The Pittsburgh Penguins are back on the ice at their practice facility – The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa. – for the start of training camp. Things are much different this season, though, as the Penguins aren’t looking at a completely re-tooled roster following a disappointing postseason elimination. They’re staring at what is essentially the same exact group that hoisted the Stanley Cup just three months ago.
But that doesn’t mean things are any less interesting.
There are plenty of questions still looming about this roster. No one knows who will ultimately settle in as top-six wings next to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. There will be a position battle on the team’s bottom defensive pairing as Derrick Pouliot looks to finally claim his spot among the starting six blue-liners and of course, there’s that whole goaltender situation.
Will Matt Murray continue as Pittsburgh’s starter – as he did throughout the postseason – or will veteran Marc-Andre Fleury earn his spot back?
The Penguins will be without a few big names for the start of camp due to the World Cup of Hockey heading into the semi-finals. Crosby and Malkin will faceoff when Team Canada and Team Russia meet tonight. Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist will also be competing for a trip to the finals when Team Sweden meets Team Europe on Sunday. Without those individuals, the spotlight will be on Pittsburgh’s depth.
And depth is something the Penguins have in volumes these days.
No Shortage of Talented Youth
One thing is certain, Pittsburgh doesn’t necessarily have a ton of names that stand out as definite top-six forwards. However, they do have plenty of young legs that could easily earn time at the NHL level throughout this season. Most folks are familiar with Daniel Sprong – who recently had shoulder surgery that will sideline him for most of the season – but for the first time in a long time, there’s more than one prospect to be excited about.
In fact, it’s tough to even earn a spot at camp these days…
None of the Pens '16 draft picks are in camp…not even D Connor Hall (who's JR season opens tonight) which is rare-shows deep organization
— Tab Douglas (@fantabulous937) September 23, 2016
Jake Guentzel, Ethan Prow, Teddy Blueger and Thomas DiPauli highlight the new names at camp. The return of Scott Wilson may be one of the more interesting things to watch, though. Wilson was starting to find his game last season but then suffered a broken ankle that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. According to Wilson, his ankle issues were gone early in the summer and he was nearing a return in the postseason if needed.
Now, he’ll have to earn a spot over one of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary or Tom Kuhnhackl, all of whom played a large role in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run.
About That Blue Line…
I predicted that Olli Maatta would return to form this season, matching his play from his rookie season in 2013-14. That was before the World Cup of Hockey.
Maatta’s skating hasn’t improved. Most assumed his speed and pivoting issues in last year’s playoffs were due to lingering injury problems. That doesn’t seem to be the case, as he hasn’t improved in that regard after a summer of recovery. At this point, his new contract is becoming a concern. There are still plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about the 22-year old defenseman but he has a lot to prove in the upcoming campaign.
Especially if Pouliot is as prepared as it seems.
Pouliot needs to stake his claim in this group. Trevor Daley will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and likely too expensive for Pittsburgh to re-sign. When you also consider Maatta’s struggles, Pouliot has a prime opportunity in front of him. He came to camp slimmer and displayed more energy during the team’s first skate. If he can live up to his assumed pedigree, it’s possible he’ll supplant someone in the top-six sooner, rather than later.
Keep it here for more camp coverage. As I mentioned, despite returning with the same team they won the Cup with a few months ago, Pittsburgh has a lot of decisions to make. There will be plenty of position battles to discuss in the coming weeks.
Welcome back, hockey season.
Pittsburgh Penguins writer for TheHockeyWriters.Com and PittsburghHockeyNow.Com. Youth hockey coach, and student of the game.