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Penguins at full strength for 2020-21, as lower line and taxi squad battles loom in training camp

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As expected, no players have yet notified the Pens about opting out of the season for covid concerns

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford talked to the media on Monday afternoon as the league attempts to gear up for next season. Pittsburgh’s training camp will open on January 3rd — that’s 13 days away! The NHL regular season is scheduled for a January 13th start.

As was expected, the Pens haven’t had any player covid-related opt-outs for this season, as is the players’ right to skip the season.

Rutherford also said that forward Zach Aston-Reese, who had shoulder surgery in mid-August, remains on his initial six month timeline to return. That would put him back in the lineup around the middle/end of February.

There will be a limit of 36 players and Rutherford had some flattering things to say about recent signee Jordan Nolan, who is on an AHL contract. Nolan will be given an opportunity at the NHL camp, with the GM already mentioning the possibility of upgrading Nolan to a regular NHL contract that would allow him to play in the big league (and he would count against the team’s 50 player limit, which they’re currently at 46).

But, that math also shows that with Nolan coming to NHL camp, that leaves 35 skaters still to come to camp. There 41 skaters are on NHL contracts for this season (not counting prospects Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare, whose contracts are eligible to slide forward a season if they don’t play in 10 NHL games), so at least six players under NHL contract won’t fit in training camp. That’s no huge deal, since this camp will only last about 10 days before gearing up for the season, but still an interesting wrinkle to track.

Also a new twist for this season is that NHL teams will have a 4-6 player taxi squad, since they don’t have an active AHL to call players up from at first. The AHL season start was listed for February but remains unknown to this moment if or how that would happen.

The battles at the bottom of the lineup will be fun to watch play out. But with so little time and no preseason games, whatever ideas that Mike Sullivan and the coaching staff are bringing into the camp will carry a lot of weight.

We saw this last summer, when Sam Lafferty and Evan Rodrigues showed out a lot in the short camp, yet neither changed the course of the Game 1 or Game 2 lineup. Lafferty got in for Game 3 and only got 7:40 of icetime. Rodrigues didn’t play at all. The rest of the Pens showed little jump and weakly bowed out.

It will be interesting to see this time around if another short camp will change the thought process for Sullivan. A player like Lafferty may again be on the outside of the top 12 forwards coming into camp. How fluid will the Pens allow themselves to be?

Based on Rutherford’s October comments, the team sees a line of Jared McCann, Mark Jankowski and Evan Rodrigues working together to start as the “third” line, with defensive specialists Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev (and probably Aston-Reese when healthy) again anchoring the “fourth” line. Which, in reality isn’t a fourth line so much as it is a defensive zone specialist line that plays an important role to free up more favorable zone starts for the rest of the lines.

With that the rough idea that Pittsburgh management had in off-season moves, how will that coalesce on the ice? Just how set in stone are those groupings for a coach in Sullivan who is known to shuffle his decks of personnel with great frequency.

Watching the lower lines, and to a notch below the taxi squad battles, will be a very interesting