There wasn’t much different for the Penguins on Day 2 out of 7 on-ice training camp days on Tuesday. New father Colton Sceviour returned from a quick, informal one practice paternity leave on Monday to slot into a familiar fourth line role and that was about it for the “varsity” practice group.
Here is the Pens' workflow with Sceviour back and Kapanen still absent:— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 5, 2021
But practice still had an extra forward getting a look with the NHL squad, and for the second day in a row it was Drew O’Connor.
O'Connor is being sprinkled in throughout the bottom six on both the Jankowski and Blueger lines.— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) January 5, 2021
It would be wildly premature to make any sort of grand declaration after seeing O’Connor practice two days in a row with the NHL group. This could easily end up being a blip on the radar. Or if the coaches haven’t been totally impressed could be an experiment quickly ended. HOWEVA, with those disclaimers in place, it’s hard to miss that this is also exactly how the John Marino story started in the last training camp the Pens had.
Relatively obscure collegiate player sticking around the fringes of the NHL roster, even when it looked like there was no path for him. For Marino, it was having Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Erik Gudbranson and Chad Ruhwedel as right handed defensemen ahead of him that the team. For O’Connor, it’s any number of wingers, in particular O’Connor playing left wing, which might just be the deepest forward position in the organization with Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker and Jared McCann going down, not to mention Brandon Tanev, and injured Zach Aston-Reese.
O’Connor getting two practices in a row with the big boys is something. It might not be everything, and it might not amount to a lot immediately, but you better believe it means something. Especially when every other rookie/prospect player — including 2019 first round pick and fellow left winger Samuel Poulin — has gotten exactly zero opportunities with the NHL squad out of the two regular practices.
That said, the Penguins have made it clear that their roster is perhaps not as etched in stone as outside observers may believe.
“I think anybody in this camp has a chance to make our final roster,” coach Mike Sullivan said on Monday. “My approach has always been - and I know Jim Rutherford and myself are very much on the same page with respect to this - is that we’re looking for players that are going to try to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win.”
If an NHL coach thinks a player can help them win, he’s going to find himself in the NHL roster sooner than later. (Again, think of the Marino parallel).
O’Connor’s next step is that he had better stand out positively in intra-squad practice games if he wants to build on the opportunity and look that he clearly is being given. The Pens have five planned over the next week. Skating alongside and against NHL caliber players in quasi-game situations will be a big test for evaluation for players like O’Connor, as well as players like Poulin and the others also looking to make a name for themselves.
Drew O’Connor has a lot to prove and a long way to go before he can truly be placed in a rookie year success story like John Marino. However, the beginning of that first sentence for each story is starting to look very similar as far as how it has begun to be written.