The Pittsburgh Penguins open the 2022-23 season this Thursday, Oct. 13, when they host the Arizona Coyotes at PPG Paints Arena. The opening night roster is set, and the blue line looks a little different than what you might have expected based on the preseason.
The team will start the campaign with 13 forwards, 7 defensemen and two goaltenders in a configuration that will probably look something like this:
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Rickard Rakell
Jason Zucker – Evgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Danton Heinen – Jeff Carter – Kasperi Kapanen
Brock McGinn – Teddy Blueger (day-to-day)/Ryan Poehling – Josh Archibald
Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson – Jeff Petry
Pierre-Olivier Joseph/Chad Ruhwedel – Jan Rutta
Until the Penguins’ Monday announcement, Pierre-Olivier Joseph looked like the odd man out in the Penguins’ defensive logjam. Offseason acquisition Ty Smith appeared a foregone conclusion to make the lineup, as head coach Mike Sullivan played him consistently alongside Rutta, spoke of giving the two an opportunity to develop chemistry, and used him on the second power play unit.
Penguins GM Ron Hextall made it known to his counterparts around the league that Joseph was available via trade. But a strong preseason finale Friday against the Buffalo Sabres, a steadier two-way game than Smith’s and a fortunate contract situation all combined to give the 23-year-old blueliner the edge.
Smith, 22, who is waiver exempt, was sent down to the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, along with Mark Friedman, 26, who cleared waivers.
“Our message to [Smith] was that we’re really excited about the prospects of him being a Pittsburgh Penguin,” Sullivan said. “We have a lot of respect for Ty and his game; it’s one of the reasons why Hexy acquired him. He’s a young defenseman with a lot of upside. We really like his offensive game; we like his offensive instincts. We know he has an opportunity to grow on the defensive side of the puck, and we’re going to do our very best to help him there.
“That was our message to him – that just because a decision like this was made right now doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone, and performance matters. We expect Ty to continue to grow and develop his overall game, and we’ll monitor his progress. All of these guys are in the conversation, and that’s the important takeaway.”
By keeping Joseph on the NHL roster, the Penguins avoid losing him for nothing, a near certainty had they attempted to send him and his one-way, $825,000 contract through waivers.
“These decisions aren’t easy by any stretch,” Sullivan said. “We feel we have nine defensemen that are legitimate, bona fide NHL defensemen, but we can’t keep nine. P.O.’s a good player, he’s played a lot of hockey for us, whether here or in Wilkes-Barre, and his game continues to grow and develop.
“I think when P.O.’s at his very best, he’s a solid, two-way defenseman. He has the ability to help us get out of our end. He’s got decent offensive instincts, and he uses his mobility, his stick skills to defend. That’s the defenseman we see as being part of the group that we have here.”
The head coach also left himself the flexibility to sub Ruhwedel – or Smith or Friedman, if and when they’re recalled – into the lineup depending on the Penguins’ needs.
“We’ll take each game as it comes and try to make the best decisions from a lineup standpoint,” Sullivan said. “These decisions are very difficult and this roster is in constant evolution. I think that’s the nature of our business.”
Ruhwedel played all of last season as one of the Penguins’ regular defensemen, after five years of subbing in and out of the lineup. If that’s his destiny this year, however, the Penguins couldn’t ask for a better fit for the role.
“[He’ll handle it] like he always does,” Sullivan said. “Controls what he can; he’s a great pro. He just plays within himself, there’s a certain trustworthiness and reliability to his game, and he’s played some really good hockey for us in the time that he’s been here.
“He’s been a big part of this group and its success in the time I’ve been here, and he’s a terrific teammate. When he gets the nod to go in the lineup, he plays a solid game for us. And when he’s not, he does what he needs to do to keep himself ready.”