The Pittsburgh Penguins have made their game plan for next season very clear. With the re-signing of veterans such as Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust, the team will be sticking with their well-seasoned core. They are also bringing back forwards Rickard Rakell, Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen, which almost completes their top-12. However, there is one spot remaining and with the Penguins’ current salary cap situation, it is likely they will look within the organization to fill it. Training camp is set to begin in a few short weeks, and there will be several players competing for a spot in the bottom six.
Alex Nylander was traded by the Chicago Blackhawks to the Penguins in January of this year. His most successful season in the NHL was with the Blackhawks in 2019-20 where he played in 65 games and scored 26 points. The following year, he suffered a knee injury and sat dormant on Chicago’s roster until Pittsburgh came calling.
The Penguins sent Nylander to the American Hockey League (AHL) for the remainder of the 2021-22 season. He played in 44 games with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins and scored 30 points. He also led them in scoring during the postseason, where he recorded six points in six games.
There is no question that Nylander’s game has improved during his time in the AHL. His ability to play both left and right wing, and his good defensive instincts will help him stand out from the other players vying for a job. The Penguins are now trying to figure out whether or not he has reached his ceiling and how big of a contributor he can be at the NHL level moving forward.
Drew O’Connor has played for the Penguins for the past two seasons, and some would say he is the frontrunner to claim the final spot in the top 12. He played in 22 games last year and scored three goals and two assists.
Now is the time for O’Connor to prove himself, and there is a good chance he will have an advantage since he is already known within the organization. He showed off his forechecking skills in two of the Penguins’ seven playoff games last season and would bring some much-needed physicality to the lineup. He is also a strong skater and if he proves that he can find the net in training camp and the preseason, the job is his to lose.
Radim Zohorna is an interesting question mark for the Penguins. Last season he played in 17 NHL games and scored two goals and four assists. He was constantly moving back and forth last year between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre. He played in 39 AHL games last season, where he scored 12 goals and had nine assists.
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Zohorna is a good playmaker with good offensive instincts, and the Penguins could definitely use his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame in their lineup. He also handles the puck well. However, the biggest concern surrounding him is his lack of special teams play. In all 25 of his NHL games, he has not put any time in on the penalty kill which automatically puts him behind players like O’Connor. Having said that, what he lacks in special teams experience he makes up for with his speed and skating ability. As he heads into the final year of his current contract, this may be the last opportunity he has to impress the Penguins at the NHL level.
Who Is Right for the Job?
The Penguins clearly wanted to keep their veteran core together for another chance to chase the Stanley Cup. However, there will be some new faces in the lineup next season. Their top six is pretty much cemented, but without a strong bottom six, they will not be successful in 2022-23. O’Connor seems to be the front-runner at the moment. However, all the players who will be competing for that last spot bring something different to the table, so it will probably come down to who fits best in their current system.