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Kingerski: Penguins Camp Observations From Inside the Room (+)



Erik Karlsson, PIttsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wants the final preseason game to be a warmup, a dress rehearsal for the coming NHL regular season. The veteran-heavy lineup essentially calls an official end to the Penguins’ training camp and the many positional battles that have dominated discussion.

Alex Nylander was the latest to bow out of the competition. He was put on waivers Thursday after practice.

Radim Zohorna cycled in at practice with the big group on Thursday, further augmenting his candidacy to stick around on the NHL roster. Jansen Harkins and Colin White also took regular spots on the third lines in practice (Jake Guentzel cycled in on the first line as Drew O’Connor skated with Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust).

Perhaps we shouldn’t read final decisions into the practice lines because there was a game the night before, which featured strong performances from White and Austin Wagner, but it is a good starting point.

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Penguins Camp Impressions:

Austin Wagner: As he admitted to PHN Wednesday night, he’s been around long enough to know the situation. He didn’t sugarcoat the battle he was in or attempt to talk around it. Wagner had to come through with his best effort, but even that may not be enough to keep him from AHL bus rides.

If you didn’t see our chat with him, it was the most refreshing and honest accounting I’ve encountered in the Penguins locker room in a long time. His attributes are unique among the Penguins’ lineup contenders, but are they enough to overcome the others with a bit more offensive game?

My impression is that Wagner is a character. He’s fast, he’s physical, and he’s a ball of energy.

Mark Friedman: The Penguins forever depth defenseman, seemingly despite skills to be more, might be permanently labeled. I’ve sensed a frustration from Friedman. He so badly wants to be in the lineup, but there’s no sign it will happen with the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least without injury to those ahead of him.

I don’t know if Sullivan will choose Ryan Shea or Friedman as the seventh defenseman. I thought Shea had some moments where he didn’t look great against the Red Wings; the top-six forwards got behind him, or he was a bit slow to adjust to their faster game.

Shea’s steady play has been the surprise of camp and preseason. Another selling point in his favor is that he wouldn’t carry the frustration of not being in the lineup with him if he were in the press box.

Opinions of Friedman’s game vary, but only one matters. My impression (and perhaps only mine) is that the situation is grinding on the sandpaper blueliner.

Radim Zohorna: I’m struck by his earnest desire to play for the Penguins. He lights up when he talks about the organization. He bounced around last season, from the Darryl Sutter-led Calgary Flames to the Calgary Wranglers to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Marlies. Those are not third-rate organizations, though the unhappiness levels under Sutter have been well documented. However, Zohorna perks up when asked about coming back to the Penguins.

I’ve asked him about the journey, and a few days ago, I witnessed a colleague ask. From a step back, I watched him sit up and light up.

I like what he can bring. Despite his size, he doesn’t play a physically aggressive game but an offensive game. At 6-foot-7 or so, his wingspan creates a wide forecheck presence. His stick takes up a lot of space in the defensive zone. Perhaps he’s a better 13th forward because he can play one game in the top-six and one on the fourth line, but he’s done everything within his power since the first day of camp.

Alex Nylander: Oh boy. Unfortunately, Penguins fans assumed he could immediately translate his offensive explosion in the AHL to the NHL. He played well in preseason and is a much better 200-foot hockey player than he was a year ago. However, he didn’t play that well. He had one goal in three preseason games, and that was a tap-in set up by Zohorna.

He was publicly strident about winning a job on Wednesday morning. As a media person, I liked the bravado. As a human observer, I was curious about the motivation. Was he sending a message to the coaches? Motivating himself? Was he talking himself into believing it?

Nylander also used a phrase in a one-on-one chat with me in a context that I recall only one other player in my more than 20-year career using.

“I’m a skilled player,” he said, referring to the potential of playing with Evgeni Malkin. The only other player I can remember who said the same in the same context was Kris Beech, famously acquired in the Jaromir Jagr deal.

Erik Karlsson: Perhaps the losing wore on him in San Jose. In Pittsburgh, he’s been funny, gregarious, and a good conversation in the locker room. He joked about the giant moose head above his locker stall in Halifax, “My wife won’t let me put one in our house.”

He’s also quick to understand getting around in Pittsburgh takes some getting used to. Our one-way streets are often bookended by one-way streets … going the same direction. But he seems to be genuinely excited by what comes next. It’s been quite a while since he was on a team with high expectations and a chance. The 2018-19 San Jose Sharks had a run to the Western Conference Final before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Those were the only playoff games he saw in five seasons with San Jose. As Penguins fans get to know him, hopefully, things will be going well enough that you’ll see his personality.