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Penguins

Pouliot makes final case for spot on NHL roster to start season

| Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, 8:09 p.m.
The Red Wings' Mitch Callahan (left) and the Penguins' Derrick Pouliot battle for position in front of the net during the second period of their preseason game Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, in Detroit.
The Red Wings' Mitch Callahan (left) and the Penguins' Derrick Pouliot battle for position in front of the net during the second period of their preseason game Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, in Detroit.

Derrick Pouliot on Friday morning stepped onto the ice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and began to skate for practice before any of his Penguins teammates, just as he did numerous times earlier in training camp.

This habit of Pouliot's further legitimized the narrative that the 22-year-old defenseman, the Penguins' first-round pick in 2012, upped his commitment to the rigors and tedium of professional hockey in the past few months. The slimmer, trimmer silhouette he revealed at optional workouts in early September after a summer of healthy eating and intense cardio exercise served as the first indicator. His practice habits provided more confirmation.

But on the eve of the Penguins' final exhibition game, a 3 p.m. matinee Saturday at PPG Paints Arena with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pouliot's place on the roster remained about the same as when training camp opened Sept. 23.

Whether the Penguins coaching staff and front office believed Pouliot took a big step forward — a hope made public by general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan — was unclear. Only David Warsofsky's presence on waivers and absence from the roster for Saturday's exhibition provided a telling signal that the No. 7 spot on the defensive depth chart might belong to Pouliot when the regular season opens Thursday.

“He really took control of his career this summer by making a real concerted effort to come into camp in great shape,” Sullivan said of Pouliot, who left the locker room before media availability began Friday. “And he's shown signs of real solid play. He's shown other examples where he's struggled at times. As most young players do, it's a bit of a process to get these guys to where our expectation is, as far as consistent performance, shift after shift.”

Aside from Pouliot's place on the team, a couple lineup questions linger with the season opener less than a week away. Until Bryan Rust recovers from his undisclosed injury, the Penguins' top 12 forwards appear to be set, and with Kevin Porter on waivers and Jake Guentzel and Carter Rowney assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Tom Sestito represents the front-runner for the 13th spot on the depth chart. Elsewhere, second-unit special teams roles remain fluid.

Whether addressing the Pouliot/Warsofsky situation or another position battle, Sullivan's stance on how skaters can stay on the NHL roster at this juncture is firm.

“Everybody's here for a reason: because they have certain core competencies that warrant their spot here,” Sullivan said. “Whatever their game is, they need to bring it and bring it to the best of their ability.

“Without a doubt, when you get down to those short numbers, and you have to make a decision on the last few rosters spots, they're very difficult decisions. … