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Kingerski: Penguins Young D-Men Not Ready, Mark Friedman Should Win Job

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PIttsburgh Penguins, Mark Friedman, Game 4 New York Rangers

It was not pretty for a couple of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ young defensemen on Saturday.

A trio of defensemen are fighting for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third-pairing spot beside Jan Rutta. Chad Ruhwedel will be the spare defenseman because he’s one of the best in the business at being press-boxed for weeks and then quietly providing steady play as needed. But who gets the left-side job and a sweater every night has been a Penguins training camp battle between Ty Smith, P.O Joseph, and Mark Friedman.

On Sunday afternoon, the Penguins essentially decided their forwards roster by sending Drew O’Connor and Drake Caggiula to the WBS Penguins camp as part of sweeping roster cuts. Caggiula must clear waivers, but there were no defensive cuts of note.

On Saturday, the three defensemen battling for the open spot beside Rutta may have made head coach Mike Sullivan’s decision for him. As the few reporters (including PHN) chatted with Sullivan after the game, his pauses, a couple of head bobbles, and crafty wording indicated he, too, recognized the subpar performances.

P.O Joseph was caught by the Buffalo Sabres forecheck a few times in the first period and gave the puck away with a pass into traffic at center ice.

Ty Smith worked the offensive blue line capably, but his offensive contributions were overshadowed by a few weak defensive plays, one of which became a Buffalo Sabres goal.

Mark Friedman just played steady, consistent defense throughout the game. He held firm to the offensive blue line to keep plays alive, he snapped outlet passes from stick to stick, and he defended his station well.

It was an NHL defenseman’s performance standing in comparison to NHL hopefuls.

The Penguins didn’t generate a consistent or intense offensive push throughout their game in Buffalo on Saturday. They had one-off chances but never sustained an attack. Buffalo goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukonen was also pretty good.

But there was space for the Penguins’ left-side defensemen (Smith, Joseph) to take in the offensive zone. Neither did with any consistency.

Both had issues, too. Smith’s drive-by puck effort and defense at the defensive blue line allowed Tage Thompson a clear path to the net for what became the game-winner. If such a play happened in the regular season, that’s a valuable two points given away.

“I think it’s really evident he’s great on the offensive blue line. You know scales the line on the powerplay, or even five on five has the ability to distribute the puck. He’s good at getting the puck through, getting it down to the net to give our forwards an opportunity for next play,” said Sullivan. “…you know, on the defensive side of the game, I think we’ve got an opportunity to help grow there. That’s an area where we know he can improve and I think he’s determined to do that. And so we’re trying to work at that.”

Sullivan praised Joseph for turning his game around in mid-stream, too.

“I thought the second and third, he really grabbed a hold of himself in this game. I thought he played much better in the second 30 to settle down into the game. I think he’s a guy that’s a real conscientious kid who really wants to make a difference,” Sullivan said. “And he’s doing everything in his power to make the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sometimes when you do that, you try to do a little too much. So that was a conversation that we’ve had with him as of late–just taking what the game gives him and just embracing the process and trusting his instincts.”

But for a defenseman who must show consistency to get a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater, the rough start will also be a flavor that lingers.

Smith had a couple of positive moments in the third period. He had an open look from the left circle for a one-timer but partially fanned on the shot. It was a good microcosm for Smith’s day. Joseph’s, too.

Joseph has spent three years honing his craft with the WBS Penguins. Smith spent the last two seasons in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils but clearly lost the thread in his sophomore season and was expendable.

Smith is only 22 years old. Joseph just turned 23.

*Editor’s note: the original publishing noted Joseph was 22. We corrected the error.

Sullivan and the Penguins organization have given the young defensemen enough sunshine to show their wares and claim the regular NHL job, but the flaws, while fixable, are significant.

Smith may be a step ahead of Joseph because of his offensive zone talents, and he’s been given the bulk of time with the NHL defensemen in practice, but until the third period on Sunday, he had just two shots on goal and no points in the first two preseason games.

Joseph equaled Smith’s two shots on Saturday, too.

Whether by default or because he’s the best of the three options, Mark Friedman should be the Pittsburgh Penguins opening night third-pair defenseman. The Penguins can work with Smith’s d-zone coverage in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton without exposing him to waivers. Perhaps Joseph sticks around as the eighth defenseman and gets spot starts or injury replacement time.

