There’s a little bit of uncertainty for the Penguins in their 2017 training camp, as general manager Jim Rutherford considers up to 3 different center candidates to trade for, which ups the drama factor big time for how the team may (or may not!) look on opening night.
And, after little turnover entering last season (with only Ben Lovejoy departing among regular players) this summer was much more tumultuous for the back-to-back champs as the expansion draft and salary cap constraints caught up to them and tenured veterans in Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey are all plying their trades in new cities this fall, as is Matt Cullen.
With that in mind, a quick look at the roster breakdown for the Pens in camp and which battles to keep an eye on as the team really gets in gear this week with practices and exhibition games starting up.
LOCKS (9) — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Ryan Reaves, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust
MYSTERY CENTER TRADE ADDITION (1) — ?
PROBABLY ON GOOD SIDE OF THE BUBBLE (2) — Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney
PROBABLY ON BAD SIDE OF THE BUBBLE (2) — Josh Archibald, Tom Kuhnhackl
NEED TRADE FOR NEW CENTER TO NOT HAPPEN YET (4) — Jay McClement (PTO), J.S. Dea, Teddy Blueger, Greg McKegg
NEED A GREAT CAMP (3) — Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon
LIKELY NO CHANCE (The rest) — Jordy Bellerive, Thomas DiPauli, Jan Drozg, Reid Gardiner, Ryan Haggerty, Adam Johnson, Tom Kostopoulos (AHL-only contract), Sam Miletic, Gage Quinney, Tom Sestito, Colin Smith (AHL), Christian Thomas, Freddie Tiffels, Garrett Wilson
DETAIL: If the long-awaited trade to add a center doesn’t happen before the start of the season, that’s one more open spot for likely one of McClement/Dea/Blueger to make the NHL out of training camp. Hornqvist is skating on his own and said to be ready for the start of the season, but he still is ginger at receiving passes, worth watching.
If Hornqvist can start season in the lineup, Archibald and Kuhnhackl look like 2 players gunning for just one spot as the 13th extra player, with probably no space available to carry 14 healthy forwards.
The team has left the door open for Sprong and/or Aston-Reese to impress them and win a job, but the numbers of players around clearly are stacked against them. Either youngster will need a tremendous type of “just can’t cut this guy” type of preseason, or they both are bound to start their first pro season in the AHL. A betting person probably would favor both to get an opportunity to make an NHL debut at some point in the season, if they continue to perform as expected.
LOCKS (6) — Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Matt Hunwick
ON THE BUBBLE (2) — Chad Ruhwedel, Derrick Pouliot
NEXT TIER (5) — Lukas Bengtsson, Frank Corrado, Kevin Czuczman, Chris Summers, Jarred Tinordi
NOT THIS YEAR (6) — Connor Hall, Zachary Lauzon, Ethan Prow, Jeff Taylor, Zach Trotman, Dylan Zink
DETAIL: Unlike the forwards, there isn’t too much in flux for the defense this camp. The top-6 are pretty much set in stone, barring injury. The biggest decision may be whether or not the team afford and be willing to carry 8 defenseman on the NHL roster since both Pouliot and Ruhwedel have to be placed on waivers if they are cut.
NHL coaches don’t like having 8 bodies and 4 even pairs in practice, it slows down the norm of the drills, typically the preferred setup is to rotate 7 players in 3 pairs to keep it moving. However this year might be a unique situation, and one to consider especially since injuries always happen to some individuals in the top-6 and unfortunately there wouldn’t be 8 healthy players for long.
The “next tier” level should be the bulk of the WB/S defense, and all those players should be solid for that level. If Bengtsson’s medical condition is truly able to be managed, he could be a player to watch as the first call-up.
LOCKS (2) — Matt Murray, Antti Niemi
NEXT TIER (1) — Tristan Jarry
NOPE (3) — Casey DeSmith, Alex D’Orio, Sean Maguire
DETAIL: Murray enters his first training camp as the undisputed “#1 guy”. Niemi has a history of decent play on good teams (SJ, CHI) in his career but is coming off two very poor seasons on a bad team (DAL). Can Jarry push Niemi at all? Doesn’t seem too likely, considering how much the Penguins favor their goalie depth. It would be an extreme longshot they would risk losing Niemi on waivers and instantly install Jarry as the organization’s backup straight out of camp and weaken overall depth.
But, if in the regular season Niemi struggles and/or Murray suffers another injury, there will be a real opportunity for Jarry to get NHL playing time. Coach Sullivan showed in 2016 he can deftly navigate the awkward 3-goalie setup when Murray got playing time over a bad backup goalie, and it’s not too difficult to imagine a similar situation playing out again, this time with Jarry in the young upstart role.
Ideally though, that situation won’t be necessary, Murray stays healthy and starts 60+ games and Niemi provides a reasonable performance in a handful of games as a backup, as the preferred plan, while Jarry gets plenty of game-action in the AHL.