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Make or Break: Penguins with the most on the line this training camp and season

It could be now or never for the the following players to step up

Pittsburgh Penguins v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Ashley Potts/NHLI via Getty Images

As the oldest team in the NHL, the majority of players in the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp can be found in a fairly comfortable spot when things officially pick up in less than two weeks with the start of training camp. Be it through contractual terms, salary, or expected place on the team, it’s easy to fire off the names of 17 or 18 players who will be on the expected opening 22-player roster for the Pens.

But like every year, there situations for individuals that hang in the balance. Years of developing or slow growth comes to a head with a fork in the road. It might not be the end of a career, but it sure could indicate a change of scenery is coming if things don’t work out.

These are some of those cases for the Pens this year

Sam Poulin

Poulin missed most of last season while tending to off-ice mental health issues that he felt was important enough to step away from hockey. There’s no judgment to be made on that front, but for the purposes of a hockey blog Poulin now returns to start a new season focused and seemingly in a good spot, which is what matters for reasons professional and personal.

It’s past time for him to make a move professionally though to live up to his first round pedigree. Poulin enters his draft+5 season having only played three career NHL games. That means he’s falling behind, Poulin (drafted 21st overall in 2019) is in a climate where all of the top-27 draft picks in 2019 have played more NHL games than he has. To use a famous saying of the late, great Yogi Berra, “it starts to get late pretty early” when it comes to NHL prospects seeing those prospects dim.

Poulin also now in the final year of his entry level contract, under a management regime who didn’t draft him and carries no pressure or risk of criticism if he doesn’t pan out. It’s no skin off Kyle Dubas’ back if the Pens let Poulin go.

Poulin is still eligible to be sent to the AHL without waivers, and it would be a surprise if he wasn’t sometime in the next month. This isn’t a September “make or break” for him, but at some point this season if he is to stay in the Pittsburgh organization for much longer he’s going to have to turn some heads and make something happen.

Ty Smith

Through no fault of his own, Ty Smith has seen his hockey development go in reverse. The 2018-first round pick made it as an NHL regular with the New Jersey Devils at age-20 for the 2020-21 season, without playing a game in the minors. Smith had a decent rookie season, followed up by a shakier sophomore NHL campaign in 2021-22. The Devils traded him to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2022, and then Smith found himself pushed for his first taste of the AHL at age-22.

Unconventional path, and probably not the best or smoothest start for a career, but such is life sometimes.

Now at age-23, the future looks cloudy at best for Smith. Could he win a training camp battle and get the opportunity to be an NHL regular again? Sure. Could Smith lose that battle against P.O. Joseph, the player who held that role last season, and become an extra? Certainly. Could a veteran like Chad Ruhwedel or Mark Pysyk show the coaches they belong in that spot more, leading to a trade or waiving of Smith? Can’t be ruled out.

Of all the players in Pittsburgh’s camp this year, Smith is likely in the most precarious position when it comes to even a short-term future with the organization. A spot is there for the taking if he really steps up and grabs the proverbial brass ring, but if he gets lost in the shuffle the plans could easily be configured to move on without him.

Alex Nylander

Jake Guentzel getting summer ankle surgery is a bad development for the Penguins, but individually it might be a blessing for Nylander. Like Smith, Nylander has taken the long way around too - a former high first round pick who bounced around different organizations and trying to find his place on an NHL roster.

Nylander has overcome maybe the toughest challenge for a young, talented forward: not just improving his game away from the puck but even more importantly than that by changing the perception and attitudes of coaches and managers in the organization.

Wilkes-Barre coach J.D. Forrest laid it out back in March about Nylander’s transformation:

“He came with — I don’t know if you want to call it baggage — but a bit of a reputation,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach J.D. Forrest said. “He was a high pick with a lot of offensive talent that wasn’t maybe meeting the expectations. A lot of times, they’re extremely high when you’re a first-round pick. Sometimes, they can be unrealistic. When he came to us, he had a couple of injuries, he wasn’t playing consistent hockey over the course of a couple of seasons and he was just trying to find his game.

“Offensively, you could see it right away. He knew the areas that he needed to work in and commit to were going to be more away from the puck. His abilities are going to be there, and he’s always going to be dangerous. But he also has to be dependable and reliable in certain situations and play situational hockey throughout a game. We’ve seen him take a lot of steps in that. We’ve seen him be more engaged in each and every shift as far as willing to be in a battle, wall play, tracking back, knowing his responsibilities defensively. He’s aware of that, and he’s certainly worked at it.”

The last few sentences loom large. It’s littered with coaching cliches, buzzwords and catchphrases but important ones. “Battle”, “dependable”, “reliable”, “tracking back”, “responsible defensively”, “awareness”. All aspects coaches need to trust a player. All areas that Nylander has admirably done well to actively work on improving areas of his game.

Nylander has proven at the AHL level he has the offensive ability to chip in. Guentzel’s injury is short-term and there will be no shortage of challengers looking to fill it. Beyond that short-term opening, Nylander will be competing with many of those same names like Andreas Johnsson, Vinnie Hinostroza, Rem Pitlick, Austin Wagner, Sam Poulin and Valtteri Puustinen for one of the limited spots in the lineup or on the roster at large.

One way or another, Nylander won’t be in his current status for much longer in Pittsburgh. The positive news is that he’s well-positioned to make a run and building off the hard work he has done to change hearts and mind and maybe finally find the spot that has eluded him to this point.