One of the items out of the NHL/NHLPA’s “return to play” agreement would be that Phase 4, the playoffs for the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, would include a 31-player roster limit to enter the hub city.
The Penguins will start a training camp in less than a week on July 13th before leaving for Toronto on July 25th. There isn’t a lot of time right now at this point for any evaluations, pretty much the coaches have to have all their research done by now in all this down time and be ready to go.
As always with a look like this, there’s more interest and intrigue towards the bottom, rather than at the top where everyone knows who will be going.
Goalies (4): Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry, Casey DeSmith, Emil Larmi
—Goalie depth and insurance will be at a premium and is the name of the game here. The Pens are hoping, of course, that rookie Emil Larmi won’t be anything more than extreme depth. But as we saw with David Ayres and Carolina, sometimes emergencies happen with goalies, so Pittsburgh has beckoned Larmi back from Finland to join the club.
Otherwise, the top three are entrenched. Just how long Matt Murray’s leash will be is a separate and more intriguing question, but there’s no doubt these will be the Pens’ netminders.
Defensemen (10): Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Justin Schultz, Marcus Pettersson, Jack Johnson, Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola, Zach Trotman, Pierre-Olivier Joseph
Other possibilities: David Warsofsky, Kevin Czuczman
—Joseph is in Pittsburgh (French article) and will have the chance to make the 31-man roster. And it makes sense, the Pens can basically use this as time to keep him around the NHL team, practice over the summer and hopefully help him grow and develop as he watches and learns.
As far as other options go, Trotman is a frequent call-up and makes our projection of the squad. He has settled in organizationally as the ninth defenseman, and unfortunately with injuries was needed this year. His inclusion for depth is an easy one to project on a large taxi squad.
Then the options come down to the young Joseph and two relatively older players. Warsofsky, the Wilkes-Barre captain, has not played in the NHL since 2018. He has played 19 career NHL games with the Pens, but none since 2016-17. Czuczman was an injury call-up for the Pens last December, but wasn’t needed to be used in an NHL game and hasn’t played in the NHL for over six years now. All things considered, but a 10th defender, bringing Joseph makes sense.
Forwards (17): Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Conor Sheary, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Patrick Marleau, Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist, Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, Brandon Tanev, Evan Rodrigues, Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello, Samuel Poulin, Philip Varone
Other options: Adam Johnson, Riley Barber, Thomas Di Pauli, Sam Miletic, Kevin Roy
—The big name towards the bottom of the list is Poulin, the 2019 first round pick has impressed this season and figures to be involved in camp and make the “black aces”.
If Poulin is in, as he should be expected to be, that leaves one last spot in the 31-player roster. From here, the Pens could go any number of ways. Varone may be a bit of an unknown — but he has center and wing flexibility and did play 47 games in the NHL last year with Philadelphia. That could be the edge over other fringe candidates like Johnson (who appeared in seven NHL games with Pittsburgh this year, but often got passed over for call-ups by players like Lafferty and Angelo). Di Pauli is the other player with Pittsburgh NHL experience this year, with two games in Pittsburgh but didn’t stand out.
Barber played in nine games this year, ironically enough with Montreal, before a minor league trade sent him to the Pens for Jake Lucchini. Barber’s got some speed and experience, he wouldn’t be a bad choice either, but Varone has more NHL experience and gets the nod here.
The other big interesting note will be Nick Bjugstad. In late June, GM Jim Rutherford told The Athletic that there was a “chance” Bjugstad could return to health towards the end of the playoffs. At the same time Rutherford added, “we want to be careful with him because he is coming off surgery and he’s just played in such a small number of games over the past year or two”. So does that mean the Pens would use a roster spot on Bjugstad, a player who may or may not be healthy down the line? Would Bjugstad be able to rehab and return to form while sequestered away with the team in a bubble in Toronto? It might make more sense to just call it for next season at this point, given that more seems uncertain than known at this point, and Bjugstad hasn’t been able to remain healthy even when he gets healthy.
Also out injured and not a part of this 31 player lineup is winger Dominik Simon. Simon underwent shoulder surgery in late April and was said to be out at least six months. That should render him unable to return under the current format.