HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — The Pittsburgh Penguins have a team-bonding weekend ahead, though not every player that fans wanted to see on the roster will be part of the boys’ weekend in Halifax.
The Penguins trimmed the training camp roster to 37 players Thursday, one day before departing for the maritime town in a thinly veiled ceremonial game to honor Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whose infamous childhood dryer is on display at the Scotiabank Centre, where the team will meet the Ottawa Senators on Monday.
The Penguins waived Ty Smith and Rem Pitlick as part of the moves. Both cleared waivers and will report to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
The reasons behind the moves are not difficult, though the external blame seems scattered amongst several parties and targeted toward affirming existing criticisms.
The criticisms haven’t changed, only the names. Smith, 23, was waived because coach Mike Sullivan won’t play young players. Smith was waived because Sullivan loves Chad Ruhwedel. A few intellectually unlucky folks even went the conspiracy theory route.
I can assure you Sullivan is not a member of the Illuminati.
At least, I’ve never seen him at the meetings.
For too many, the cuts, combined with Sam Poulin being placed in the minor league group at practice, overshadowed Sullivan affording Alex Nylander the prime real estate beside Evgeni Malkin for the game Thursday, as well as Radim Zohorna remaining in the primary group at practice.
The answers to why each player found their respective spot are quite easy.
It’s where they belong. It was based on merit.
Zohorna outplayed Poulin, making Poulin the sixth center behind Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Lars Eller, Noel Acciari, and Zohorna. Poulin’s skating limits his ability to be effective on the wing.
As a few supporters realized, Smith had a relatively bad preseason. He lost the thread in the defensive zone too many times. He may figure it out in the AHL, but unless he’s capable of 40 or 50 points, those defensive walkabouts won’t fly in the NHL.
And yes, Sullivan does have a high comfort level with Ruhwedel. Can you blame him? Mistake-free dependability has value.
Projecting the Next Penguins Cuts
The battle is for the 13th forward. Mark Friedman most likely has the seventh defenseman spot, but the question becomes if Zohorna, Nylander, or Vinnie Hinostroza will claim the extra forward role.
The bet is that Hinostroza will stick around even after Jake Guentzel returns from injury. Guentzel skated at practice on Friday, raising hopes he could return before early November. However, Hinostroza has been good in training camp, and Nylander did not seize his big chance on Thursday.
Floating somewhere in the mix is also Austin Wagner, who is on a PTO. His consistent inclusion on the fourth line in preseason games speaks loudly, but Sullivan likes to give bubble players a longer chance than players who have longer track records.
Zohorna is intriguing. He’s played very well and seemingly has an offensive upside that Hinostroza does not. However, for a limited role, Hinostroza is probably the safe choice. That decision is much closer than one would have expected a few weeks ago, and those who say Zohorna should get the lineup spot are not wrong.
He’s earned it with a strong push in preseason, but Hinostroza can kill penalties. That fact might be the deciding factor.
There will be social media blowback if Zohorna or Nylander do not make the team. Yet, what many are missing, despite gentle prodding and subtle explanations from even the head coach, is that winning right now is the most important thing. This is not a developmental team or stage in the organization’s history.
This team is about now. The better players will stay. The other players must prove they belong. That’s why the AHL exists: to give those players the space and time to hone their craft. The top minor league surely isn’t to make money or bring hockey to the uninitiated masses scattered about the hockey hotbeds of the Northeast.
It appears the salary cap will allow the Penguins to keep a 13th forward and seventh defenseman. Jeff Carter’s spot in the lineup is probably secure for now, and that becomes a legitimate debate, but for another time.
Take the word of caution to avoid getting too deep into the negative. If the Penguins lineup had Zohorna, Poulin, Ty Smith, and Valtteri Puustinen, they would be in deep trouble.
Deep, deep trouble.
Perhaps a team that bad would also return the $10 Student Rush, which originated to help sell seats for a bad Penguins team about 20 years ago, full of young players of questionable NHL bonafides.
You see where I’m going with that, eh?
That Generation Next team was fun for a moment, but games by February were a brutal slog as the playoff dreams drifted away. I covered those teams and openly rooted for a few of the guys to achieve regular NHL careers. Sadly, Eric Meloche, Guillaume Lefebvre, and Shawn Heins with the 106mph slapshot (and No. 57 because his name is pronounced like Heinz) were not to be.
There will be a time again when pluggers and hopefuls fill the Penguins’ lineup but now isn’t that time.
Don’t confuse that fun with winning hockey. And that’s why the players are where they are.