UNIVERSITY PARK – Three days prior to Christmas in 2017, Dominik Simon got a bit of a present when he filled in at center during practice for former teammate Carter Rowney, who was sidelined due to an illness.
Simon, primarily used as a winger, was asked afterwards about potentially playing center. Flashing a classic hockey smile, the incisor-deficient Simon spoke enthusiastically about how he enjoyed the position and went into great detail over the nuances of being a center.
A few minutes later, Mike Sullivan stuffed some coal into Simon’s stocking.
“Probably not,” Sullivan said, with a smirk, when asked if Simon was possibility at center. “Probably not.”
A mere 21 months later, Simon is back at the position he is listed as but has rarely played during his professional existence.
During the team’s preseason opener, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Sabres at Pegula Ice Arena Monday, Simon centered a “top” line with Zach Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust on his wings. Simon had a secondary assist on a goal by forward prospect Ryan Haggerty. Additionally, Simon centered the Penguins’ top power-play unit.
So, how does he look in the middle?
“If you watched the World Championships this past spring,” Bryan Rust said, “pretty damn good.”
Considering the IIHF World Championship tournament in May was played in Slovakia, in a time zone six hours ahead of the East Coast, the Pittsburgh-centric viewership of Simon’s play in those contests may have been limited .
Those who did see the tournament witnessed Simon center the Czech Republic’s top line between Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek and Calgary’s Michael Frolik, finishing ninth in the tournament in scoring with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 10 games. The Czech Republic finished in fourth place, its highest ranking since 2015.
“We liked what we saw when we saw him at the World Championships,” Sullivan said. “And that’s when we started to discuss Dominik as an option. I’m not sure where we’re going to go with it, but we thought we’d certainly explore it through this exhibition season.”
“I used to play (center) when I was younger, when I was not pro,” Simon said. “Then I played center this last (season) at the World Championship. But I always play winger my whole pro career. It’s a little bit different. You’ve got to adjust the game a little bit and not think too much.”
The center position typically carries more defensive responsibilities than wing.
“You have to defend more as a center,” said Simon. “You’re lower, getting more pucks. You’ve got to skate a little deeper into your zone, a little more responsibilities in your (defensive) zone. I guess that’s the biggest difference.”
Then, of course, there is the most obvious duty the position demands.
“Faceoffs,” Simon said. “That’s something that definitely needs worked on. I haven’t done that for a while.”
Simon was 9 for 24 (37.5 percent) on draws Monday. In his four-year NHL career, Simon has taken all of 36 faceoffs – none since 2017-18 – and has only won 12 of them (36.4 percent).
“We’ve already got Matt Cullen on that right now,” Sullivan said. “That’s one of the responsibilities that we’ve given him. He’ll spend some time with Dom.”
Cullen, who retired this past season and joined the team as a player development coach, won 9,423 of the 18,373 faceoffs he took (53.3 percent). His faceoff total is officially the 10th highest in NHL history. (The league did not record the statistic until 1997-98, Cullen’s rookie season.)
Simon has almost exclusively been a winger since coming to this continent and playing with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2015-16.
“We didn’t think at the time that was the right option for Dominik,” said Sullivan, who served as the AHL Penguins’ coach early in the 2015-16 campaign. “It’s hard enough to make the adjustment going from a big ice surface, the international ice surface, to the North American ice surface. The responsibilities of playing the wing are a little bit less than the responsibilities of playing the center-ice position. But he’s been here for a couple of years now.”
Considering the changes the Penguins made this past offseason at the winger position, adding another layer or two to his skillset would only increase Simon’s value to management when it comes to determining a nightly lineup or the NHL roster. And especially when he becomes a restricted free agent next offseason.
“I’m still young,” said Simon, 25. “I want to show what I can do. I’m ending my contract so I definitely want to have a good year.”
“He’s a guy that distributes the puck extremely well,” Sullivan said. “He’s got a high hockey IQ. And those are usually prerequisites of being a good center iceman. We’ll see how he does.”
Note: The Penguins had a scheduled day off Tuesday. They will resume training camp Wednesday in Cranberry.