Pulse of the Penguins: Preseason Injuries, Standouts, and Trade Rumors

Fall is in the air and that means meaningful hockey is just around the corner. The preseason has come to a close and the Pittsburgh Penguins will begin the 2019-20 regular season with a four-game homestand starting against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. Despite not playing a “real” game yet, there are already plenty of story lines surrounding the Metropolitan powerhouse.

Is Jack Johnson on the Move?

That’s right, Jack Johnson might be shipped out of Pittsburgh. Just one season into his five-year deal signed last summer, the 32-year-old blueliner has been passed on the depth chart and may be a healthy scratch if he isn’t traded before the start of the regular season.

A source within the Penguins organization and an independent league source both confirmed that Johnson was told over the weekend that many potential deals are on the table for general manager Jim Rutherford, and that Johnson is involved in the majority of them. Although a trade isn’t certain, Rutherford, according to sources, wanted to be transparent with Johnson about the situation and warned him that a trade within the next 48 hours is quite possible. Rutherford and Johnson have long enjoyed a warm relationship and, according to sources, the general manager wants to keep the 32-year-old defenseman aware of all possibilities. One source said there was a “75 to 80 percent chance” that Johnson will be moved before the season begins,

(from “Sources: Penguins are getting closer to trading Jack Johnson,” The Athletic – 9/29/19).

All signs point to Johnson packing his bags after a dreadful 2018-19 campaign with the Penguins. Starting from the moment he signed his contract, fans pointed blame in his direction for anything negative about the franchise. It wasn’t completely unjustified; Johnson recorded a 46.1% Corsi for, the lowest among Penguins with at least 50 games played.

Matt Murray Jack Johnson Devante Smith-Pelly
Despite his $3.25-million cap hit, Johnson actively made the team worse when he was on the ice last season. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The only two options for Johnson will be making him a healthy scratch (which would be an ugly reflection of the front office with his $3.25-million cap hit) or ship him out. Unfortunately, the Penguins would have to part with a decent asset to entice another franchise to take the 6-foot-1 bruiser. The most likely options are draft picks, expected AHL goalie Tristan Jarry, or winger Bryan Rust.

Forward Group Avoids Injury Scares

It’s hard to think of a worse way to enter the season than Sidney Crosby going down with an injury in the final preseason game. Fortunately, it sounds like he was removed from the game for precautionary reasons after blocking a shot off his foot and should be ready for the opener on Oct. 3 against the Sabres.

Meanwhile, Rust was also injured in the team’s final preseason game and doesn’t have a concrete diagnosis yet. The 27-year-old winger blocked a shot off his hand and is still being evaluated. The fact that head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t have an update on his status is a bit worrisome and he’s in danger of missing Thursday’s contest.

Penguins Bryan Rust
An injured Bryan Rust would really hurt the Penguins’ secondary scoring to start the season. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Finally, Alex Galchenyuk, the Penguins’ biggest offseason acquisition, is dealing with a lower-body injury. He appeared in just one preseason game but the seemingly-minor injury isn’t expected to keep him out of the season opener. On the bright side, he already showed some strong chemistry with his new center Evgeni Malkin; the two registered a 77.8% Corsi for while Malkin assisted on a Galchenyuk goal.

Young Players Make Big Impact in Preseason

Like all major sports leagues, the NHL preseason is a quick tune-up for the veterans but the chance for young prospects and hopefuls to make a name for themselves under the bright lights. One of the most impressive young skaters was 2019 third-round pick Nathan Legare. The sharpshooter scored a pair of third-period goals to secure a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the team’s second preseason contest. The two scores came within 30 seconds of each other. In his two appearances, he tallied eight shots on goal and a 55.6% Corsi For.

On the blue line, the newly-acquired John Marino also looked solid. A 2015 sixth-round draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers, Marino had a decent three-year career at Harvard before the Penguins acquired his signing rights this offseason. He doesn’t have much offensive upside but he could become a lockdown blueliner. In four preseason contests, the 22-year-old registered a 51.6% Corsi for and was on the ice for four Penguins goals compared to just one by the opposition during 5-on-5 play. He should start the season with the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins but could see some NHL action before long.

What Might the Opening Night Lineup Look Like?

With the status of some forwards is still up in the air, the Penguins’ Opening Night lineup is far from set in stone. However, assuming everyone is healthy, here’s how Sullivan may roll for the first game of the season:

Guentzel/Crosby/Kahun

Galchenyuk/Malkin/Tanev

McCann/Bjugstad/Hornqvist

Aston-Reese/Blueger/Rust

Letang/Dumoulin

Pettersson/Schultz

Riikola/Gudbranson

There’s plenty of flexibility here; aside from Jake Guentzel with Crosby and Galchenyuk with Malkin, the rest of the forwards could slot into several different spots. The opposite is true for the centers as those four are pretty much concrete. For now, the odd men out among the forwards will be between Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese.

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler Pittsburgh Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese
Zach Aston-Reese’s physical edge could keep him in the lineup to start the season (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

As for the defense, the top two pairings should be a lock for most of the season barring any lengthy injuries. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin have registered a 54.4% Corsi for together over the last three seasons. A healthy Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson should fare much better than Johnson did on the second pairing last season. Sullivan may also use Chad Ruhwedel in place of Juuso Riikola on occasion.

This Week’s Schedule:

Thursday, Oct. 3 – vs. Buffalo

Saturday, Oct. 5 vs. Columbus

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