The Pittsburgh Penguins may be down by three forwards on Monday, yet they have three extra defensemen on the roster. Even after Penguins winger Bryan Rust was injured in the final preseason game and placed on LTIR, the Penguins did not recall a forward but instead chose to recall another defenseman. If that didn’t strike you as odd, it should have. The other surprising decision was the last minute re-insertion of Jack Johnson into the lineup after more than a week of reserve work. It certainly seemed that a Penguins trade was afoot.
There could be other explanations, but the most plausible is the Penguins kept extra defensemen because they expected to need one very soon. However, potential injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad, who both left the game Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, could force GM Jim Rutherford and the Penguins into action, now.
In a worst-case scenario, the team could need two forwards for Tuesday against Winnipeg. According to Capfriendly.com, John Marino is the only defenseman who Rutherford could send to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins without first passing through waivers. Additional moves, such as sending Chad Ruhwedel or Juuso Riikola through waivers, if necessary would need to be initiated Monday.
Or, the other Penguins trade shoe could drop.
The Jack Johnson situation is the primary focal point, not because some fans wantonly insist Johnson to be an inept cartoon caricature, but because Rutherford openly listed Johnson’s name on the Penguins trade block over the summer. And the lineup which began the regular season looked suspiciously like the Penguins showcased Johnson.
“Really, there are a few guys in here (who are untouchable), otherwise anyone. There are 15 guys (who could be traded),” Johnson conceded to PHN last week. He also acknowledged the locker room expected a trade.
The recent he-said/he-wrote disagreement involving Rutherford, reports of an impending trade, and Johnson’s firm denial to Pittsburgh Hockey Now is a situation that has a lot of moving parts. However, through second-hand sources, which added context to one on the record source, PHN believes the situation is on-going.
Throughout the preseason, there was a great deal of chatter behind the scenes, which could best be described as expectant, then surprised when things settled without some move involving a goalie or defenseman.
And that colors the decision to elevate Johnson on the second pairing in the first game, then keep him in the lineup with fellow stay-at-home defender Erik Gudbranson in the second game. Despite Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s decision to slide Johnson to the seventh spot for the final week of the preseason when the team was setting their lineup, the Penguins returned to Johnson in the lineup for the first game.
Sullivan also initially abandoned the defensive pairing of Marcus Pettersson-Justin Schultz pairing, which was together for the entirety of training camp and preseason, to put Johnson with Schultz.
Then the Penguins lived dangerously by pairing defensive defensemen to keep Johnson in the lineup on Saturday. Fortunately, for all involved, Johnson and Gudbranson played very well. They were a plus-three, but also defended their own zone well, were able to move the puck forward, and even pushed a little bit of offense.
The Penguins obsessive practice to simplify their breakouts and create shorter faster passes to do so also greatly benefited Johnson and Gudbranson. The result was Johnson and Gudbranson had forward support and looked good.
Monday or Tuesday, the situation could come to a head. The Penguins stockpile of defensemen cannot exist if the Penguins need a pair of forwards for a game on Tuesday. The moves would need to begin on Monday and those moves could be small…or much anticipated.