With only one preseason game remaining, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma continues to fine-tune his team’s roster in preparation for opening night.
The depth Pittsburgh added at forward for training camp will be especially helpful now that Jordan Staal is out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. The severed tendon suffered in Game 1 of the second round of last year’s playoffs, when Montreal defenseman PK Subban’s skate blade sliced the top of Staal’s foot, has resulted in several surgeries and an infection, and Staal has been unable to work out, let alone skate.
“I’m not really close to that yet,” Staal said. “But, hopefully, I’m going to start working out next week and getting my leg back into shape. It’s kind of withered away a little bit.”
Staal’s absence, and the Penguins’ decision to let some of last year’s veteran forwards walk via free agency, has opened the door for new additions like Mike Comrie, whose offensive skill has impressed, and Arron Asham, who has delivered the physical, agitating game Pittsburgh expected from him. A couple of young standouts who spent last season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are also still looking to make the club, and center Mark Letestu and winger Eric Tangradi have emerged as the strongest candidates to be in Thursday’s opening-night lineup against Philadelphia.
Tangradi has shown a willingness to drive his 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame to the front of the net, screening opposing goaltenders and creating opportunities for his linemates, Comrie and Evgeni Malkin. Last week, in the Penguins’ home preseason finale against Chicago, Malkin opened the scoring thanks to Tangradi frustrating goaltender Alec Richards and drawing defenders toward him.
“Geno’s so good at winning one-on-one battles, and Comrie’s so smart with the puck,” Tangradi said. “They definitely complement each other well, and adding me to that, being a power forward and opening space for those guys, they’re so skilled, opportunities are going to come for everyone.”
Bylsma said Tangradi has passed an important test – resisting the temptation to change his game because he’s playing alongside a player of Malkin’s caliber.
“Eric knows what he’s supposed to do. He goes right to the net, he stands in front of the goalie and he’s a factor on the goal that way, not making a saucer pass out of the blue line or trying to dangle and make a play because he’s playing with a good player,” Bylsma said.
“He’s been effective on the forecheck, he’s been good with the puck down low and he’s gone to the net and created space. Regardless of who he’s played with, or when he’s playing on the power play, he’s still doing exactly what he brings to the table. It’s a credit to the way he’s approached camp.”
Letestu, who also chipped in a goal against the Blackhawks, has been among the most impressive players in camp. He said he worked hard this summer to have a camp like this, and also felt his four games with the big club during last year’s playoffs gave him an advantage.
“It was definitely huge for my confidence coming in,” he said. “That’s the highest level of intensity this league has to offer, and I held my own. I have some confidence I can play with these guys. It’s just a matter of elevating my game to continue to improve.”
On defense, the battle for the sixth and seventh spots has taken an intriguing turn. Baby Penguins Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland continue to be in the mix, but 19-year-old Simon Despres has put himself squarely into the conversation, playing with a maturity that rivals that of his more experienced counterparts.
“All our defensemen who are vying for a spot – Simon, Ben and Deryk – are trying to make an impression out there in the preseason,” Bylsma said. “A mistake sometimes can send a defenseman south, a young one or a guy trying to make an impression, and they’ve all kept their heads about them after a mistake or a faux pas with the puck and rebounded and played some good games.”
That ability to recover quickly is especially important for a player who’s likely to see only 12 to 15 minutes of ice time per night, Bylsma said.
“There will probably be a fight for minutes for the first five guys, because they’re all good players and can play in different situations,” he said. “I think the sixth guy is going to have to bring some kind of element to the table, whether it’s the penalty kill, he’s got to be counted on to play defensively, maybe it’s an edge in grit. And he’s going to have to have a mentality where he may not be getting the same kind of minutes; that’s going to be a certain mindset for the player as well.”
So, as the preseason winds down, the Penguins still find themselves with decisions to make – and the players who are on the bubble aren’t making it easy for management to make those calls.
“It didn’t really clear things up too much,” Bylsma said. “They all did a pretty good job of making it hard.”
The next few days won’t be especially easy on the players, either.
“Stressful,” Letestu said. “Probably some sleepless nights. But I’ve worked as hard as I can; I think I’ve done what I can. Hopefully it turns out positive for me.”