Expectations and projections for the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup and travel roster were flipped on Wednesday after Penguins GM Jim Rutherford delivered a conference call. The Penguins lines will be without one significant piece and Rutherford tossed out a couple of names for the Penguins Black Aces squad which were a little surprising.
The Penguins made a minor league trade at the deadline and sent frequent call-up Joseph Blandisi and Jake Lucchini to the Montreal organization for Phil Varone and Pittsburgh native Riley Barber.
Rutherford named Varone and former undrafted free agent Adam Johnson as potential “Black Aces” when the NHL return moves to Phase 3 and Phase 4.
“We feel good about the depth of our team. I talked about it before when making the Buffalo trade (Dominik Kahun for Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues),” Rutherford said. “…Some other guys have come along. (Sam) Lafferty and (Anthony) Angello.”
“We feel we have some forwards we can bring in that have played some games, like (Adam) Johnson and Varone, and those guys.”
By his public inclusion, Varone jumps to the top of the expected list of Black Aces. The small forward is only 5-foot-10, 186 pounds, but has 97 career games in the NHL, including 47 with the Philadelphia Flyers last season.
Varone, 29, played only six games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins season was shuttered with the rest of the AHL due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Varone had five assists in those games.
He is talented, but not the fastest skater. His size also works against him in a bottom-six role.
The roster rules for the NHL return to play will include 28 skaters and unlimited goaltenders. On Wednesday, Rutherford announced Nick Bjugstad had surgery and would not be available for the NHL playoffs. Dominik Simon also had surgery during the pandemic pause and will be out of the lineup, too. Without the pair, the Penguins have 22 skaters, so they will be able to carry six additional skaters.
Goalies will no longer be an issue so Casey DeSmith will be the third goalie and Dustin Tokarski, who also has NHL playoff experience with the Montreal Canadiens in 2014 figures to be along for the ride, too.
The Penguins already have eight rostered defensemen. Zach Trotman is a lock to be on the “taxi squad,” and nine defensemen should be enough.
Two players who don’t have NHL experience but whose inclusion could pay dividends to the long term success of the organization are prospects Pierre-Olivier Joseph and 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin.
Poulin torched the QMJHL this season with 77 points (32g, 45a) in just 46 games. In January, Poulin was the back-to-back player of the week with 19 points (10g, 9a) in five games. The Toronto Maple Leafs have already announced their 2019 second-round pick Nick Robertson, who had a monster year in the OHL and for Team USA at the World Junior Championships would be part of their expanded roster.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach and GM Mike Vellucci singled out Joseph for praise in an exclusive chat with PHN. Vellucci believes Joseph could have played limited or sheltered minutes in the NHL this season and has a chance to play in the show next season as he continues to improve.
PHN Projected Penguins Black Aces
F – Phil Varone
F – Adam Johnson
F – Thomas Di Pauli
D – Zach Trotman
D – Kevin Czuczman
F – Sam Poulin
Poulin could be a secret weapon if the Penguins need a top-nine forward. Poulin showed well in training camp and the Penguins preseason, though he didn’t force the team to keep him for a nine-game tryout.
Instead, Poulin continued to mature and add layers to his game throughout the season. See PHN’s video scouting report.
Adding a player like Poulin to be around the team would have long term benefits as the young player sees how the Penguins veteran core approaches business. The Penguins core players such as Sidney Crosby can educate a player like Poulin, and speed his development.
Poulin may not be the sixth-best player outside the top-22, though he may be, the long term benefits could be significant. The cancellation of the AHL season denied the Pittsburgh Penguins a chance to give Poulin some professional experience, so being part of the Black Aces is the next best thing.
Poulin should be part of the show.