With the Penguins’ veterans and entrenched, established players all getting the night off on Wednesday against the Red Wings, almost every single person in the lineup had something to prove or a case to make for sticking around.
Lined up and ready for preseason hockey. pic.twitter.com/tALSD0sUfO— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 4, 2023
Let’s break ‘em down.
Scoring line players
Setup: There’s one spot open in the top-six, and the Pens’ first line tonight featured the two players most in the mix for that role, with the rest of the lineup slotting in for more checking line options.
Radim Zohorna - With Zohorna’s size and reach, his play can stand out or pop a little bit to the eye because he’s active and can do things that a lot of players just can’t do with his frame on little plays to break up passes or catch up to pucks. It seemed like he was posted up in front of the net all game. He had a couple of nice little plays with the puck and once almost used his skating to split two defenders. This is mostly a “feel” assessment, which can be subjective and not necessarily helpful, but it just felt like another decent to good game for Zohorna. Much like he almost always looks strong in the exhibition realm. Is that alone worth winning the job? There was no dramatic and clear-cut thing to point at, but just maybe.
Alex Nylander - Again, a feeling but it looked like every time I noticed Nylander he was getting knocked over and pushed off the puck. Didn’t think it was as strong a game for him as he was showing earlier in the pre-season. Both Zohorna and Nylander ended up with 65% Corsi percentages according to Natural Stat Trick, which is all well and good. They also had zip zero high danger chances, got out-chanced 2-5 in general and generated almost no xGF, which leaves little to go on.
Rem Pitlick - invisible and not in good ways. Played like a guy who got waived earlier in the week with low motivation/confidence/vigor because he knows there’s no chance of making the team and his career is in neutral for the time being.
Decision: It feels odd to have a dramatically different opinion on players from the same line, but to the eye and from memory (always dangerous!), I would say Zohorna looked the part of the guy who belonged more in this game than Nylander. We’ll see if Mike Sullivan agrees or disagrees, or if this one game where neither were great actually matters — but for now I can see why it lately Zohorna has been skating more with Evgeni Malkin and Nylander has been relegated a bit more to the side in practices.
Setup: Most the other lines were configured as what could be mid-seaon NHL fourth lines if the team had like 2-3 injuries at the same time.
Austin Wagner - Thought he totally brought it tonight. Both of Jay Caufield’s intermission breakdown play included Wagner highlights of skating and forechecking. He was physical, fast and making things happen. If it was just based on tonight (and it’s not) he would have a contract soon.
You can count Mike Sullivan in as a growing believer too with these post-game comments:
I didn’t have a lot of familiarity with Wags’ game. What I’ll tell you is he’s made an impression on this coaching staff. He’s a terrific teammate. He brings a lot of juice on the bench, in the locker room. He brings us some energy, and I love that about him, just getting to know him as a person. He’s just a good teammate, I can tell in how engaged he is and how competitive he is. I believe stuff like that’s important, it’s contagious. So, that’s been evident to us. I think he brings good speed, size. He’s got a bit of a power game. And he knows what he is. He plays within himself. He plays a north-south, straight-ahead game. He has some good awareness away from the puck. He’s got a defensive conscience.
Jansen Harkins - Much like Wagner, Harkins made a solid impact on this game. He drew a penalty, he showed his speed, his quick pass down to Xavier Ouellet setup the lone Pens goal of the night. For a guy with one practice with the team, he looked right in place and earned the chance to play again on Friday in the final pre-season game. Just a starting point, but a solid first impression of a hungry player.
Sam Poulin - Had some ups and downs but was physically active. Poulin had a tough night in the circle for losing a defensive zone draw cleanly that ended up in the net seconds afterwards. Then later on touched the puck after a faceoff which caused a penalty. Was right in the middle of the action for giving and receiving hits, and didn’t get an assist on the goal but had a nice supporting play on it. A little bit of a mixed bag.
Vinnie Hinostroza - Showed off his speed in some spots and was good on the forecheck to help support his linemate Wagner. Decent enough showing but nothing earth-shattering.
Most of the other names like Colin White, Andreas Johnsson didn’t do much to stand out or show much to bring them back to the pack. Similarly, the other forwards were about in this boat too as all likely heading off the roster sooner than later.
Decision: It was a great night for Wagner and an encouraging start for Harkins, but due to the numbers game there might only be room for one when the final roster is due. Based on tonight alone, those would have to be the leading candidates as of now, even though Hinostroza’s speed and more experience to lean on could keep him somewhat in the mix too before the final decision is made.
Chad Ruhwedel - As usual, took care of his business playing 15 5v5 minutes and turning in a 70% xGF. Solid as always and while his spot in the roster doesn’t look in jeopardy, he performed exactly as you would want to see.
Libor Hajek - might be a testament to his partner Ruhwedel, but easily the best and steadiest we’ve seen of Hajek tonight in what has been a brief look over this training camp. Not sure it changes much this late in camp but a nice outing for Hajek playing top pair minutes and holding up his end of the bargain well for one night at least.
Xavier Ouellet - Great finish on a backhand flick top shelf for the only goal. Given that he was a later call-up than the others, he might have only been in Pittsburgh due to the injury to P.O Joseph. Not a bad outing, but there’s probably nothing to rip up the plans already in place for him.
Mark Friedman - Thought he was just OK, not up or down too much. He’s usually a visible player that stands out and whether it was intentional or not, he played a fairly quiet and non-descript game. Not necessarily a criticism. He did get caught reaching and was left out of position on what ended up being the game-winning goal against though.
Ty Smith - Looked decent for a guy who just cleared waivers, but more of the same for him. Along with partner Ryan Shea, Smith had a single digit 7% xGF%, which almost feels impossible to be pinned so much. (Detroit did have a much stronger lineup, which gives context). All in all, he didn’t change the narrative or probably his immediate future, but I thought Smith acquitted himself OK for a player seemingly off the NHL radar at the moment.
Ryan Shea - unlike the somewhat good vibes from Smith, Shea looked shaky and not up to NHL quality. He borderline shaded his own goalie on the first goal that maybe shoulda/coulda been blocked (easy to say from this perspective though) and then failed to get stick on puck to prevent the second goal too. Not the most positive of impressions from this night based on those two plays alone.
Decision: Tough to say a lot when Detroit had a great lineup and the Pens didn’t, it was bound to make the Pittsburgh blueliners have a tough night at the office. They mostly did. Hajek-Ruhwedel was a bright spot, but one night alone probably isn’t enough to get Hajek up to the Friedman/Shea level of having a realistic hope of sticking at the end of camp unless Hajek the coaches are seriously about to make a move with Hajek up the depth chart.
All in all, a lot of tape for the coaches to pick over and formalize what they want to move forward. Probably helped the causes for players like Wagner, Harkins, Ruhwedel and maybe Zohorna the most, and Alex Nedeljkovic had a good showing too, standing tall and making a nice save on a breakaway the Pens allowed while having the power play. Ahh, it’s like some things never change.