The Pittsburgh Penguins Training Camp and preseason are finally over. We’ll learn the presumed fates of a couple of defensemen today as the Penguins make roster cuts. Or, we could have our first Penguins trade of the season. Training camp has been educational for many of the players who are new to the Penguins scheme and new to playing with the Penguins existing core. It isn’t always easy.
Here 10-one timers as we begin the first week of the regular season…finally.
- We’re on Trade Watch #2 this month. Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made waves a week ago when he declared to the Athletic the goalie market was heating up. Rumor Mill sites seized on the original proclamation to create combo rumors. Recent Jack Johnson trade reports brought the same combination rumors.
I’m surprised Rutherford publicly admitted things were so far along without having a deal close. Opposing GMs aren’t stupid. When the public is expecting a deal, that creates pressure on the organization. Pressure can increase cost. If Bryan Rust could return within the next two weeks, but not within the next week, the Penguins would be without an extra forward for a few games.
- I’m as curious as you to find out what the package or return will be. A summer of chasing leads and speculation is finally over. Maybe.
Dominik Simon had an excellent training camp. He played center and wing in camp and looked like a great fourth liner. Simon will add some offensive creativity and chances to the Penguins fourth line centered by Teddy Blueger. The Penguins bottom line won’t be a big, thumping trio but it will be pesky, fast, and dangerous. The line probably won’t match up against opponents top lines, but it will post numbers.
If Blueger can score 30 or more points, which would put him in Matt Cullen territory. Blueger is ridiculously fast, and the faster his line plays the game, the better he will be.
- If the Blueger line doesn’t face top lines as much as Cullen’s fourth line did last season, the responsibility will fall to Sidney Crosby, which will lower his point total as he expends energy defending. Or the job could fall to Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist. Bjugstad casts a shadow over the defensive zone. Given his lighter scoring touch, that may be the best role for him.
Bjugstad is the most aggressive Penguins defender and forechecker. He shows no fear going after opponents, especially on the forecheck. Bjugstad is usually charging forward when defending. If he can limit top lines, his negative differential between expected goals and goals scored will matter less.
- John Marino was really good. He didn’t feel like Edmonton was the right fit for him, so Edmonton essentially traded their former sixth-round pick for a sixth-round pick in 2020. Funny thing? If Marino signed with Edmonton, he would almost assuredly have made the NHL roster. He was a standout in camp and preseason. He might be the most fluid skating Penguins defenseman since Sergei Gonchar.
The Penguins wouldn’t be wrong to keep him around.
- I could write 1000 words on the overtop screaming about Jack Johnson (and will). If indeed the Penguins trade Johnson, it will create opportunity and a hole in their lineup. However, it was nice to see a self-identified blogger who wasn’t a big fan of the signing put it in context.
I believe the Pens will be a better team without JJ. I've not been a fan since day 1.
That said, despite my disdain for the label, I was considered a blogger.
The way some bloggers have approached the situation shows why we're frequently dismissed.
I hate social media vitriol.
— Greg Thornberry (@Greg_Thornberry) September 29, 2019
Greg was a blogger for a few years, then valued writer who wrote a few stories for PHN last year before life took him in a different direction. He’s also a darn good hockey photographer. He made the proper point: There were ways to disagree with Johnson’s signing, usage or play without being relentless, wild-eyed arsonists.
- Evaluating defensemen is a challenging if not impossible task unless you are familiar with a team’s system. Things you and I may think we see are often not what happened. After speaking with several folks about young defensemen Juuso Riikola and John Marino, a common phrase was “we cleaned some things up as the game went on.”
How many of you noticed those “things”? I didn’t see many, and with Riikola, I was explicitly watching. Hockey is such a fluid game that even good plays can be wrong, and bad plays can be proper.
- After watching six preseason games, the Penguins are going to struggle to score goals. They will have plenty of chances, but finishing will be a problem. Dominik Kahun and Simon will need to be finishers. Alex Galchenyuk will need to be on his game.
I predicted the Penguins would struggle to score 250 goals this season. That’s about the right number. Perhaps 240 goals. However, when the Penguins gel, they’re going to be difficult to score against.
- If Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson are paired together, that could be an all-or-nothing pairing. As Pettersson told us, they move the puck well, they are good at breakouts, getting to the offensive zone but they need to improve in the defensive area. The pair lacks a strength element to grab a loose puck and dominate the tight space in the defensive zone. They will have a difficult time winning puck battles, which could allow opponents to pin them into the defensive zone.
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said, “That would mean our best four defensemen are in our top four.”
But is it balanced? The Penguins are a little bit stuck with it. If not Pettersson, the best option is Johnson because Riikola would be a poor match. So, if Johnson isn’t traded, he’s either a top-four defenseman or a healthy scratch candidate.
“I can be better in the D zone. As much as we can move the puck and not spend time there, it’s going to be good,” Pettersson said.
- Evgeni Malkin had a lackluster final preseason game. He made turnovers and took penalties. Don’t get too excited. There was no intensity in the air, and Malkin played like it. Malkin has shown confidence and pushed himself in the preseason. He’s been aggressive and bold, which is when he is at his best. You may really like the Malkin-Alex Galchenyuk combination when Galchenyuk gets healthy.
Malkin will go through a few adjustments this season. The game keeps evolving, and he has to learn his time and place; the no-look passes, the nifty stickhandling, and playing with emotion.
Bonus: For what it is worth, I asked Erik Gudbranson in our chat if the room and the team had a different vibe. He really didn’t think so. If you watched our conversation, you know it wasn’t BS. The Pittsburgh Penguins culture and leadership have not wavered. So, perhaps the incidents last season were contained to those involved. That’s a good thing, but it does remove one darn good excuse for a Round One beatdown.