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The Penguins Undertake Major Roster Renovations

Thursday, November 8, 2018

 

Give the Pens credit, they made the most of the last day and half off between games. In fact they changed the statuses of 6 different players signed to the team- Matt Murray, Casey DeSmith, Derek Grant, Daniel Sprong, Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Zach Aston-Reese, and Garrett Wilson. This series of moves that has majorly renovated the game roster were announced in the mere blink of an eye since the Penguins last took the ice. The overhaul was so large, the news clearly needed it's own article aside from the standard "Pens Pre-Game" post, where I typically put roster moves.

The mass change began with the demotion of forward Derek Grant to the minor leagues. It was then followed by a switch coming the opposite way as the team made the addition of recalling forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson from the minors. The finishing moves of these chess pieces were made at practice this morning by bumping Daniel Sprong (F) and Juuso Riikola (D) to healthy scratches, along with naming Casey DeSmith tonight’s starter over Matt Murray. That's half a dozen different players shifted between Monday's loss to New Jersey and tonight's pending match-up against Washington, almost 1 alteration for every goal NJ scored vs. the Pens in the 6-1 contest. It was quite a huge undertaking that was completely done on-the-fly as evident by the single practice the players got with the newly configured team all working together.

Mike Sullivan and the Pens' coaching staff are doing what they can with mostly peripheral pieces to try to stop the Penguins' current losing streak, which stands at 4 games. But is the mostly cosmetic make-up of these changes really enough to address such a huge issue?

Trying to find an improvised remedy to these performance deficits is a tall task especially in this particular instance. As the swaps weren't made in the area the Penguins are most struggling in- defense.

The only minor touch-up there is Juuso Riikola, who will sit out the game against the Capitals in favor of Chad Ruhwedel. No matter which you choose, both work out as the 6th defenseman on the roster and thus are of minimal consequence to the overall defensive unit. Whether it's Ruhwedel or Riikola, that #6D player is still getting minimal minutes and has 5 other D-men on the depth chart ahead of him who have the duty of the higher responsibility that increased footprint brings.

In a one-on-one assessment, Riikola showed better in the New Jersey game than Ruhwedel has of late. But he’s an been more of an offensive-focused defenseman and Ruhwedel is a classic "stay-at-home", D-first type. Ruhwedel's specialty, along with change for its own sake perhaps, is the only explanation I can see for the switch. That is of course other than Coach Sullivan’s noted preference for players who have had more experience playing for him, and who he believes he can "trust" more. Which again is a factor in Ruhwedel’s favor. This adjustment makes sense in those respects, but to adherents of the philosophy of putting the most skilled players on at all times, Riikola is the man who wins out by that standard.

The forwards meanwhile have had 3 new changes made in their midst's: the demotion of Grant, and the call-up of Zach-Aston Reese and Garrett Wilson from the minor leagues. The Aston-Reese recall is a great decision, as he won a spot on this team last year and was due to return to it eventually. If anything it is overdue. He is decidedly more talented and a larger contributor than Derek Grant, who brought some verve initially but then plateaued with the Pens and got less noticeable on-ice.

Wilson is more of a try-out, "throwing anything at the wall"-type move however. He has not played in the NHL at all since 2015-16, but has been performing admirably in the minors and is on a "hot" streak there. His primary contribution is an infusion of energy and a willingness to get rough or even fight when needed, but he's not expected to come in and steal the show or be relied on for a significant production at the NHL level the way Aston-Reese is. Wilson is most useful situation-ally in this match-up specifically with the Caps, which tends to get chippy. But his ongoing effectiveness isn't expected to be high and will remain to be seen as he’s gone so long away from the league.

Perhaps the most key aspect to the Pens' decision makers strategy for this roster rehash has been to pull the goalie. #1 goaltender Matt Murray will be replaced with Casey DeSmith. This remedy is seems like pulling the lifeguard while he's trying to save a drowning man and replacing him with a random kid off of the beach. It's not the best move and could end up having serious consequences if the Pens drop five in a row from it. A loss streak that is something they have never done under Mike Sullivan.

Murray was “mercy-pulled” in his last two games admittedly, but the hitch there is also played brilliantly through much of those games all to get hung out to try by his defense. He in fact kept the team in games more than they would have been in without him. A look at the in-depth stats backs this positive assessment up. Matt Murray is not the problem. Rather, he is one of the few Penguins' parts that is actually working right now.

DeSmith is essentially a career minor league starter, he has less than 25 NHL games played in all dotted over his season and the last. And he has not looked extraordinary in those games either. He’s been passable as a temporary substitute but he struggles with the basic habits and positioning of a NHL mainstay. Throwing that guy against the reigning Cup champions just for change's sake or in the name of Murray paying for the rest of the team’s sins could be one of the biggest missteps of the season for the Pens.

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