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Rutherford plays it smart re-assigning top forwards from training camp, preseason

Surprising re-assignments will land 21 players back in WBS, including well-known up-and-coming stars, but it looks toward the future of the team.

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red Wings Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

GM Jim Rutherford announced yesterday his plans to re-assign 21 of the 46 players in the Pittsburgh organization to the team’s AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Of those 21 were, as you all know, notable names from training camp and preseason, such as Zach Aston-Reese, Daniel Sprong, Teddy Blueger, and Adam Johnson.

It could be argued that the surprising decision to send these guys, especially ZAR and Sprong, back to WBS isn’t actually all that surprising and can be so the two rising offensive powers can build their experience even further by getting top-six minutes on a playoff-caliber AHL team rather than playing on the bottom-six of Pittsburgh’s lower lines (Hello, Jake Guentzel).

And with a heartbreaking first-round exit in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs to Providence, the Baby Pens are definitely hungry for revenge as the AHL season ramps up. These guys, plus the great play of Johnson in preseason, will not only have the ability to develop their skills in the AHL, but have a solid chance at a deeper playoff run than last spring. Just as so, any of these talented forwards will take this experience and use it for when HC Mike Sullivan ultimately calls them up later in the NHL season. The “Black Aces” need to continue their feat: stunning the League, and outplaying other NHL teams’ top lines when injuries start inevitably wreaking havoc.

Sprong’s position though is rather interesting. He’s on the last year of his entry-level contract (after being chosen 46th by the Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2015 Draft), and the longer he stays on an AHL team, the less expensive he’ll become once that contract expires. Rutherford is undoubtedly thinking about the future of the organization with his superstar players getting older each year, and if (read: when) Sprong evolves into a serious top-six level forward with time down in the AHL, he’ll be listed at a cheaper value down the line when extension talks start blossoming. Even though Sidney Crosby miraculously seems to get nothing but greater as he ages, he can’t play hockey forever.

Sprong scored 32 goals and added 27 helpers with the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and flaunted a much-improved plus/minus rating of +31. In 2015-16, he had solid showing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s playoff push with five goals and two assists in 10 games. When interviewed, you can tell this kid is aiming high — with NHL glory atop his professional bucket list. Keep an eye out for how well he does for WBS does this season, save any call-ups he receives. A shot like Sprong’s will turn heads for years.

That being said, 26 players still remain in Penguins’ camp, including non-locks like the holder of the greatest nickname in the game, Greg “Kegger” McKegg, PTO signeé Jay McClement, and, known enforcer Tom Sestito.

McKegg is the dark horse free agent coming out of Pittsburgh’s training camp and was one of the top-scoring centers that didn’t don a superstar’s name on his back. The 25-year-old has really made a case for himself as a serious option for the vacant bottom two forward spots. Sullivan has boasted McKegg’s two-way playing talent and has outwardly complimented how strong of a skater he is. And with his 65-game experience with several NHL teams, there isn’t a large concern for the hardships of jumping from NCAA, Minor, and/or Junior levels to the extreme skill that this league demands.

Moreover, it’s safe to say that McClement won’t be making a final roster spot; he’s been nothing but flat in camp and preseason, apart from his sole power-play goal. The veteran’s speed is an issue, and the sort of high-octane trait he’s missing is what Pittsburgh will highlight on the long list of reasons to cut him. It comes down to this, Rutherford and Sullivan know they don’t need him, and you can almost bank on Carter Rowney filling the 3C or 4C. And as for the last empty spot, depth at the forward position will bode well for Pittsburgh, especially with trade talks of Riley Sheahan still circling around. Pittsburgh doesn’t need a set bottom-line center yet. Everybody say goodbye to Jay, it’s been fun.

And as for Sestito, he’s currently on injury reserve and will face a demotion once he’s re-activated. In training camp, we did see a lot of action (and bonding) between him and Ryan Reaves, and it wouldn’t come as a shock if he either gets granted more NHL minutes with a call-up or if he fills Reaves’ spot due to an unforseen injury when the NHL season carries on. Sestito will need to clean up the stupid penalties, though.

Only time will tell, but one thing we can take from all these strategic plans, roster cuts, and forward lines talk is a foundation being built for a bright future for years to come.