Probably the most notable thing to come out of Jim Rutherford’s media session on Monday was the way he talked up AHL addition Jordan Nolan.
Rutherford was complimentary of Nolan’s game, and confirmed that he will be in camp and will have an opportunity to earn an NHL contract.
Said Rutherford: “We will bring an American League contract to camp. That will be Jordan Nolan. We like this player. We will see how camp goes. At any time, we can flip his American League deal to an NHL contract. He brings a dimension to his game that is important for teams.”
So what do we make of this? Is it just typical preseason hot-air to leave the door open for a veteran? Or is seeing him in a Penguins uniform something that is a legit possibility of happening this season?
The thing that sticks out to me a little is the “brings a dimension that is important to teams” line, because, well, it has been a reoccurring theme for the Penguins the past couple of offseasons to bring more of a sandpaper and grit element to the roster. It has not really worked out well.
It is not really a huge surprise that the Penguins are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to their forward depth because it is one of the big unanswered questions heading into the season. There are a lot of bodies there, but not really a lot of guarantees. Especially offensively.
So let’s talk about Nolan and if he has a spot here.
At first glance, it is difficult to see it.
Nolan did not play a single game in the NHL this past season, and since the start of the 2018-19 season has played in just 14 games. When he has played, he has not really made much of an impact. No offense, his possession numbers have been bad relative to his teammates, and he really does not solve the biggest need the Penguins have for their third-and-fourth lines. Someone to provide a spark offensively.
When everybody is healthy they already have a pretty strong collection of defensive forwards in those spots. Is Nolan a defensive upgrade over Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, or a healthy Zach Aston-Reese? Or Evan Rodrigues, Mark Jankowski, or Colton Sceviour for that matter? We know he is not going to outscore any of them, and if he is not a defensive upgrade (and I am not sure that he is) then what is the point?
There is nothing wrong with players that provide physicality and rattle some cages from time to time. But there has to be something else there along with it to make it all worth it. Some kind of an offensive impact, or a shutdown presence, or an ability to drive possession. You can not just add grit for the sake of grit. My fear is that this would be grit for the sake of grit.
Having said that, the fact the Penguins have so many forwards on the roster right now that it is going to be awfully difficult for Nolan to crack this lineup. Especially with no preseason games to make a case for himself. Instead, I see this as a contingency plan, and the safety net of a body with NHL experience, for what could be a strange season full of uncertainty. You hate to think about it, but you have to prepare for the possibility that you are going to be missing players at some point this season — and perhaps multiple players, even for an extended period of time — due to illness or injury. The former could absolutely be an issue at some point given the numbers around the country. We also know the latter always seems to be an issue for this team.
That is what I see Nolan is here for. In case they need to fill a roster. Because from a hockey standpoint his only potential role is as a bottom-six forward, and almost certainly a fourth-liner. When it comes to the bottom-six there are at least eight or nine forwards that are starting the season ahead of him for one of those spots.
Realistically speaking it is an organizational depth move, and Rutherford’s comments strike me as him just talking up a player they added to the organization with the understanding that they might need him. Whether or not they could have signed a better potential option for that role and that spot is certainly a debate worth having. But in the end I think the only way we see Nolan playing in an NHL game for Pittsburgh is if a lot of people are out of the lineup for one reason or another. There is just no actual hockey reason for it to happen otherwise.