As Labor Day passes for another milestone to get closer towards the start of hockey, what better time to circle back and remember some of the top battles that should be playing out for internal competition for the Penguins this fall?
The temporary Jake Guentzel replacement
When Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are both healthy, as if by law they will most likely be playing together. Guentzel will be out for the first handful of games in the season that the team is optimistic won’t be too long, but it will be some number of games.
That leaves Mike Sullivan with a couple of choices for the top lines. The Pens could use two out of three of: Reilly Smith, Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust as Crosby’s linemates to start the season. Or they could use one of the three and push two down to the Evgeni Malkin line.
That means it stands to reason, even if the Pens don’t replace Guentzel one-for-one with another player, that means someone unexpected will have to play on Evgeni Malkin’s line.
Will it be Rem Pitlick? Andreas Johnsson? Alex Nylander? Valtteri Puustinen? Surely not Jeff Carter?
It’ll be a great chance for someone, even if playing “first line” or “second line” could still mean averaging 14-15 minutes per game, those will be quality minutes with key players. Guentzel’s injury opens the door for some player to get a big chance early. But just who that player could be is as wide open as the creativity that Sullivan wants to have.
Third pair right defense
The Pens having Mark Pysyk as a tryout is extremely notable. Pysyk has been out of action since tearing his Achilles in Detroit’s training camp last fall, but has been a capable and credible NHL caliber player for a decade. After dealing veterans Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta away from the right side this summer, and bringing in just one in return (even though it’s a good “one”), having Pysyk replaces Rutta for the “warm body” quotient for depth.
Is Pysyk a bad sign for Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman? As it stands now, due to the salary cap the math could mean there’s just one spot on the NHL roster for those three players.
Third pair left defense
Ty Smith is no longer waiver eligible, P.O Joseph is coming off a fine rookie season. Libor Hajek is around on a PTO. Will Butcher has a lot of NHL experience. The options to look around for this job are all over the place.
This battle might not be as open as it could seem though - surely the Pens will want to see Smith and Joseph succeed. But both young players have to hold up their end of the bargain with their performances as well. Teams don’t usually add tryout players like Hajek (only 25 himself) if they’re completely confident and satisfied with the available options. Smith and Joseph could use a little pushing via internal competition into hopefully their best form for the regular season, but which one of them will it be? Joseph didn’t add a lot defensively, and Smith’s AHL performance last year wasn’t awe-inspiring for a clear NHL player stuck down a level.
Both Magnus Hellberg and Alex Nedeljkovic played in Detroit’s organization last season, and to a similar level statistically. Nedeljkovic enters camp seemingly entrenched with a contract that says “NHL backup” with a $1.5 million salary, to Hellberg’s $785,000. Then again, every dollar counts for the Pens with the salary cap, if the goalies play to the same level it might make financial sense to keep Hellberg.
That said, Hellberg is 32-years old and has only 23 games of NHL experience under his belt (and an unimpressive .886 save% in his brief career). This could be another situation where the door is technically open if the performances absolutely demand not looking in any other direction, but based on overall expected talent levels, Nedeljkovic should be the guy for the backup goalie role. But with a salary cap and team tight against it, you never know what avenues might be explored to save a buck.