preseason.
Here’s a look at how those competitions shape up:
P.O Joseph vs. Ty Smith vs. Will Butcher
Joseph took some significant strides last season, but remains something of a work-in-progress. That’s not necessarily bad news for him or the Penguins, though, because it suggests he can become even more effective as he gains experience.
He had an up-and-down season in 2022-23, starting strong but appearing to wear down a bit as his games-played total rose.
Joseph’s forte is offense, and he is at his best when partnered with a defense-oriented guy, like Jan Rutta.
Joseph edged Smith for a spot on the NHL roster last fall, in part because Smith was waivers-exempt, and Joseph no longer was. Had the Pittsburgh Penguins assigned Joseph to Wilkes-Barre, odds are another team would have claimed him.
Smith is an excellent skater whose game also emphasizes offense, although he seemed to exorcise some of his defensive shortcomings in the American Hockey League last season. The onus will be on him to prove that he’s become reliable enough in his own zone to persuade management to part with Joseph, which will be no small task.
The wild card in all of this is Butcher, who was a prized free agent when he left the University of Denver in 2017, but never performed to expectations during four years in New Jersey and one in Buffalo before spending last season with Texas in the American Hockey League.
Like Joseph and Smith, his game stresses offense, so it’s prudent to give him a partner who prioritizes playing well in his own zone. But while Butcher is very much a long shot to earn a spot on the Opening Night roster, it’s not out of the question if he can play at the level he was projected to reach when he came out of college.
Chad Ruhwedel vs. Mark Pysyk vs. Mark Friedman
Ruhwedel actually was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 4 right-side defenseman in 2022-23, but the departures of Jeff Petry and Rutta in the Karlsson trade allowed him to move up the depth chart.
He is coming off a decidedly lackluster season, though, so it would be folly to suggest that his place in the lineup is secure.
Happily for the Penguins, Ruhwedel, like the other candidates to man the right side on the No. 3 pairing, is content to focus on defense and allow his partner to get involved in the attack.
Pysyk actually can play a fair two-way game — he has 104 points in 521 career NHL games — but tore his Achilles tendon while preparing for Detroit’s training camp in 2022, and sat out the entire season.
That injury is part of the reason he had to settle for getting a professional tryout deal rather than a contract, and like anyone on a PTO, will have to significantly outperform the competition to convince management that he’s worth keeping around.
Friedman’s greatest asset might be his talent for annoying opponents, but that’s a quality the Penguins could use since they have so little feistiness on the payroll.
Still, after spending two-plus seasons with the Penguins, Mike Sullivan and his staff are quite familiar with Friedman’s game, and have limited him to only occasional appearances.
After seven seasons as a pro, it’s hard to believe Friedman will be able to do enough to convince the coaches that he merits an upgraded role.