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Penguins go big with roster tinkering

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, 6:36 p.m.
The Penguins' Riley Sheahan celebrates Ian Cole's goal against the Oilers in the third period Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Riley Sheahan celebrates Ian Cole's goal against the Oilers in the third period Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

When the Penguins acquired 6-foot-3, 214-pound center Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings last month, winger Bryan Rust was happy.

Not just because the addition of Sheahan to Rust and Ian Cole ensured the Penguins would have more players from Notre Dame on their roster than any other college, though he wasn't complaining about that.

“We've got to keep getting a few more, here and there, one every year, and try to get more and more,” Rust said with a laugh.

No, Rust was pleased because the addition of Sheahan gave the Penguins an element of size and strength among their bottom six forwards that the team was lacking for years.

At times over the past two seasons, the 5-foot-11, 192-pound Rust has been one of the bigger guys on the third or fourth line.

“I think it helps,” Rust said. “I think on this team, it'll help. We don't have too many of the biggest guys in this locker room, especially up front. Being able to have another big body here, and also a guy who can move up and down the ice, I think it's important.”

The Sheahan pickup was part of a trend that started not long after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup for the second straight season in June.

At the draft, they added 6-1, 225-pound heavyweight Ryan Reaves. When free agency began, they signed a hoard of giant depth defensemen. At the end of training camp, they traded puck-moving prospect Derrick Pouliot to Vancouver for 6-5, 213-pound Lithuanian bruiser Andrey Pedan. Last month, they got Sheahan for Scott Wilson.

With the physical toll of two long seasons wearing on them and a slew of opponents intent on taking a pound of flesh from the two-time champs at the gates, the Penguins decided to do what they could to get bigger, stronger and harder to play against.

“To get through the grind of the regular season, it helps to have a few bigger bodies,” assistant general manager Bill Guerin said.

It's a perfectly reasonable thought, but it also requires the Penguins to walk a fine line. They won two championships largely because of their speed and skill. They have to be careful they don't sell their soul.

“It can't hurt,” Guerin said, “as long as you're not sacrificing anything.”

When Guerin was charged with beefing up the organization's defensive depth in July, he added Jarred Tinordi (6-6, 230), Zach Trotman (6-3, 217) Chris Summers (6-2, 207) and Kevin Czuczman (6-2, 206).

The primary appeal of the players wasn't their size, though, Guerin said.

“I really believe all the guys we have, regardless of their size, can play the game, make plays and move the puck,” Guerin said. “If size came with it, which for a lot of them it did, then great.”

The same applied to the NHL moves, Guerin said.

Reaves is a big body, but he can move.

“Speed-wise, to get on the forecheck, if he didn't have that, maybe we don't do the trade,” Guerin said. “He's got an element of being able to get to the other teams' defensemen. That's extremely important.”

The Penguins didn't pick up Sheahan because he cuts a striking figure at the airport.

“With the way you have to take faceoffs nowadays, it doesn't hurt to have a little extra size,” Guerin said.

In other words, the Penguins are trying to be all things to all people — big, fast and smart.

It's a difficult balancing act to maintain, but if they can pull it off, the reward could be tremendous.

“It is a fine line. It's a very fine line, and it's something we're aware of,” Guerin said. “We needed to get a little physically harder to play against. At the same time, we didn't want to give up speed, skating ability, mobility, playmaking ability, things like that. What always comes first is the hockey part.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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