AHL callups contributing to Penguins, Canucks’ future is now (Feb. 20)

by Mark Allan on February 20, 2016
  • Prospects Rambling
  • AHL callups contributing to Penguins, Canucks’ future is now (Feb. 20)
Derrick Pouliot is paying attention to defense and playing with more assurance on Pittsburgh's blueline.

Derrick Pouliot is paying attention to defense and playing with increased assurance on Pittsburgh's blueline. "Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Penguins"

 

Injuries to four forwards and one defenseman are not helping the Pittsburgh Penguins in their desperate struggle to qualify for the playoffs.

Promoted prospects are contributing, though, in bottom-six and third-pairing roles.

Superstar Evgeni Malkin (lower body), Nick Bonino (hand), Eric Fehr (lower body) and the oft-hurt Beau Bennett (upper body) are each missing up front and David Warsofsky (concussion) is gone from the back end. Winger Pascal Dupuis was forced to retire earlier this season.

That means forwards Oskar Sundqvist, Tom Kühnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson plus blueliner Derrick Pouliot, Pittsburgh’s top prospect, are getting invaluable NHL experience and doing their best to help secure a hotly contested post-season berth.

The team’s current bottom six forwards all began the season with AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Sheary, Kühnhackl and Sundqvist each played their first NHL games this season.

So far in a hectic four-game week, the Penguins are 1-2 and face a must-win Sunday against the host Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh’s third game in four days.

The current lines are:

#1           Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Phil Kessel

#2           Carl Hagelin – Matt Cullen – Patric Hornqvist

#3           Tom Kühnhackl – Oskar Sundqvist – Bryan Rust

#4           Scott Wilson – Kevin Porter – Conor Sheary

The defense pairings are:

#1           Olli Maatta – Kris Letang

#2           Brian Dumoulin – Trevor Daley

#3           Derrick Pouliot – Ben Lovejoy (Lovejoy was injured Saturday and will not play Sunday).

Most of the callups from WBS have got some special-teams ice time, with Dumoulin and Kühnhackl significant contributors to a penalty kill that has thwarted 19 consecutive power plays by opponents. Wilson, who has had a smattering of PK duty this week, has enjoyed some PP time as well as Sheary, Rust and the offensively gifted Pouliot.

Pittsburgh’s week began slowly with an extended 2-1 shootout loss in Florida.

Although Crosby and Kessel, with a pair of goals, were in the spotlight in a 6-3 victory Thursday over the visiting Red Wings, the Penguins’ hard-working fourth line was arguably their best albeit in limited ice time.

Sheary, who replaced Kunitz on the first PP unit, set up Wilson for his first NHL goal, which proved to be the winner. Outworking both opposing D-men behind Detroit’s net, the pint-sized Sheary protected the puck, took a quick look into the slot from the back boards and zinged a perfect pass to Wilson, who tallied on a five-hole wrister.

 

Scott Wilson’s first NHL goal, set up with some outstanding hustle by Conor Sheary.

 

Failing earlier to translate impressive AHL playmaking into NHL production while on a line with Crosby and Kunitz, Sheary is making a case to stay with the big club when injured forwards begin returning to action. Propelled by a constantly revving motor, the little guy goes to scary areas, outbattles opponents who tower over him and makes intelligent plays with soft hands.

Rust, who missed an empty-net goal by less than a foot against Detroit, assisted Saturday on Wilson’s second NHL goal off a rebound in a crucial 4-2 loss to the host Lightning.

Kühnhackl potted his first NHL goal by converting a shorthanded breakaway. The Sundqvist-Kühnhackl-Rust line was productive in the AHL and Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan is largely keeping them together as his third line.

 

Tom Kühnhackl uses a backhand to calmly convert a shorthanded breakaway for his first NHL goal.

 

After a poor training camp, Pouliot was instructed to improve his defensive play. He earned a promotion with a plus-15 rating in the AHL and is skating with much more assurance in the current callup. Although he is still learning the proper offense-defense ratio, he might well stay up in the NHL the rest of the season, especially since Ian Cole’s minus-17 has rendered him a healthy scratch.  

The loss in Tampa Bay vaulted the Lightning two points ahead of Pittsburgh in the tangled Eastern Conference playoff hunt, so Pittsburgh’s injury replacements must keep contributing until regulars can lace up skates again.

If they need extra incentive, Wilson, Rust and Kühnhackl are RFAs after this season, and are playing for contracts.

*

Some questionable signings and untimely injuries have left the Canucks with the worst of both worlds this season.

With a youth movement finally truly underway, you would think Vancouver would have cap space to burn.

The Canucks, though, have just $5,805,833 in available cap space, the third-least in the league. With 24 games to play, Vancouver is 11th in the Western Conference, eight points short of a wild-card berth and nine points away from a Pacific Division post-season appearance.

They are playing some of their worst hockey of the season with a 2-5-1 mark since the all-star break. In their past four games, they set an embarrassing record by becoming the first team in NHL history to lose four straight games 5-2.

With the Canucks slipping below the waves like orcas, GM Jim Benning is expected to be in full-blown sale mode leading to the Feb. 29 leap year trade deadline. Leading candidates to be dealt to contenders, to reduce payroll and acquire assets, are pending UFAs Radim Vrbata ($5-million cap hit), Dan Hamhuis ($4.5 million) and Brandon Prust ($2.5 million). Veteran goalie Ryan Miller, who has one more season to go with a $6-million hit, might be retained to help to transition to a talented young tandem of Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.

 

Boston College star and Canuck prospect Thatcher Demko shows his stuff for Team USA at the 2015 world junior championship.

 

Any veteran who is traded could open a roster spot as soon as next season for even more up-and-comers to join youngsters Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Linden Vey, Ben Hutton, Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen and Emerson Etem on the NHL roster. Besides Demko, that could include current prospects Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, Cole Cassels, Brock Boeser and Ronalds Kenins.

The danger is that Vancouver’s prospects might get caught up in a losing culture before the rebuild begins to pay off. Youth will be served nonetheless, although long-suffering Canuck fans still awaiting a first Stanley Cup in almost 50 years will be served a cold plate rather than the sumptuous championship smorgasbord they ache to dig into.