The sign might as well read, “Pittsburgh Penguins or bust.”
For two handfuls of players, the Penguins training camp and short preseason will make the difference between an NHL roster spot and riding the bus with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Just in case anyone needs added motivation to make the Penguins’ roster, the paychecks for several of those players fighting for ice will significantly vary between the NHL and AHL, too.
Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas was not shy about adding players capable of filling the bottom line role. Beginning with Matt Nieto, who signed a two-year $1.8 million deal on July 1, and ending with Colin White, who signed a PTO earlier this month, the Penguins have as many as 10 forwards fighting for four spots.
Nieto, Noel Acciari, Vinnie Hinostroza, Austin Wagner (on a PTO), Alex Nylander, Rem Pitlick, Jeff Carter, Andreas Johnsson, and Joona Koppanen are those with more than brief NHL experience.
Like a dark horse on the outside lane making a charge down the stretch, add Sam Poulin, who played three NHL games last season, to the mix, too.
Last weekend at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo (Get the in-depth PHN+ coverage here), Poulin’s movement and assertiveness were a step ahead of last season. He might be a victim of numbers, but he also might be one of the favorites because he is a center.
That’s 10 players for three fourth-line spots and an add-on to the third line with likely inhabitants Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor.
That also means the Penguins will have uncomfortable conversations with at least five players, sending them to the WBS Penguins or exposing them to waivers.
The Penguins’ salary cap remains a tricky situation because they have about $220,000 of cap space if they send Pitlick, with his $1.3 million salary, to WBS. However, the team will not have Jake Guentzel for the first couple or few weeks of the season. Per Dubas, the initial plan is to welcome Guentzel back as soon as he’s healed from ankle surgery and not place him on long-term injured reserve, which requires a 10-game and 24-day absence.
So, the Penguins have space for only 21 players with Guentzel on the active roster. The need for a 13th forward will affect the battle for blue-line spots, too. The team probably cannot afford a seventh defenseman, at least until Guentzel returns.
Projecting the Penguins’ Battle
We can safely add Acciari and, most likely, Nieto, leaving eight players for two spots.
The battle royal for the bottom line spots is a stark departure from recent seasons in which there was nary a contested spot anywhere in the lineup. Last season, Radim Zohorna was the player trying to crack the lineup and stick with the big team. Zohorna bounced from Calgary’s organization to Toronto’s organization, playing a combined 10 NHL games.
If the field were not overcrowded, Zohorna would again be on the fringe of earning a roster spot, but he’ll be a solid offensive center should WBS use him that way.
Colin White’s speedy game, combined with Sam Poulin’s waiver exemption, tilts the scale toward White for fourth-line center, but that doesn’t mean Poulin can’t win the job. However, the rain cloud over the Penguins’ fourth line is Jeff Carter’s salary and a no-movement clause. Barring a trade (that Carter could block), the Penguins will carry his full $3.125 million cap hit this season. He can also block being put on waivers.
Regardless if he earns a spot in the bottom six, his cap hit and inclusion on the roster might be assured by his choice.
The best-case scenario is that Carter earns a spot. The worst-case scenario is the team gives Carter a spot because they cannot afford a player in his place.
How the 38-year-old Carter performs in training camp after a significantly disappointing 2022-23 season and how coach Mike Sullivan and Dubas navigate this potential problem will not only dominate public discussion but mold the Penguins’ bottom six.
Perhaps Dubas has another magic trick that can alleviate the situation, but Carter holds the deck of cards.
Rem Pitlick, 26, represents another interesting watch in training camp. He couldn’t stick in the Montreal Canadiens lineup, but can be a gritty forward with some offensive pop. He had 15 points with six goals in 45 games last season. His salary would complicate the Penguins’ cap puzzle, forcing either Drew O’Connor or Matt Nieto off the roster, so like Poulin, he must win a job because a tie goes against him.
The others, such as Hinostroza and Johnsson, all have NHL experience with a modicum of past success. Wagner is exceptionally fast with some jam but seems to lack hands. Alex Nylander fought his way back from a cast-off to the NHL with the Penguins, but the crowded house is his worst enemy. He didn’t show enough, or any, offensive pop in his nine-game run last season, which means he, too, must win a job rather than getting the benefit of a tie.
There will be 10 players. Four will stay. Ring the bell, the battle begins Thursday.