If you expected the Penguins to look a whole lot different after failing to advance past the first round of the playoffs for a third consecutive season, you were right. It’s also a safe bet that the 2021-22 roster, as it stands right now, isn’t exactly what you had in mind.
The Penguins talked about adding grit, but the departures of forward Brandon Tanev (Seattle, expansion draft) and defenseman Cody Ceci (Edmonton, free agency) leave them a little less gritty. They talked about adding size but, up against the salary cap, that may have to come via cheap, creative solutions like the invite of 6’6, 245-pound vet Brian Boyle, 36, to camp, and giving second-year forward Radim Zohorna, (6’6, 220 pounds) an opportunity to make the opening night roster.
“I’ve played under [head coach Mike Sullivan] before; I’ve obviously played against this team before,” said Boyle, who didn’t get a contract during last year’s shortened season. “It’s a chance for me to get back in the league on a really good team. The roster speaks for itself; you get to play with some superstars, some guys who have changed the way the game is played in this league. Having an opportunity to try and make it with some familiarity is a little more comforting.
“I’ve just got to play the way I play. What are attributes that I can do to make a difference in a game, to separate me from other players? I think there’s one that’s obvious that everyone can see, so I need to be able to use that. Whether it’s just separating a guy from a puck or throwing a big hit if the chance happens. There’s a lot of ways you can be physical, and I’m certainly going to have to do every single one of them. There’s not going to be any regrets at the end of it, no matter what.”
As for Zohorna, “I think Z’s just more comfortable this year,” Sullivan said. “He knows what to expect; it’s not a new environment. He’s used to playing on an NHL ice surface. He played some good minutes for us last year. I think he showed glimpses of his potential, and I think his pace has improved. We’re trying to help him with his conditioning.
“I think he’s an interesting player for us. He’s big and strong; he does things faster than it looks because he has long levers because of his size. He can skate, he utilizes his reach very well, and he has instincts; he can make plays. He’s a guy we’re going to watch throughout the course of training camp.”
Pittsburgh lost some higher-end skill and speed with the offseason trade of Jared McCann, and some versatility by letting forwards Frederick Gaudreau, Colton Sceviour and Mark Jankowski walk. New to the lineup are Brock McGinn, a physical, energy player who’s already slid into Tanev’s former spot alongside Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger; Danton Heinen, who’s getting a look on the top six in camp; and returning Penguin Dominik Simon.
“I’ve been impressed with his game so far,” Sullivan said of Heinen, 26, who last played for the Anaheim Ducks. “He’s got real good offensive instincts. I think he skates well; he’s strong on the puck. I think he has the potential to play in a number of different roles for us, depending on how the lines sort themselves out.
“What I’ve liked about him is, the guys he’s playing with are higher-end guys right now, and he has the offensive instincts; he thinks the game on a high level. I think he has the ability to play in our top six if we need him to, but he’ll bring an offensive dimension to our top nine if we need him to.”
The Penguins are going to need all the help they can get in the early going, especially down the middle. Captain Sidney Crosby is out for a minimum of six weeks following wrist surgery on Sept. 8, and Evgeni Malkin will miss at least the first two months after a June knee surgery.
For the first time in a while, when the Penguins say they’re going to have tough decisions on who fills out the starting roster, it feels sincere as there’s plenty of room for competition.
“We’re looking for guys that can potentially fill roles for us,” Sullivan said. “Can guys kill penalties? Can guys play in a bottom-six role and be trustworthy defensively, be strong on the walls, be good at the net fronts, have decent awareness away from the puck and then have the ability to chip in to the offense here and there? Those types of players are invaluable.”
That’s also true on the back end, where Pittsburgh-born defenseman Matt Bartkowski, 33, is getting a camp tryout.
“It’s kind of tough to self-evaluate new into camp,” Bartkowski said. “Trying to learn their systems, take those and run with it. Skating, they’re big on skating. Making hard plays. I know it’s kind of cliché, but playing tough, playing hard and skating.”
“Matt has a lot of experience,” Sullivan said of the 10-year veteran. “He’s a guy that I think gives us more depth at that position. He’s a good pro and understands circumstances. There are some guys that have to play their way onto the roster; there are other guys that play their way off the roster. The reality is that nothing’s etched in stone here and nothing is inevitable. Performance matters. Effort and execution and attitude matter.
“We’re trying to create an organization that’s deep in all positions that we can create competition at all positions, because we think that’s what keeps everybody at their best. I think [Matt’s] a guy that understands it, and I think he’s had a strong camp so far.”
One area where the Penguins failed to create much competition was in goal – the position that pretty definitively cost them last year’s first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders, and played a heavy role in the previous two losses, too. But they did make a switch at the goalie coach position, where Andy Chiodo, not Mike Buckley, will be mentoring Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.
“It’s been a good start,” DeSmith said. “He’s someone I really like working with; he pushes us hard and he’s very detail-oriented, so it bodes well for this year. He tries to simplify it but at the same time not take away any speed or play-reading or anything like that.”
“Just get down and get to work,” Jarry told penguins.com on his turn-the-page mindset. “I think that was the biggest part of my summer, that I just wanted to work hard and improve my game. I was training out in Edmonton with some guys, and I think [they] really helped me. They pushed me to be a better goalie, and I think that will really help me this year.”