Saturday morning thoughts after the Penguins close out their exhibition schedule in 2018.
#1: It doesn’t matter what happens in the preseason, just don’t get hurt. Just don’t get hurt. Unfortunately in the preseason finale, defenseman Brian Dumoulin suffered an injury of unknown magnitude.
Coach Sullivan on Dumoulin: “He will be evaluated when we get back to Pittsburgh. It’s an upper body injury. We will have more information when we get back.”— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 29, 2018
Most media observers didn’t even click in on the exact moment Dumoulin got hurt, so we shall see what comes of it.
#2: There’s probably a good argument Dumoulin is a top 7-8 important player on the team. He was the only partner in camp for Kris Letang this year. Dumo is also the familiar security blanket for Letang; playing a whopping 1,074 5v5 minutes together last year (with Letang mostly double shifting for 334 more). Letang’s Corsi For % with Dumoulin was 54.7%. Without him it was 49.5%. If Dumoulin’s out for any length of time it’s a loss the Penguins will feel in a big way.
#3: And what happens to the defensive pairs? One would think, on the surface Olli Maatta could shift up with Letang. That would open up Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz to be a second pair, and one you would have to count on to come through. But without Dumoulin, the Penguins defense looks a lot less formidable.
#4: That’s no fault of Jusso Riikola, who would be the lone beneficiary if Dumoulin can’t play on opening night (which, to be fair, remains officially unknown as of now- with six full days for Dumo to get back to good). Riikola is the only member of the team to play all six preseason games, and he impressed in various ways in each and every one of those six games. After this preseason it wouldn’t be bad to see Riikola stick in the NHL out of training camp, but man, not at the expense of an injury to Dumoulin.
#5: Moving away from Dumoulin and the defense, one player with a great ending to training camp and the preseason docket of games is no doubt Derick Brassard.
Brassard has shrugged off a nasty lung infection that hampered him earlier in the month to finish very strong and set himself up for a big start to the season. He ended the preseason finale with two goals against Columbus, including this nice showcase of skill and hands.
Nice one, Brass! He's a preseason scoring machine.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 29, 2018
We see you cheering there, Crosby duo! pic.twitter.com/jZoefuOfrA
#6: Brassard looks a lot more comfortable in Pittsburgh now. Perhaps the transition from trap-defensive minded Ottawa was tougher than it would seem to jump into a free-flowing offensive team. The groin injury in late March couldn’t help either. Either way, results are all that mattered and Brass only scored 4 goals in 26 combined regular season and playoff games in a Penguins jersey. That’s not good enough, and not really representative of the skill and ability this player has- he who scored 45, 60 and 58 points in three full seasons in New York from 2013-2014 to 2015-16.
Brassard on spending training camp with the Penguins: “It’s hard when you come in at the middle of the season. Especially for a team that just won twice. We have a really deep lineup. Now I’m not behind. I know I can help this team.” pic.twitter.com/nUETI8JrmP— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 29, 2018
That’s not to say Brassard will tally 58-60 points this season from a 3rd line role without first group power play minutes, but in a contract year he’s primed to play well and will certainly be better than last season in Pittsburgh.
(Insert mention that heroically remembered Nick Bonino had 29 and 37 points in his two regular seasons in Pittsburgh)
#7: And it’s probably no coincidence that by far the Pens best line in September has been Dominik Simon - Brassard - Bryan Rust trio. Rust, in particular has been pointed pointed out by multiple sources for having an exceptional jump in his step. Some of that was on display here:
This group’s emergence together is a very important point for the regular season. It opens up Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to unite on the second line and be a force offensively.
And though perhaps unexpected, Simon and Rust do a lot of the “little things” all over the ice that help the puck to stay in the Pens possession and keep going the right direction. Brassard is strong on faceoffs and being used in a PK role (he scored a short-handed goal last night) and while they’re not overly big or physical like a traditional checking line, they can be counted on for some smart two-way play in any zone start situation.
NHL teams shuffle lines constantly and this one probably won’t go wire-to-wire or anything but right now they are clicking and that has to be one of the more positive developments that has come out of taining camp for Pittsburgh.
#8: One off-season question was about how 41 (and soon to be 42) year old Matt Cullen would be looking. Cullen is the oldest player in the league now. He had an uneven year in Minnesota with bad possession numbers in Minnesota last year. Was he done? Could the Pens rely on him to be a regular player?
As Adam Gretz pointed out, preseason has shown Cullen is still an NHL player and his arrow is pointing up with an encouraging September.
And it makes sense- Cullen isn’t Jaromir Jagr. Cullen doesn’t need to be in a top 6 role, he doesn’t need to produce points on the power play in order to contribute to the team.
Compared to some of the departed (Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney combined for only 4 goals and 9 assists in 113 total games last season), Cullen should reasonably be expected to exceed that combined production all by himself. He’s perfectly cast on the 4th line and penalty kill to help the team plus all the unquantifiable intangiables that comes along with winning 3 Stanley Cups and having an excellent rapport and “locker room manner” among his peers, especially with so many he has tasted success with.