After a preseason game that featured a long shootout, won for the Penguins by Jason Zucker, the team’s opening night roster is starting to come into focus.
Sullivan says that although the Penguins will have tough decisions to make, “I think the picture becomes clearer every day we spend with these guys.”— Angie (@acarducci) October 6, 2021
That picture coming into focus has to include the work of forward Drew O’Connor, who played center tonight and scored two goals. Radim Zohorna also worked in the middle of the ice and scored a third period goal.
It sure sounds like Drew O'Connor has opened Mike Sullivan's eyes a bit with his play at center over the last five days or so: "He has the makings of being a pretty good, reliable center." #Pens— Matt Vensel (@mattvensel) October 6, 2021
O’Connor has had an impressive preseason, and is certainly coming on strong as of late. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the shelf to start the season, and Malkin going to be out for an extended time, it’s a welcome sight for the Pens to see O’Connor playing well.
Now the question for Sullivan becomes how he wants to align these pieces. Jeff Carter will be working on the top line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Rust and Carter each hit posts tonight with shots.
Teddy Blueger has been used exclusively in camp in a third line checking role with Brock McGinn and also Zach Aston-Reese when healthy, but Aston-Reese has dealt with symptoms from a COVID diagnosis and an extended stay away from the team that continues as a result.
The hole at center for the second line is Sullivan’s biggest choice. Zohorna worked there, but only played 13:43 tonight. O’Connor himself wasn’t a workhorse, playing 13:31 in a nominal fourth line role against Buffalo. Zohorna mentioned earlier today he hasn’t felt good rebounding from a bout with the flu last week, and overall Sullivan has been pointing out the audition for Zohorna has an emphasis on monitoring the pace and conditioning of the big Czech who only played 20 total games last season between the NHL and AHL.
Pittsburgh also has Brian Boyle on a PTO, with the veteran putting up impressive advanced stats in a small sample of two preseason games. Evan Rodrigues has also gotten some work in the middle in training camp, though he is better served long-term on the wing at the NHL level.
The biggest developing story of training camp is the emergence of O’Connor. As a rookie last year, he faded into play, barely making an impact with just one assist in 10 games on the wing. When he was re-assigned to the AHL for the remainder of the season, they played him mostly at center and he responded with 19 points in 20 AHL games down the stretch.
Over the summer, O’Connor worked on improving his skating and has been noticeably faster and more effective in the preseason. That was on display in his second goal of the game tonight, holding onto the puck and showing great patience while circling to the middle of the ice.
Drew times two! pic.twitter.com/XyCGYzIRUH— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 6, 2021
The other piece of good news for the Pens is they have skilled winger play that can facilitate and create offense. That was on display for Zohorna’s goal, where he benefited from another training camp star in Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen feeds a beautiful pass with Zohorna on a developing 2-on-1 that made for a fairly easy finish.
Big goal from Big Z pic.twitter.com/MjfHH4prgk— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 6, 2021
After tonight’s impressive showing by Zohorna and especially O’Connor, the good news for the Pens is now there is no shortage of options available up the middle for them to try out. And those options to form a potent, but improvised top-six forward group don’t end with just those two. With Aston-Reese still on the shelf and the regular season now t-minus one week away with a start date of next Tuesday in Tampa, would Sullivan consider bumping Blueger up to the second line and then finding some combination of O’Connor, Boyle and Zohorna to fill two center spots in the bottom six?
If not, Sullivan could stick with Blueger and McGinn (plus Danton Heinen if Aston-Reese is unavailable) as his main defensive third line. Sullivan would probably favor to use Blueger in that role if possible, which opens the door for one of O’Connor/Zohorna in a limited TOI second line role with offensive wingers and hope the young centers can continue to produce when the lineups beef up and the real season starts.
The first attempt doesn’t have to be a permanent one, lineups can be written in pencil and changed frequently as the team looks to hopefully deal with a short-term problem until Crosby is able to return. That might be as soon as a couple weeks. The other important note is Zohorna and O’Connor both have wing capability and if they don’t stick at center, could find the lineup there. This team flexibility is bolstered by players like Danton Heinen, Brock McGinn and Evan Rodrigues who all have been used in different forward spots this preseason and ought to be able to align on the left or right wings as needed.
As the preseason games begin to wind down, the Pens find themselves deeper into camp having the picture coming a bit more into focus. The strong training camp and exhibition performances from O’Connor and Zohorna on a night like tonight have to have the coach and team feeling more confident than the situation looked a couple weeks ago.
And here’s just how that picture is coming into focus as of now.
Projected Pittsburgh opening night forward lineup as of tonight:
Jake Guentzel - Jeff Carter - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Radim Zohorna/Drew O’Connor - Kasperi Kapanen
Danton Heinen* - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Zohorna/O’Connor - Brian Boyle - Evan Rodrigues
*If Zach Aston-Reese is able to return, he will likely slot into the third line, bumping Heinen down to the fourth line. And as a result, there would be only one spot in the playing lineup available for either Zohorna or O’Connor...The Pens also figure to have Dominik Simon in the mix, but especially if Aston-Reese is healthy, it remains to be seen how Simon finds a path into the top-12 for the beginning of the season at this point. A place as a scratch early in the year could be in the cards for Simon, depending on need.