Under ordinary circumstances, the Pittsburgh Penguins could have brought top prospects P-O Joseph and Sam Poulin along for a playoff ride as Black Aces. Under these COVID-19 circumstances, the greenhorns were part of the 34-player Phase 3 training camp but not guaranteed to crack the limited 31-player expanded roster. Poulin and Joseph had an excellent chance to make the roster, but the virus had other ideas.
Each was among the nine Penguins players voluntarily quarantined after secondary exposure to the coronavirus and each missed the first week of camp.
With a solid final week of camp, perhaps Joseph, who completed his first year of pro hockey, or Poulin who showed significant growth at Sherbrooke of the QMJHL, could still make the roster.
“(Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan) just told me to play my game and compete like I always do,” Poulin said on Thursday after the morning practice. “Last year, I didn’t get the chance to make the team, they said just be prepared for next season, and you never know.”
Poulin showed enough in the QMJHL to become the Penguins first-round pick. However, he was even better this season. Poulin was the back-to-back QMJHL player of the week in January when he scored 19 points, including 10 goals in just five games.
Joseph also had a breakout type season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. WBS Penguins GM and head coach Mike Vellucci raved about Joseph to PHN during the pandemic. Vellucci didn’t take the NHL off the table for the 20-year-old defenseman next season, either.
“He could have played games this year in certain situations,” Vellucci said. “No doubt, he could play games next year.”
Joseph became a top-pairing defenseman in WBS. He often played more than 27 minutes per game, and Vellucci dropped the skilled defender into every type of situation, including the penalty kill and late-game defensive roles.
And so it must have been with some eagerness the Pittsburgh Penguins invited both prospects to training camp. But many of the best-laid plans of mice and men have been wrecked by COVID-19.
Joseph and Poulin did not contract the virus, but they were exposed to someone who was exposed to the virus and thus began a week of quarantine hell. The team quickly and voluntarily confined the players to their hotel rooms.
“It was a tough week to go through,” Poulin said. “It’s never fun to be isolated, but with the COVID thing, it’s part of that. You’ve got to respect that … I tried to keep myself motivated even though I was locked in the hotel room. I’m happy to be back now.”
And so the Pittsburgh Penguins plans to give Sam Poulin and P-O Joseph additional ice time and tutelage with the NHL players, which are often an immensely influential for developing players, is probably on hold for one or both of the players.
The Penguins have already undergone two scrimmages and a week of work to ready themselves for the Qualifying Round, and what they hope is a long playoff run. Any player parachuting into the camp after a long layoff would be behind, but that is especially true of Joseph and Poulin.
“I think I’m going to look at (the NHL players), not get in their way, but take stuff here and there that one day I might be able to use for myself,” Joseph said. “… It’s a lot of growth. It’s a lot of taking stuff from guys, looking at what they’re doing, and hopefully taking this into the future, as well.”
Joseph would be the 10th Penguins defenseman on the roster, which is feasible. Kevin Czuczman has played in the scrimmages and been a full participant in camp and would likely be the ninth and possibly last defenseman which the Penguins put on their expanded roster.
Sam Poulin is also at the back of the line of forwards, as players such as Anthony Angello played in the NHL this season and have a significant experience edge on Poulin.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have another scrimmage on Thursday night. It will be a dress rehearsal for the Qualifying Round as each team will play with three lines and five defensemen. The game will also be three periods, unlike the previous two, which were only two 25-minute halves with a running clock.