“It’s just another opportunity to show what I can do. So I’ve had to fight for (ice time) my whole life,” Friedman told PHN. “It’s nothing new. So now I’m ready for the challenge.”

His chippy, physical style brings energy and an element the Penguins could use. He also knows how to pinch in the offensive zone and play tight to the blue lines. He moves well, and after several years of fighting for table scraps, it’s time to feed Friedman.

Though he told PHN that taunting Rangers fans was a one-time thing.

No, I felt like I needed to do that in the playoffs. (The Rangers fan) was sitting right there,” the intense Friedman said with a bit of a smile.

Friedman is the best option; steady, aggressive, and physical. He played six playoff games last May, was a plus-3 in the series, and had one assist. Friedman has paid his dues, first as a depth defenseman with the Philadelphia Flyers, then a two-year battle for playing time with the Penguins.

Mark Friedman is the guy.

And he’s only 26.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Alan Smith
1 month ago

No money left for the defensive side of things so you choose the least harmful person! How can one game with almost all rookies make for final decisions? Not near the same as having 15 to 20 vets to play beside! Thought O’Conner was a standout in the game!

Crosby32746@yahoo.com
Crosby32746@yahoo.com
1 month ago

I agree that it will be Friedman. But Friedman is ALWAYS hurt. Maybe in your scenario the month he can remain healthy will give time to coach up Smith like they did Mattheson, Pettersson, etc. My pick would be Chad until one of the also rans shows they can stick.

Dean
Dean
1 month ago

Based on history you are most likely correct. I would like to see the Pens play young players on the 3rd pair and 4th line to give them chance to adapt to the NHL speed. I would hope that Friedman and Archibald don’t take those spot. The pens are good enough to have 2 positions that they use for development during the regular season.

cacastine
cacastine
1 month ago

Disagree I think the battle is for the 7th spot and the 6th spot is Rhuwedel’s.

jonesmalaco
jonesmalaco
1 month ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

“Ruhwedel is a right-sider”. So? Friedman is also a right-shot.

cacastine
cacastine
1 month ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

May be that Ruhwedel is a much more known commodity, as you say he can be in the press box for months and then come play the same solid game he plays regardless. The rest still have something to prove. We will see, I don’t see why we would make that switch this year when we didnt last year just because hes a righty – 16 minutes a night against 3rd/4th lines. Could be wrong.

Simon Hargus
Simon Hargus
1 month ago

💯 with this . I think that 3rd pair fits Sully’s “hard to play against” very well.

John
John
1 month ago

Although I have no preference for 3rd LD, it’s kind of amazing that Mark Friedman continues to be underestimated. People forget that he’s just 26 years old and only played 48 NHL games (42 Regular Season + 6 Playoff) in his career. He also has room to improve his game like POJ and Ty Smith. Whether he wins the job or not, Friedman always empties the tank. It’s hard not root for him because of the energy and grit he plays with each game. He’s definitely a positive, yet under the radar waivers acquisition by GM Ron Hextall.

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
1 month ago

They better be ready, Friedman cannot stay healthy long enough to stay in the line-up. Smaller player playing a phyiscal game always takes its toll. Same story as past years.

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[…] Pittsburgh Hockey Now: A trio of defensemen are fighting for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third-pairing spot beside Jan Rutta. Chad Ruhwedel will be the spare defenseman because he’s one of the best in the business at being press-boxed for weeks and then quietly providing steady play as needed. But who gets the left-side job and a sweater every night has been a Penguins training camp battle between Ty Smith, P.O Joseph, and Mark Friedman. Pittsburgh Penguins. […]

ric jefferies
ric jefferies
1 month ago

Clearly players don’t know how to defend in the modern game, emphasis is on scoring goals because fans have a limited attention span and need mental stimulation. Sullivan hasn’t a clue what to do. Every player can learn to defend effectively, because it is a process. Scoring is something different because scoring relies on speed, metal quickness and creativity (God given gifts) but most of the time it (scoring) relies on the law of averages, keep shooting the puck doesn’t matter if its a low percentage chance of going in the net which results in giving the puck to the… Read more »

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