One thing that 16 straight playoff appearances, 3 Cups and maintaining the longest tenured core group in NHL history yields is some roster stability. But due to the hard Salary Cap of $82.5 million, and playoff disappointments and early exits over the last five seasons, there are numerous issues and battles for full time roster spots to be waged when Pens training camp opens on September 12.
The Penguins head to camp with 10 forward spots likely locked up, and 4 to 5 defense positions. The center position is deep and set, with Sidney Crosby, re-signed Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger in place. Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel are the likely candidates to play with Sid, and log the most forward line minutes. With the resigning of Malkin and Kris Letang, Rickard Rakell, and Bryan Rust, the Pens top 10 forwards still again compare well with any club the league on most nights.
A full season Rakell would be anticipated to be paired with Malkin, and the big center had also shown pretty good chemistry with Kasperi Kapanen at times during his first few seasons in Pittsburgh. The physical style of Brock McGinn would also potentially help Rakell and Malkin do what they do best, and could create additional open space on ice for them. The more likely third line unit will be McGinn aligned with Carter, and with the other wing to be determined. If Jason Zucker can beat the injury bug this season and play like his past in Minnesota, he could easily play and contribute on either of the two lines above as outlined. The skill, speed and offense crated by this third possible pairing would pose true matchup problems for many clubs. Coach Mike Sullivan’s views on what forwards can be paired with Malkin to defensively offset some of his recent plus/minus troubles will also be an interesting story to follow at camp; Carter playing on the wing and McGinn would be candidates for such a role.
The situation with Zucker, some of his recent past significant injuries and lost man games, and his salary cap hit of $5.6 million annually puts fairly high levels of stress on both the player, and the Pens organization. Injuries limited the speedy winger to just 79 total games the last two seasons. If Zucker gets off to a good start, most teams in the league will have some true difficulty in matching and containing all of the three Pittsburgh lines which will soak up 46 to 50 mins of nightly ice time. If not, the organization will have challenges regarding the ice time for Zucker and some others, potential future trade options to free up cap space, and in managing the nightly game time roster.
The wing spots on the final forward line will present some of the most interesting developments in the camp. If Blueger is at the center position, his previous regular mate of Brian Boyle, and at times Evan Rodriguez , are both now gone. Sullivan more appreciates speed and skill from all lines as much as grinding physical play, so the likely regular candidate to fill one spot on the unit is the re-signed Danton Heinen. Either Drew O Connor or Ryan Poehling, obtained in the trade of Mike Matheson to Montreal, are both larger forwards who could fill the other wing. Both will be required to be able to skate with Blueger, which is no small task. Prospect Samuel Poulin has been openly discussed by Ron Hextall and may also find himself in this mix. The off season acquisitions Drake Caggiula and former Penguins draftee Josh Archibald are pests who could also man the wing roles against certain opponents on some nights. Radim Zohorna and former Maple Leaf and Black Hawk Alexander Nylander may also be given a chance to win spots. O’Connor and Poehling are on two way contracts and can be sent to the AHL without clearing waivers, and that may be a factor in the initial roster decisions to be made. The combined Cap hit for both forwards is also a combined $1.5MM, and could fix the excess Cap amount of approximately $1,480,700 the team now sits with, and as the season starts.
Defense and pairings are no less intriguing and will bear watching in camp. Letang is most likely again to be paired with Brian Dumoulin. The pair continues to complement the other’s primary skill sets well. Concern here also centers around the injuries and missed time also suffered by Dumoulin during the last three seasons. Jan Ruuta can play both sides, and is likely an insurance policy if Dumoulin’s injury history continues. Offense oriented and newly acquired Jeff Petry will likely be paired with Ruuta to start, and both men realize their time to win again in their careers is potentially dwindling as they arrive in Pittsburgh.
Chad Ruhwedel has the confidence of the coaching staff and team based upon his play the last few seasons. Who he will be paired with will be the battle to watch in the six exhibition games and practices. Marcus Pettersson is the most obvious candidate, and also has the cost ($4,025M annual) to justify or require a regular shift. Both he and John Marino had stretches of disappointing play in 2021-22. But the organization felt comfortable enough to grant the former Anaheim Duck farmhand a longer term deal just two years ago after his previous play. He is due for a rebound season, and he is facing similar personal pressure to Zucker at forward. The move of John Marino to the New Jersey Devils was driven as much by salary cap management as anything else, but Pettersson’s play and occasional scratches last season made his marketability to the rest of league likely far tougher at this season’s outset. Former Hextall Philadelphia Flyers Draft Pick Mark Friedman played well in limited spots last season, and he was a playoff regular after Dumoulin was injured in the New York Rangers playoff series. Still only 26 years old, he often also plays with an edge which keeps opposing teams paying some attention when he’s on ice.
In order for newly acquired Ty Smith and Pierre-Oliver Joseph to make the opening day club, a move of some personnel, or decisions to free some cap space will likely be required. The organization was impressed enough with Joseph’s good play in all situations over the 2021-22 AHL season in Scranton to give him a two year NHL contract at $825,000. He will be paid that amount even if he is returned to the AHL. Ty Smith has a contract for $863,000 annual, and would not be paid that level if he is optioned. He also is not subject to waivers. The situation is bound to make someone rather unhappy when its initially settled, as PO Joseph believes he is ready for an NHL regular spot based upon his AHL year, and Smith has been a two year regular in Newark, including being named to the All rookie second team in his first season. There is the possible, though unlikely, possibility that the Penguins front office makes a deal to move Dumoulin or Pettersson early into the season to remedy the situation, and create some additional cap space. Dumoulin is the final year of his contract, and Pettersson’s recent play may well affect his marketability during the initial segments of the 2021-22 season.
The goal situation is clear with Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith to again man the cage. It appears the Pens have chosen to go with Filip Lindberg as the primary backstop in Scranton- Wilkes barre, with the signing of multiple NHL club veteran Dustin Tokarski to back him up as the season begins. Lindberg is likely ahead of both Joel Blomqvist and recently signed Canadian Taylor Gauthier on current organization depth charts.
The above battles, developments, and units tried in camp and exhibition games will be covered in future segments of Draft 412.