Pittsburgh Penguins hockey begins Thursday. The first whistles sound, coach Mike Sullivan’s voice will boom off the concrete walls of the UPMC Lemieux Complex, and the squeaking of the marker on the whiteboard will fill the soundtrack behind Sullivan’s instructions. The 2022-23 Penguins will begin to take shape.
It’s been a long summer after the team squandered a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers. That glass is half full if you realize the Penguins were several times within minutes of winning the series despite playing with a third goalie and playing clinching games without Sidney Crosby, who took an ahem inadvertent elbow from Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba.
It’s been a long summer…and there are questions surrounding the new Penguins roster construction. Colleague Dave Molinari took a whack at five of those unknowns about the Penguins lineup.
In addition to team questions, a handful, if not more, players, will provide answers. Some will deliver answers by earning roles; conversely, a few players could find the answers unpleasant after visiting the coach’s office. Those answers and decisions have several players on the bubble.
The 5 Pittsburgh Penguins on the Bubble
5. Josh Archibald
While the Penguins Twitterverse has anointed Archibald the goat (not GOAT), the Penguins organization is looking to him as a scrappy fourth-liner and penalty killer; a Zach Aston-Reese substitute with a little more offense.
Archibald could only play eight games last season because of his (lack of) vaccination status, for which he was eventually granted a medical exemption. Over the previous three seasons, Archibald scored 31 goals and played about 13:30 per game with the Arizona Coyotes, then Edmonton Oilers.
Archibald should be a top-12 player, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe.
4. Drew O’Connor
As Gorilla Monsoon would say, O’Connor started last season like a house of fire. He scored five points in his first six games but went ice cold and didn’t score in the next 16 games. He has 32 NHL games experience over his first two professional seasons following two seasons at Dartmouth.
O’Connor is waivers exempt, so his career is not in jeopardy, but his challenge will be to stay ahead of the pack gaining on him as the first call-up. Sam Poulin, Valtteri Puustinen, Filip Hallander, and perhaps Nathan Legare are gaining quickly.
O’Connor is in danger of being Wally Pipp’d. Or Sam Lafferty’d. Not only must he climb over Poehling and Josh Archibald for playing time, but he must also fend off the challenges from behind.
It’s a good competition for the Pittsburgh Penguins, which has not existed in recent years.
3. Mark Friedman
The answer to the trivia question about Ron Hextall’s first Penguins acquisition, the former Philadelphia Flyers GM plucked the defenseman from the Flyers on waivers. Friedman was banished to the press box and even played forward for a spot with the Flyers. He’s excited Penguins fans with his blend of gritty, agitating physical play and untapped potential.
Sullivan flirted with putting Friedman ahead of Pettersson on the depth chart late last season. Friedman certainly brings the excitement and energy, but Sullivan decided on Petterson for the playoffs before injuries created a spot for Friedman.
Five defensemen, four spots, including the spare seventh D-man. Friedman would be the favorite to claim the extra spot because of his ability to play right or left. In fact, the righty defenseman may be a little better on his off-side.
Edit: Friedman is right-handed.
But if coaches like what they see from Smith and Joseph, Friedman would be the player exposed to waivers. He will need a good training camp and preseason to stay a half-step ahead in the battle for an NHL roster spot.
2. P.O Joseph
It just might be the make-or-break moment for Joseph with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He turned pro three years ago but has played in just 20 NHL games. His NHL play has at times flashed brightly but more often resembled the safety mode version of his full potential.
Joseph, 23, is not waivers exempt, so if he doesn’t claim a spot on the crowded blue line, the Penguins will have a choice–stash him in the press box or expose him to waivers so he can get ice time with the WBS Penguins.
After 16 games in 2020-21, he played just four last season. He is one of five left-side defensemen, including Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, Ty Smith, and Mark Friedman. At least one, if not two, defensemen will be disappointed.
Joseph moves well, has vision, has learned to be defensively responsible, and has the skills the excel. However, he hasn’t yet asserted himself with the puck at the NHL level.
1. Ryan Poehling
PHN has spent considerable time inquiring about Poehling. He has a four-goal game on his NHL resume and, for a moment, was the toast of the Montreal Canadiens. He’s a former first-round pick, but after his early career explosion, he crashed back to reality. He’s talented and has ample individual skills. However, he hasn’t yet put it together in a team game and is prone to maddening mistakes (such as charging one-on-four into a defensive trap and losing the puck).
The Penguins have 14 forwards with NHL experience. Somebody has to go. Poehling could be a steal. Or he could join Alex Nylander with the WBS Penguins as talented players looking for their chance to get back to the show.
Watch out: Marcus Pettersson
Pettersson could quickly find himself on the bubble with good camps and preseasons by two of Joseph, Smith, or Friedman. The Penguins would save $1.1 million by putting Pettersson in the AHL, which is a few hundred thousand more than they would save by sending Joseph, Smith, or Friedman to WBS. Pettersson was up in the first half but down in the second half last season. If he doesn’t inspire confidence from coaches early this season, his job should not be considered safe.