The Penguins 2021 preseason is now completed, with the team about to travel to Tampa to kick off the 2021-22 regular season. In every training camp there are some winners at the end, which also unfortunately means there have to be some losers as well. Let’s put a bow on the first stage of the year for the Pens.
Winner: Danton Heinen
Heinen, 26, came in under the radar as a free agent on a one-year contract. His career started off pretty good in Boston, where Heinen scored 81 total points in two seasons from 2017-19. Then he went to Anaheim and his career got caught in a rut, with two unimpressive seasons played mostly with the struggling Ducks from 2019-21.
Heinen made a positive first impression, he scored four points in five preseason games, to tie for the team-lead. When Zach Aston-Reese tested positive for COVID, Heinen was tabbed to move up and play on the checking line with Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn. When Jake Guentzel tested positive for COVID, Heinen again got a promotion to Guentzel’s spot on the top line with Jeff Carter and Bryan Rust. Heinen’s looked good wherever they have asked him to play. That doesn’t mean he’s penciled in for 20 goals or anything, but the team has learned they have a value signing who can be moved up and down the lineup and potentially be a solid contributor.
Winner: (whispers) injuries in camp
The Penguins always are a team that ends up suffering more than their share of important time missed. And that will continue, with Evgeni Malkin out for a while, and Sidney Crosby possibly/probably out for a bit. But in camp, there was a small knock on Mike Matheson and not much else in the way of major injury. One of the most important parts of this time of year is getting through it with no problems to any key players ending up on the injury report. Check.
Loser: Getting sick in camp
The Pens decided to implement more aggressive testing policies, distancing and masking then the NHL mandates after Aston-Reese and Guentzel testing positive for the virus in a short period of time with each other. Regardless of the reader’s personal opinion of of the current state of the world, in a narrow view for hockey there is very good reason to do all the team can to make sure players are healthy. If nothing else, due to NHL protocols dictating when a player can return and how long they must isolate, it’s a common sense initiative to want to keep the team free from COVID.
Winner: Drew O’Connor
Not many expected O’Connor to make the roster out of this training camp, but he proved to be the young player who took the biggest step forward for Pittsburgh. After a mostly unimpressive and uneventful rookie campaign last year, O’Connor took strides (literally) to noticeably improve his skating ability and speed. It paid off, and helped him to stand out. Add that into a 6’3, 200 pound frame and a natural goal scorer’s touch, O’Connor has turned heads and won a job. Add to it the ability to play center or wing and starting to dabble with the penalty kill and O’Connor is offering a lot of dimensions to the Pens now.
Losers: Most the other young forwards
The spot in the lineup that O’Connor won — which looks like a left wing job — could have been earned by 20-year old left winger Samuel Poulin. Or 21-year old left winger Filip Hallander. Poulin was a first round pick in 2020, Hallander a second rounder in 2018, highly touted youngsters compared to the undrafted O’Connor. But neither have played pro hockey in North America, which might have been a factor in falling behind the more experienced and more physically mature player in O’Connor. Nathan Legare wasn’t bad, but didn’t quite look near NHL readiness either, as a right winger.
The Pens are a playoff contending team, usually with few available jobs open to claim, but the team was hoping for some fresh blood to stand out. Instead, Sam Lafferty looks like he’s made the roster as a deep reserve. O’Connor was great. Any other young forward? Ehh, not so much. But hockey is a game of patience and setting the stage for down the line, the 2021 preseason if far from the be-all and end-all for Poulin, Hallander and Legare.
Winner: Chad Ruhwedel
31-year old Chad Ruhwedel enters his sixth season with the Penguins. That’s incredible staying power for what’s been more of a seventh than a sixth defenseman. He’s played 34, 44, 18, 41 and 17 games in Pittsburgh, depending mostly on injuries (his and that of his peers). This season, however, Ruhwedel — who enters year 10 of his pro career with just 187 NHL games — looks like he has earned a jersey for opening night. He’s a player that is not going to play 60 or 70 games for Pittsburgh if he doesn’t maintain a high level of play and continue to be reliable...But now he actually looks in line to get the chance to show if he can be more of a sixth defenseman, every day player then just being depth and a quality reserve.
Losers: other depth defensemen
Mark Friedman is a chaotic player, and that’s not meant as a dig but more as an observation. This preseason alone, in three games Friedman left a game with an apparent injury (only to dodge that bullet), has has been fined for spearing an opponent and pumped eight SOG in just 40 minutes of play. Friedman is a player that will be noticed. He wasn’t bad, but feels a bit too all over the place.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph was always going to be fighting an uphill battle to make the team, being a left handed defender on a team flush with them. Still, he didn’t exactly have the type of camp to say “I’m too good to be sent to the AHL”. So he has been sent to the AHL. But at 22 years old and early in his career, it seems a matter of time before he gains enough experience to be a NHL player when an opportunity arises through injury or trade.
Juuso Riikola was spared being sent to the minors last year due to the taxi squad. This year, there is no taxi squad. And despite having a fairly good camp, the saga of Riikola continues with him ending up eighth on the team that only elected to keep seven defensemen, waived, unclaimed and sent to the AHL. You didn’t really think Lucy was going to let him kick that football, did you?
Training camp and the exhibition season might start or end some individual stories, but there still is much up in the air for the team. The biggest question mark of the season is probably in net, and neither Tristan Jarry nor Casey DeSmith had overly positive or negative preseasons. And while health wasn’t an in-camp negative, having no Crosby, Malkin and losing Guentzel put the three most talented players on the team on the sidelines as the year starts. But it’s not expected that Guentzel and Crosby will miss many games, so as the marathon of the regular season starts, the Pens have to be pretty comfortable with how they are going into the part of the year that starts to count.