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Trending Penguins players: Who’s up and who’s down as preseason wraps up

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NHL: Preseason-Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, friends! During the season I am going to try and take a weekly look at the Penguins players on the roster that are trending upward ... and the ones that are trending downward. Hot and cold. Hot and not. Up and down. Whatever you want to call it.

With the Penguins wrapping up their preseason schedule on Friday night in Columbus it seems like a good time to go with our first installment and see how things went throughout the preseason.

Preseason performance can be a tricky thing to evaluate — the game’s don’t matter, you’re often times playing against rosters that are full of players that are going to spend the year in the American Hockey League or the CHL, and the level of intensity is definitely not what it is during the season. The veterans are basically just trying to get their legs loose and avoid an injury.

Still, there are a few things we can look for and there have been a handful of Penguins players that have stood out over the past couple of weeks.

Who’s up

Jusso Rikkola — He has, quite simply, been the talk of camp. The 24-year-old defender signed out of Finland over the summer has been given a close look by Penguins’ brass this preseason, playing by far the most minutes of any player on the roster.

He has not wasted them.

He’s shown a physical side, he’s shown an offensive side, and he has done everything he could have possibly done to not only earn a roster spot, but also earn real playing time.

The biggest thing working against him: The six defenders ahead of him that are all signed to long-term contracts that are almost certainly going to be ahead of him on the depth chart.

Matt Cullen The ageless one.

I never really got the Penguins’ apparent season-long quest to re-acquire him during the 2017-18 season, and I had my doubts about bringing him back this offseason. It is not that he wasn’t good in his first stop with the team (dollar for dollar, he might have been one of Jim Rutherford’s best moves over the past three years), but he’s the oldest player in the league, he wasn’t that great in Minnesota, and at some point the magic is going to wear off.

Still, it’s a small enough contract and they have enough options around him that if things don’t work out it is not going to be an issue. And there still might be some good hockey they can squeeze out of him. To his credit, he has made quite an impact in the preseason, tallying three goals and an assist in just 26 minutes of ice-time over two games.

Still not quite sure what his role is going to be or how much should be expected of him, but you can’t argue with the results so far.

Phil Kessel Same ol’ shit over the summer, and same ol’ shit on the ice.

Offense. Lots, and lots, of offense.

Yeah, it was the Sabres. Yeah, it wasn’t even the best roster the Sabres could use.

But when Kessel is the shooting the puck like this it does not matter who he is playing against. He is going to score goals. Lots and lots and lots of goals.

Who’s down

Daniel Sprong This has not been an encouraging preseason for the Penguins’ top prospect.

Jim Rutherford recently said that the team expected more (subscription required) from him, and despite getting a pretty substantial opportunity (more 5-on-5 ice-time than any other forward on the team in the preseason games through Friday) he did not really do anything to stand out. At all.

His possession numbers were absolutely brutal (37 percent), he didn’t generate many shots or shot attempts of his own, and he recorded just a single assist on the stat sheet. For a player whose entire value is wrapped up in his ability to score and create offense, that is not the type of impression you want to make with that sort of opportunity.

Preseason points and statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt because, well, it’s the preseason. But when you’re talking about a young player that still hasn’t found a place in the lineup, and a player who has failed to record a point in 23 of his 26 NHL games to this point, it is definitely concerning.

I know it’s only preseason, I know the pedigree, I know the production in the AHL, but at some point he has to do something to stand out and separate himself at the NHL level.

Zach Aston-ReeseLike Sprong, Aston-Reese was on the receiving end of a “we expected a little more” comment from the GM (same link as above) this preseason. He probably gets a little bit more of a pass because of the injury he is coming back from, and that he did at least create a little bit of offense in the preseason with three assists (all primary assists). Still, when you’re a young player competing for a roster spot you never want to hear the general manager talk about how they expected a little more from at this point.

Casey DeSmith — He seems to have the inside track over Tristan Jarry for the backup goaltending job behind Matt Murray. If we are being honest, he has also probably been the worst of the three goalies this preseason, surrendering six goals on 42 shots against.

If DeSmith does end up securing the backup job it would have almost nothing to do with performance or potential, and everything to do with the fact that Jarry is waiver exempt and DeSmith is not.

There is also the argument that it would allow Jarry, the superior prospect between the two, to get regular playing time and continue to develop. But I am not sure how much I buy into that argument.

Jarry, at 23, has already played two-and-a-half seasons in the American Hockey League, and has played at a pretty high level. He really has nothing else to show at that level, and if he’s ready to be the backup in the NHL, and he has earned that spot by outplaying the player he is competing with, then make him the backup.

If that means potentially exposing DeSmith to waivers, so be it. Sure, it might hurt your depth at the position if you lose him (especially if there is an injury), but he is not so outstanding that he can not be replaced (and that is if he would happen to get claimed by another team). Maybe I’m underrating his ability and potential, but to me he just seems like “a guy that plays the position,” while Jarry might be a little more, and has, again, played well enough to win the job.