The question was simple enough, though Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan answered it by drawing a fitting parallel to last season. In the process, Sullivan not only publicly opened the door to stashing veterans on the taxi squad to make room for young players like Sam Poulin or Drew O’Connor, but he also drew a direct link to a Penguins trade, too.
Now, I don’t think a Penguins trade is likely, at all. Nor do I think the current NHL is hungry for the players the Penguins would try to slip through waivers for the taxi squad. But, when Sullivan directly referenced the possibility of a Penguins trade, it was noteworthy.
Sullivan doesn’t like to give up info. He prefers generic answers and platitudes to encourage players but to give little insight to prying media eyes. It’s OK. He’s joked about it with us.
On Monday, without Kasperi Kapanen, who is stuck in Finland with immigration issues due to the pandemic, and Colton Sceviour, whose wife had a baby, in camp, the Penguins gave college free agent Drew O’Connor a look.
We asked Sullivan if O’Connor or Poulin had a realistic shot to crack the Penguins roster despite 23 healthy players with NHL contracts in Penguins camp. And his answer turned serious.
“I think anybody in this camp has a chance to make the roster,” Sullivan said. “My philosophy has always been — and I know Jim Rutherford and myself are on the same page — we’re looking for players who are going to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win.”
That part is the generic opener. Every GM and coach wants the best 23 players. If a coach said anything different, it would break the internet.
“If guys perform well, and their body of work suggests that they’re deserving of being in the lineup and being a part of our NHL roster, then those decisions have to be made.”
The Penguins could recoup something near a couple of million dollars of salary cap space by stashing veterans on the taxi squad. Those veterans would first need to clear waivers, and the Penguins run the risk of losing those players, so that decision would not be undertaken lightly.
In the recent past, GM Jim Rutherford did engineer a Penguins trade to clear space and salary for a youngster who earned it.
Last season, rookie John Marino impressed everyone in training camp and forced the Penguins’ hand. There was a reported trade involving Jack Johnson, though Johnson and Rutherford denied it. After a few weeks of platooning Johnson, Marino, and Erik Gudbranson, Rutherford dealt the gutsy Gudbranson for a minor leaguer to create Marino’s full-time space.
The Penguins trade was the hard choice, and Sullivan specifically referenced that possibility.
“I think we have a pretty good track record that suggests we believe in them. A guy like John Marino is an example…,” Sullivan continued. “He earned his way into the lineup, and Jim had to make some moves to facilitate that process.”
I expected Sullivan to code his answer and bury the meaning in semantics and phrasing. Something along the lines of, “it will be tough, they’ll have to earn their way onto the team,” or a full dodge like “we have a lot of competition in camp, and they’ll get a look.”
Perhaps even a “business of hockey” answer. But Sullivan flung the door wide open.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will scrimmage three times in the nine-day camp and have a full game simulation scrimmage on Sunday. Poulin and fellow prospect Nathan Legare were not part of the main practice on Monday but should get a shot during the first scrimmage on Tuesday.
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O’Connor is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, and still growing into his frame. He left high school at 5-foot-8. Last season, was his sophomore season at Dartmouth and he scored 21 goals and 12 assists in 31 games.
It was impossible to judge O’Conner based on Monday’s practice. The pace was almost leisurely, and it certainly wasn’t crisp. It was a first-day practice, and so any judgments would be flawed. However, it was O’Conner’s first look with the Penguins. Poulin and Legare have played in NHL preseason games and Poulin participated in the July training camp, too.
I suspect Poulin would be the more likely prospect to crack the lineup, but the door is open for all of them. Tuesday will be our first good look.