The Pittsburgh Penguins have too often been an “aces and spaces” roster in the last few years, and outside of their star players the “spaces” have done little. That’s continued in recent games — and made only worse by the fact Bryan Rust has joined Rickard Rakell in the team’s medical bay.
With that in mind, Pens GM Kyle Dubas is at least mixing things up and demoted two ineffective forwards and bringing up three fresh faces to the NHL.
The Penguins have recalled forwards Marc Johnstone, Jonathan Gruden, and Valtteri Puustinen from the @WBSPenguins.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 8, 2023
Forwards Joona Koppanen and Alex Nylander have been re-assigned to WBS.
Forward Noel Acciari has been placed on injured reserve. pic.twitter.com/7PIqXXILdf
Koppanen had played, sparingly, in the previous three games. While he added some size at 6’5” and 220 pounds, otherwise he was about as vanilla as could be in the NHL level with an invisible impact. Koppanen was barely played last game against Tampa (5:30 ice time, a chunk after the game was out of reach), so dropping him down makes sense. Jonathan Gruden is the natural center replacement for Koppanen, and he has a little more hustle and jam in his game, often getting under the skin of opponents in the AHL and playing with some intensity.
The eyebrow raiser is the return to the NHL of Valtteri Puustinen. The player has a good amount of skill and has been extremely productive in Finland and in the AHL. The 5’9” player does not offer much size, his skating and pace has always held him on the fringes of the NHL roster in the Penguins’ eyes - but at this point they have no choice but to bring Puustinen up. That’s in large part due to Alex Nylander being a complete non-factor in the NHL this season (no points, no penalties, even plus/minus, pretty much no anything besides a few token low-threat shots on goal) in five games.
With Rakell and Rust out, the Penguins are desperately in the need of a spark from a winger, and Puustinen is their best chance at offering something (if even in a limited, short-term setting). It’s a move that is frankly overdue, Puustinen has only played one NHL game in going on three seasons in the organization. And even that lone game was only a result of a massive number of injuries to the NHL roster.
The third call-up is the most intriguing and a player who has seemed to be a pet project of Kyle Dubas. Marc Johnstone isn’t young by NHL standards (27). He wasn’t drafted. He played low level college hockey and was mostly an ECHL player as recently as 2021-22. Johnstone played the last two seasons in Toronto’s organization and Dubas signed him this summer to link up in Pittsburgh. He’s yet to make his NHL debut. His scoring profile in Wilkes this season isn’t prolific (just two goals and five points in 21 games) but he has been an active player in the AHL with his speed and all-around game.
Whether Johnstone has much to add or is destined to be a depth NHL scratch, his call-up is a clear sign that Dubas doesn’t like what he’s been seeing from his lower line players, and for good reason. Beyond the two players who were dropped today, there are several others who have not been playing well or very inspired lately.
Some fresh players who have never had NHL opportunities at least figure to dig deep and exert themselves with a strong effort. Players like Gruden and Johnstone should offer that. Puustinen could offer a notch above that as a skilled winger who can make plays with the puck and facilitate offense, he just has never had much of an opportunity as of yet to showcase that at the NHL level. That might be about to change, and it’s not a moment too soon for a forward group that is getting increasingly banged up (with Rakell, Rust, Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto all out) and looked in need of a major re-freshening based off what was seen on the ice in Tampa.