Kris Letang capped off the first day feelings after the Penguins got back to practicing today for the first day of their 2023-24 season.
“It’s been a long time away from the rink,” Letang said. “To be able to get back in the room and see the guys and see the new faces, it’s pretty exciting. The first day is always a little bit scrappy... But it’s a way to get the butterflies out of your stomach and get going.”
“The beauty of things is the Cup was won and it’s over, you know? Every team is starting from scratch, and we have to build something good. Try to get up to speed and get everybody on board as quick as possible.”
It was a busy day indeed, with three practices spread across the team’s two rinks at their practice facility in Cranberry Township. There was also a scrimmage and conditioning everywhere as the club comes back together and gets back to work.
Piecing the lines together from across the various practices, here is how the team was built. As always this time of year, it’s important to note that setups can and will change quickly and too much can never be read into anything at this point. Take from the coach himself with comments after practice:
Mike Sullivan: "Then we’ve put together some combinations we’re intrigued about." Used Nieto-Acciari-Carter as an example. "But I wouldn’t read too much into the lines at this point. We’re trying to give guys an opportunity to do what they do best, and allow our veteran players…— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) September 21, 2023
But for a first day, here’s how we can Frankenstein more or less the groups together into a team at this point:
Vinnie Hinostroza - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Andreas Johnsson - Evgeni Malkin - Reilly Smith
Drew O’Connor -Lars Eller - Rickard Rakell
Matt Nieto - Noel Acciari - Jeff Carter
Rem Pitlick - Joona Koppanen - Alex Nylander
Radim Zohorna - Sam Poulin - Valtteri Puustinen
Matt Filipe - Colin White - Corey Andonovski
Jonathan Gruden - Sam Houde - Austin Rueschoff
Matthew Soto - Evan Vierling - Dillon Hamaliuk/Avery Hayes
Jagger Joshua/Austin Wagner - Brayden Yager - Marc Johnstone
And defensively, the team worked in players in various spots and mixed up quite a bit for drills and rushes, leaving even less to take out of — aside from one area that does matter in that Graves-Letang and Pettersson-Karlsson look to be the team’s primary pairs (while picking up extras for some drills due to the odd number on the various teams).
Ryan Graves / Kris Letang-Libor Hajek
Justin Lee-Marcus Pettersson / Erik Karlsson
P.O Joseph / Mark Friedman
Ryan Shea / Chad Ruhwedel
Ty Smith / Taylor Fedun
Xavier Ouellet / Mark Pysyk
Dmitri Samorukov / Jack St. Ivany
Isaac Belliveau / Andre Anania
Some other various thoughts and observations:
- Early in camp every year, Mike Sullivan usually experiments with his top-six wingers in interesting places. Last year, Jason Zucker didn’t start with Malkin, but found him quickly. A similar move could be the case for Rakell this year. As such, Hinostroza and Johnsson stand out as candidates for potential quick campers in marquee spots, though this time around with Jake Guentzel injured, there might be more opportunity for one of them. Letang and Brian Dumoulin were almost always separated at the beginning since they had such a great rapport (though this time around, the team is giving Graves/Letang all the time they can to learn and grow as a pair).
- From players to fans, everyone (besides the coaches anyways) love a scrimmage more than the regular drills and practice reps. Team 2 (featuring Malkin/Karlsson and Taylor Gauthier/Alex Nedeljkovic) downed Team 1 (Crosby/Letang and Tristan Jarry/Joel Blomqvist) by a 3-1 score. Malkin and Reilly Smith drew some attention with what looked like sharp chemistry together in their first time out.
- Corey Andonovski was in the middle of things too, drawing a penalty shot (all penalties are penalty shots) and scoring and also catching the attention and ire of Crosby at one point. Our buddy Eric has been Mr. September for training camp updates since the early days of the internet and is definitely worth a follow, by the way.
- Sullivan also said it was no coincidence that 2023 first round pick Brayden Yager found himself on Team 1 with Crosby and Kris Letang. They want the youngster see first-hand some veteran leadership and the example their top players set. Yager’s first time in NHL camp will likely be very brief before being sent back to juniors for the season, but getting an up-close-and-personal look at how those guys go about practicing should be a great experience for him to take along the way.
- All the major PTO candidates (Pysyk, Wagner, White) were in inconspicuous spots with less than notable NHL caliber linemates today. Hajek had the benefit of being on a stacked team and rotated in drills with the top pair, but not exactly a prime position either. Things can and will change, especially when practices give way to the exhibition games but it doesn’t look like any of them are in the “Brian Boyle already got one foot in the door” type of tryout with an extremely favorable spot baked in from the start of things.
- All the injured players, including Guentzel and 2022 first round pick Owen Pickering, were on the ice today. Regarding Guentzel, Sullivan said the Pens were “encouraged by the progress he’s made,” and while exact timelines aren’t being shared just yet, it did seem like they are shooting for Guentzel to be back after about five regular season games.
- It was a happy and notable first day for Erik Karlsson. Letang talked about how the two star defenders chatted for 10-15 minutes in the locker-room before practice about how they prepare for seasons and getting to know one another better and again praised the idea to add a marquee player. Sullivan mentioned he “gained an appreciation” for how competitive Karlsson is as he’s gotten to know him personally and noted that Karlsson is inquisitive of how the operation is going, asking a lot of questions on the ice of the coaches.
The boys are back in town! And they’re back at it tomorrow again for more practices and scrimmages.