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Will the Penguins bet on Mark Jankowski pay off?

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One of the most interesting aspects of next season will be the play of youngster Mark Jankowski

Calgary Flames v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Penguins are a team where most of their lineup decisions are locked down. The coach and general manager has already spoken publicly about initial plans for a lot of the lineup. Training camp is short and won’t be that meaningful in this 56-game shortened season, which is just fine for Pittsburgh. They pretty much have it all figured out anyways.

Barring any issues with injury or illness, we already know it will be Kasperi Kapanen on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. That leaves an exciting “second” line for Evgeni Malkin to play with Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust.

The bottom two lines are where the consternation and unknowns set in. With Zach Aston-Reese still out until around mid-February due to off-season shoulder surgery, the team’s primary checking line and defensive matchup line is likely to be Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev. It would make the most sense that either Colton Sceviour or Sam Lafferty join them.

The other line, perhaps to be called a “third” line — even if that doesn’t really matter since Blueger and Tanev can and will used for conventional third line minutes — will be where the interest of the team’s changes will be. Jared McCann has been brought back after a dreadful end to the season and given a two-year contract extension. Patric Hornqvist is gone. Patrick Marleau is long gone. Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon have faded away to different teams. In place, the Pens hope, enters Mark Jankowski and re-enters Evan Rodrigues. Jankowski draws the more interest and importance, given his spot as a center.

“We’ve had a difficult time trying to fill that [center] role,” coach Mike Sullivan told the media yesterday. “We think Jankowski has a real good opportunity here. First and foremost, he’s a good, solid defending player. But that’s not the only dimension that is required to play that position for our team, and that’s why it’s unique.”

The dimension Sullivan talks about is offense. It’s a pre-requisite that a lower line center has to be competent and capable in his own end, but with the buzzsaw defensive wizard line of Blueger and Tanev and eventually Aston-Reese able to play basically third line minutes against top opponents, the Pens need Jankowski to be more like the player he was in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and really nothing like the player he was in 2019-20.

A “dimension” like one of these years, as Sullivan put it? He likely would be happy.

But it’s tough to ignore the most recent data point, which most certainly wouldn’t keep Jankowski in this role for very long and the Pens searching for someone else a lot quicker than before they saw 56 games of what he did last year.

Jankowski has the frame at 6’4, 212 pounds. He’s not exactly old at 26, and has put pretty decent seasons out there in the NHL in the not-so-distant past. It also can’t be under-stated that you literally can’t beat the price, signing as an unrestricted agent for a one season deal at league minimum salary. (The word “literally” is often over-used, but it fits the bill in this regard).

One player who wouldn’t have been so cheap — in acquisition cost or salary — though certainly attainable would have been a different option who played last season north of the border. He also is a young player, with perhaps his best days ahead.

It’s likely too late now for the Pens, they have too much locked in on the salary cap and their plans with Jankowski, but it’s an angle brought up here on Pensburgh in 2019, and probably will again at some point in the future. The recently trade-requested restricted free agent, Jack Roslovic from Winnipeg.

Jack Roslovic, a 23-year-old Winnipeg Jets forward, will not be present when his team begins training camp this Sunday, agent Claude Lemieux told the Free Press on Tuesday.

That’s because Roslovic, who is a restricted free agent, is still back home in Columbus waiting for word on his immediate future.

Roslovic is looking for a change of scenery and the Jets have explored trade possibilities. But if a deal can’t be reached, a new contract must be signed before Roslovic can return to the Jets.

Due to Roslovic being in Ohio and needing a Canadian work visa, plus quarantining after crossing the border, the earliest he could play there is already January 7th as of today. That’s getting close to the end of training camp already, so it certainly makes sense for Winnipeg to move him to an American team via a trade. Roslovic, with no arbitration right now, won’t have a lot of leverage for a 2020-21 salary and pretty much have to prove himself on his new team for a relatively cheap salary.

The Jets are also stuck between a rock and a hard place because they’re right up against the salary cap, though potentially placing Bryan Little on LTIR could offer some relief there.

The biggest question is probably trade price, and more meaningfully if Winnipeg can get a low-cost return for Roslovic. Our friends at Arctic Ice Hockey have been going with the reported conventional wisdom that a left handed defenseman might be the preferred return for Roslovic.

Just looking at it from the Pens’ perspective, Marcus Pettersson is well out of the picture, being as he is a very solid second line defender and also makes north of $4 million dollars, which wouldn’t be good for the Jets. Juuso Riikola doesn’t seem like enough of a quality return with his history of being more of a depth defender than a top-six option. A player like Pierre-Olivier Joseph might be finding a sweet spot, though the lack of an NHL resume might push Winnipeg to seek more of an established player.

At this point, I wouldn’t really expect the Penguins to pursue Roslovic. They are only $1.3 million under the cap and have had a keen interest in cutting and limiting expenses as much as they can these past few months.

And, besides, I believe that the Pens believe the positive vibes and hopeful comments they’re putting out there about Jankowski fitting in and providing what they’re looking for. Granted, just saying it and believing it doesn’t mean anyone else necessarily needs to buy that Jankowski is actually going to work out, but the Pens’ scouts and brain-trust liked him enough to go that direction in the first place. There’s no real reason to expect they would or should suddenly take a turn and dig too deep into Roslovic on the eve of the season.

The Pens have gone the Jankowski route, but I do think an offensive-minded lower line with McCann, Roslovic and Rodrigues would have been a lot of fun, and potentially the answers to the what they’ve been searching for. Roslovic at 23 would have been the youngest player in Pittsburgh the season too, (with McCann not too far behind). That’s a good mix of talent, youth and upside.

Instead, the Pens have headed down the path with the slightly older Jankowski, hoping for a bit of another reclamation project. It’s also worth nothing that signing Jankowski for no acquiring cost also means keeping a player in Joseph, which might prove to be a very smart idea down the line.

Every possibility has its potential positive and negative consequences. The Pens appear to be confident now that they’ve hitched their proverbial wagon to Jankowski and tie him to a very important part of their season. But who knows, maybe if Jankowski doesn’t pan out as well as hoped, Pittsburgh might look to that other young forward from a Canadian team as a potential boost to find what they’ve been looking for.

That’s the other good aspect of making a low-risk, no cost addition of Jankowski. If it doesn’t mesh well as planned or isn’t going in the right direction, the Pens should definitely have no attachment and be in a position to move on before the April trade deadline, whether that would still potentially include Roslovic or not.