Camp All Inclusive Report

With less than two weeks remaining until the start of the NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to trim down their roster. Despite the poor start to the preseason, record wise, this Pittsburgh Penguins team has been transforming itself into a younger, hungrier, and meaner club.  Here are some of the standouts from the preseason in both a positive and negative manner.

Top Prospect – Despite just about every single outlet placing Derrick Pouliot as the Pittsburgh Penguins top prospect, there is no doubt after training camp that the title truly belongs to defensive prospect Olli Maatta. Not only is Maatta the most NHL ready prospect in the Penguins organization, his skill set and intellect shown in the preseason clearly has management questioning whether or not he should play this season.

Maatta plays one of the cleanest two way games that I have seen for a defenseman his age. At just 19 years old he could easily be a top pairing player with Kris Letang, but it is for his own good that he spends at least a full season in the AHL. As he becomes more accustom to the pro game and more importantly, the North American hockey style, he should continue to add to his already impressive skill set.

Speaking of Pouliot – The young defender that was selected in the first round of the 2012 draft has made an impact on his teammates this season. He is a lightning rod of talent and has a raw skill set that closely resembles Kris Letang. The problem is that he is at least two years away from being an NHL defender. His play is at another level at times, but he is having trouble keeping up with the attention to detail that is required at this level of competition. It is in his best interests to go back to Portland for a final season of junior league action.

Biggest Surprise on D –There is no doubt that Maatta could have gotten another section dedicated to him, but this spot is reserved for Robert Bortuzzo. The 6’4, 215lb defender has shown excellent speed and tenacity this preseason. Against Chicago, Bortuzzo flattened Patrick Kane against the boards then backed it up with a brief fight. There is no doubt that his improved play makes Engelland expendable, as they have a similar style of play, and it also promotes the youth tandem of he and Simon Despres.

With both players having the same height and weight, along with great heads up skating ability, they pose as an intimidating pair. Despres is the more gifted offensive player out of the two which can also lead to a balanced attack from the back end. It is in coach Bylsma’s best interests to allow this pairing to develop over the season.

The Top Six is as good as any – The only line that is truly set for the Penguins would be their top line of Kunitz, Crosby, and Dupuis. This line dominated the shortened season when Crosby was healthy and should be no different in the upcoming season.

The second line, consisting of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal at this point, is also predicted to be quite dominant. Both players are 40 goal scorers through a full regular season and physically strong enough to wear down opposing defenses. The candidacy for being the winger on this line was the biggest question heading into camp, but it seems that both Beau Bennett and Jussi Jokinen are more than capable of filling in.

Beau Bennett is the top choice given his physical talents and tremendous vision. He could be the playmaker on this line, allowing Neal and Malkin to primarily score.

Jussi Jokinen has also had great success on this line in camp and preseason. He scored a hat trick just the other day against the Blue Jackets and continues to flash his impressive skill set when paired with these two. Most likely we will see Bennett take this role, given his more physical demeanor along the boards and behind the net. 

Then what about Jussi? – Since Jokinen will not see consistent time on the second line, it is presumed that he will join Brandon Sutter on the third line. The two are familiar with one another from their time in Carolina and provide a great balance of defensive responsibility and offensive talent.

Then who flanks those two? – Arguably the biggest question of all. With the Penguins now void of their famous third line from the Stanley Cup days (J. Staal in Carolina, Matt Cooke in Minn., Tyler Kennedy in S.J.) the coaching staff has to create a line that is fast, offensive, and defensively responsible. The two already in place make a great pair, but a speedy grit player is also needed. The likes of Chuck Kobasew, Dustin Jeffery, and Matt D’Agostini were originally thought to battle for this position in camp. The problem is that a new name has come up in conversation.

Harry Zolnierczyk has had a great camp for the Penguins. His speed and tenacity is very reminiscent of Matt Cooke. The only issue is that Harry Z is not a strong enough offensive presence. I personally believe that he would be the strongest candidate to replace Matt Cooke, but the other three options still remain.

The standout at forward – No one made a bigger leap in camp this season that Zach Sill. The name should not sound familiar as this young man appeared to be an AHL lifer. His hard work has allowed him to advance up in the ranks and it appears he will take the fourth line center position. His faceoff ability is strong, his presence is felt with very timely body checks, and he has the grinder mentality that is needed in a fourth liner. His 6’0 202 pound frame makes him durable as well.

Who gets left out? – To be frank about it, there are a few guys that just do not seem to cut it this season. Tanner Glass has been mediocre again and might be on his way out. His 1.1 million dollar salary is just not worth it when there are cheaper, faster guys waiting in the wings who have the same skill set.

Tom Kuhnhackle has a ton of talent and upside, but this young man is still a few years away from competing for a roster spot. Matt D’Agostini is have a very difficult time adjusting to the new system, which coming from St. Louis and New Jersey was almost a given, but his play is just not good enough at this point to warrant a starting spot from the get go.

 Finally, Deryk Engelland might have lost his spot permanently on the Penguins roster. While he did not have a bad camp by any means, the Penguins have a multitude of defensive players with his size and skill set which basically means he is expendable at this point.

Vokoun Update – The veteran net minder had a procedure to dissolve a blood clot in his pelvis over the weekend and is out indefinitely. There is no other chatter on this subject other than the procedure went according to plan.

Jeff Zatkoff will be filling in for Vokoun as the backup for the immediate time being. With the lack of salary cap space available it is also not expected that the Penguins bring in a veteran to fill in, unless a trade is made to alleviate said cap space.

Misc. Notes – Jaqcues Martin has filled in nicely in the Penguins organization. It seems that all the players appreciate the veteran coache’s presence on the team and believe that it can only benefit them in the long run.

Fleury has been quite shaky this preseason and in camp. If the former first round pick does not pick up his game quickly, then it might just be his last season in the black and vegas gold.

Projected Lines for Day 1 –

Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis

Bennet – Malkin – Neal

Jokinen – Sutter – D'Agostini/Kobasew

Adams – Jeffery – Vitale/Glass

The forward lines above provide great speed, tenacity, and scoring ability. They overall lack in size and do not carry a true Selke like candidate. Expect them to be amongst the best scoring teams in the league, a high plus minus ratio from their terrific 5 on 5 play, but rank in the 10 – 15 range in goals against.

Orpik – Martin

Letang – Scuderi

Bortuzzo – Despres/Niskanen – Engelland

The defense looks to be much more promising this season. The speed is better without Douglas Murray and the addition of Rob Scuderi should balance out Kris Letang. If Coach Bylsma sticks with the two young guys as the third pairing the teams D should be much tougher to play against. If not, look for the ice time to be heavily skewed towards the top two pairings. 

 

Note: Harry Z and Zach Sill have be re-assigned to Wilkes Barre Scranton, which I have to believe is more of a money issue than anything. Both players had excellent camps and performed well in the pre-season.