Well gang, we’ve almost made it. The Penguins officially report for training camp tomorrow, and get back on the ice formally for practices starting on Thursday.
Kyle Dubas made his mark by switching up the team at every level, and the wing positions are no different. But while most of the other positions look relatively set and established for 2023-24, a look at what is on hand at wing could be the focus of in-season changes.
Let’s take a look.
Jake Guentzel is out for the first handful of games to start the season, with some indications that it won’t be too long before is ready for game action. That’s a positive development for the Penguins, because while their list of wingers certainly contains a lot of names, it lacks for quality ones past the first four.
The big addition is Reilly Smith, who steps into the spot to replace Jason Zucker (off to Arizona as a free agent). Smith was acquired for a song to help Vegas’ cap situation, which will benefit the Pens with his speedy play and consistent offensive production.
Outside of those names on the left side, the Pens have a lot of questions.
- Was Rem Pitlick a sheer throw-in by Montreal to shed his contract? Or does he get a legitimate look in Pittsburgh? Already strapped for cap money, waiving Pitlick as his relatively hefty $1.1 million could be useful to the Pens. However, without Guentzel to start the season, having an option like Pitlick with a modicum of NHL success (52 total points in 113 combined games over the last two seasons) could be very valuable for a team looking for secondary production. At 26, Pitlick could help bring the average age down and offer some youthful energy and legs too, if he’s up for playing consistently, after bouncing around organizations and the waiver wire lately.
- Is this the year Drew O’Connor makes a real move? Often the talk on O’Connor is how much Mike Sullivan and the organization really like and are impressed by O’Connor. Yet, he only averaged 9:49 of ice time per game in 2022-23. O’Connor has shown some flashes of being a player, but it remains unknown of just what kind of level he can get to and stay at. A lot of that should be cleared up in the near future.
- Do the Pens have a surprise on their hands? Andreas Johnsson was good for Kyle Dubas in Toronto a while back but has since successively been unimpressive in New Jersey and San Jose over the past few years. Is there any magic left there, especially with the door open due to Guentzel’s early absence?
- Is Austin Wagner’s PTO invite a cursory add to bring in depth and competition, or a bigger sign that the team might want a more experienced, grind-ier fourth line option than what they have in-house. (And you can throw Colin White in this mix too, which might or might not speak to what the NHL fortunes could hold for players like Alex Nylander and Valtteri Puustinen).
Once getting past Guentzel and Smith, the left side isn’t terribly impressive. The Penguins have the benefit of a lot of names in the mix, and sometimes it can be a numbers game to find a good performance from many options. But it also wouldn’t that shocking if come trade deadline time that one of the bigger focuses was adding a quality third line winger.
The above paragraph was focused on the LW position, but applies virtually identically to the right wing as well (just sub in “Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust” for “Guentzel and Smith”). The Pens have options, but not a lot of reason for confidence or solid lower line wingers on the right side either.
One exception and player being slept on a little bit is Matt Nieto, who could be an important but small piece of the team. Nieto chipped in 12 goals and 24 points last season and will offer the speed, motor and defensive conscious that Dubas has been seeking for the Pens. It’s not an All-Star level move, but one the Pens hope will quietly boost their team, in a similar way and role to what Josh Archibald provided last season.
There’s always the chance that one of Noel Acciari or Jeff Carter could bump over from center to RW from game-to-game, but neither would likely be quality third liners.
Puustinen and especially Nylander will be interesting stories to track in training camp. Both have proven their mettle increasingly over the last 12-18 months in Wilkes-Barre. Neither have received that many opportunities to stick in the NHL. There is no shortage of candidates who could be kept over the talented scoring-type players (including the tryouts), but it also seems like it’s make or break time in this organization for both. While one or either could be in-season call-ups or injury replacements, there already is an injury situation with Guentzel. If there’s no opportunity (or ability) to step up now, will there ever be again for Puustinen and Nylander at this points of their respective careers?
It adds up to a fascinating mix of players, especially since the current depth chart doesn’t offer any Carl Hagelin, veteran days Patric Hornqvist, Brandon Tanev types of quality third line winger already established on the roster. There is no Jared McCann or Evan Rodrigues (or what Kasperi Kapanen was supposed to be) for a quality winger to help make a difference from the third line this time around. The Pens may well hope that O’Connor, Pitlick, Nylander or some other rotating cast can do the job by committee, but also might find them lacking.
The team that starts the season is not the same group of players that ends up finishing the year, and that might be the key point to remember for the Pens’ wingers in the upcoming weeks. The answers being sought might not currently exist on the team, but based on Dubas’ first few months as manager, that won’t be the case for long if upgrades are needed.