Grab your Sunday morning coffee and let’s talk some hockey.
#1: What did we learn, if anything by the new additions speaking?
Lars Eller and Noel Acciari conducted separate virtual interviews this week (as did Tristan Jarry), leading to a rash of the same stories from different outlets about the basic opening quotes of vanilla hockey speak. Everyone is happy and excited to be in Pittsburgh, the players think it is a good fit for everyone. It would be great if a free agent kept it real and said “well, they were going to give me the most money” or “this was the only team to offer me a two/three year contract” as to why they actually signed.
Anyways, beyond the rote and expected introductory pleasantries and cliches, there was one common area that both Acciari and Eller specifically mentioned that actually give some insight and ought to pique some interest and provide some value.
#Pens Eller says he met with Mike Sullivan, Todd Reirden & Kyle Dubas on 7/1 and the three presented him with their plan on how they feel the @penguins can bounce back from missing the playoffs last year & he understands how he fits into those plans— Josh Getzoff (@JG_PxP) July 11, 2023
Let’s throw in Tristan Jarry while we’re at it:
“Just to see what he’s [Dubas] about and what his plan was for the team and what he ultimately wants to do, I think that was good,” Jarry said. “It made me feel very confident in the way that the team was going.
A few months ago, the Penguins were led by a guy who (in)famously balked at telling even his bosses the plan and vision that he had for the team. Nowadays, Pittsburgh has a leader in Kyle Dubas who is doubtlessly a better communicator and able to express and detail what he is attempting to do. And, it’s seemingly working to get the players on board that he wants.
This isn’t to say that Dubas invented making pitches to free agents as a get-to-know-you and present a vision of how the coaches see the player fitting into the plans. But it definitely stood out that both Acciari and Eller not only mentioned that Dubas/Sullivan detailed for them a plan but were genuinely enthusiastic and excited to join in. There’s something to be said about not only what is getting done but also the manner and way it is being performed, and as we see Dubas get to work in Pittsburgh, personal skilled and communication are (as advertised) some impressive areas for him.
In the long run it might mean a little, it might mean a lot - and not just because of the signings of lower-line players but more in the big picture for who is in charge, and how they are operating. It’s telling that a shift for the better in terms of process and communication has happened in the Penguins’ front office.
#2: Oh, Tristan
And while the interactions with Eller and Acciari were nice and even somewhat exciting with Acciari talking about his Brandon Tanev-like effort and style, the new goalie (who is the old goalie) was met on the internet with what could best be described as a sigh and eyerolls from the general reaction.
Jarry on re-signing in Pittsburgh: "I couldn't imagine being anywhere else."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 13, 2023
After the requisite quotes about Pittsburgh being home and being happy to stay, it was the injury talk that, as usual, confounded.
“It’s tough to go out and be your best when you have things that are bothering you every day,” Jarry said. “I was very frustrated a lot of times this season when I wasn’t performing and wasn’t playing up to the standards that I wanted to. There was points where I was playing well, and then there was points where I wasn’t, and I think that’s what frustrated me the most.”
Jarry’s run hot and cold with his comments too - like when he said after the final game of the season, “I’m still dealing with a lot”, despite the contradictory nature of playing in the meaningless game, being as the Pens were eliminated from playoff contention.
Overall, there’s probably no way for Jarry to talk about last season that wouldn’t be frustrating to himself and observers. It was a tough year. The good news is Jarry says he is 100% and ready to tackle the challenge of being the best he can be.
Though he clearly had lingering and related types of ailments last season (the word “chronic” and “hip” were even used at time, scarily enough), Jarry threw cold water on that and indicated past issues shouldn’t pop up again in the future. You would think that the Pens agree, since they gave him a five year deal.
#3: Who will be out in the Pens’ defense
It’s difficult to avoid the endless “will they or won’t they” Erik Karlsson trade scuttlebutt, especially for this topic. But after the Pens brought back Ty Smith, the bottom of the lineup is getting mighty crowded on the blueline.
Smith in 2023-24 will be in the situation that P.O. Joseph was in 2022-23 - being unable to be sent to the AHL without waivers. That designation kept Joseph on the NHL roster all season. Will it do the same for Smith?
If so, given salary cap and team preferences, keeping an eighth defender on the NHL roster might not be in the cards. Add Smith and Joseph to Ryan Graves and Marcus Pettersson and that’s four left-handed defenders. Kris Letang, Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta are locks on the right side.
Advanced counting skills show that’s seven names listed there, which adds up to bad news for Chad Ruhwedel. Ruhwedel could suddenly find himself in a tight situation in the numbers game as a result. And that says nothing of poor Mark Friedman, who always seems like the first fringe player cast off.
Of course, the natural disclaimer is that trades or injury could change the picture in a hurry. Other than Letang and the newly-signed Graves, practically any member of the blueline could be moved out of Pittsburgh before training camp and it wouldn’t be that shocking (though Pettersson was said to be safe from the Karlsson talks).
The outlook is unsettled, but having nine good choices for seven spots is good for the team (and don’t forget about free agent signing Will Butcher too, who could be an in-season call up from the minors when injuries strike). The deck might look stacked against someone like Ruhwedel now, but he’s just a few developments away from being right where he always is as the depth defender who ends up playing a ton of games.