Another NHL season is set to begin for the Penguins in exactly one week, at which point the team will embark on an 82-game journey over the next six months to set sights on qualifying for the playoffs again.
After an off-season packed with trades and free agency moves, Pittsburgh is settling into their form for getting the year rolling. There still are a few areas to watch and decisions to be made, which we will turn an eye to here.
#1: How to get the power play on track?
The power play right now is terrible. It hasn’t had the time to get much attention and work, and the results are showing. The Pens have iced their star-laden group for the last two pre-season games and have nothing but questions and work to be done to get up to speed. The team still has two more exhibition games to go, but would be better served dedicating time in practice to ironing out kinks and getting the group with some semblance of cohesion before the season starts.
The thing about NHL power plays is that it can collectively personify the phrase that there is a slight difference between being in a rut and getting into a groove. Factors like confidence, timing and success often lead to hot streaks and tons of goals. Negative factors can send it ice cold. The Pens are clearly in the latter category at the moment, but with all the talent they have on the ice it shouldn’t take anything but time and working at it in order to turn things around. Needless to say, all eyes will be on this area as the year begins.
#2: Which last piece will settle into the Malkin line?
Jake Guentzel was back at practice last week, which could be a major saving grace if his absence is the handful of games predicted (or somehow even less). Barring a drastic shift in the timeline for return, the Pens will need someone to round out their top lines.
Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust have settled in on a line with Sidney Crosby, which could be considered unlikely to change until Guentzel does make his return. That leaves the question abut which player will join Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith on the second line? It’s been top of mind ever since Guentzel had surgery and with only days to go an obvious answer has yet to be found.
Alex Nylander and Radim Zohorna have translated strong camp showings into getting significant looks, but neither have exactly slammed the door on it so far. To make matters even more intriguing, this battle could be an “all or nothing” situation. Whichever of the two doesn’t get the second line gig potentially could be unable to find a place on the opening day roster at all, particularly for Nylander given his strengths and roles available.
#3: A wide open bottom-six lineup spot that’s available for the taking
Due to Jeff Carter’s contractual stipulations and the Pens’ tight salary cap situation, the veteran is anchored into the lineup to start the season. Carter has been paired on the fourth line with Noel Acciari for much of camp. On the other checking line, Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor have been tied together, as the team tends to do by forming a set pair of certain forwards and then finding a third player to fit in. Matt Nieto has served as one of those swing options, bouncing in between Eller or Acciari’s line.
If you’re counting, that makes five players figuring into the bottom-six plans with one big foggy area about who will be joining them. A rotation of players like Vinnie Hinostroza and Austin Wagner have gotten serious looks, and will be joined by the new pickup Jansen Harkins to enter the mix in some form or fashion. Zohorna could also be an option if he doesn’t stick on the second line and the team wants him to stick around. Theoretically, Nylander might factor into this too if decision makers opted to go in that direction.
It boils down to a lot of “could’s” and “might’s”, but not a fully formed vision of exactly which player is in the sights to get the next opportunity to cinch up a job.
It’s not a spot that will make or break the team’s performance given that the recipient will only play a handful of minutes, but it is one of the few wide open battles currently happening in camp right now. The exciting part is more that it could go in just about any direction possible with a week to make a decision.
#4: Depth defense questions potentially angling for further surprises
The early waiving of Ty Smith turned heads, leaving Pittsburgh seemingly about to roll with Chad Ruhwedel as their sixth defenseman and one of Mark Friedman or Ryan Shea as the extra for the start of the season.
Fairly intriguing depth defenders like Florida’s Lucas Carlsson and Ottawa’s Jacob Bernard-Docker are on the waiver wire now. Many more will join them in the near future as NHL teams trim their rosters and serve up possible options for the taking.
Are the Pens satisfied with what they have on hand at the back-end of their blueline? If so, the status quo would suffice. As illustrated with yesterday’s claim on Hansen, we’re learning that Kyle Dubas isn’t much for playing the “status quo” game. That could lead to more activity making moves around the periphery of the roster using waivers if an option pops up that the team think could help more than the Friedman/Shea levels of depth that they currently have.
The Pens have three available NHL contracts before they get to the limit off 50, if a player on waivers comes with a cheap enough cap hit there’s nothing in the way to stop them, aside from another NHL team with a better waiver spot getting the player first.
Waiving Smith early and claiming Harkins has already proven the point that the Pens are serious about using waivers to make changes. Which might mean to expect the unexpected when it comes to adding new/different defensemen than what is currently on the roster now by the time next week rolls around..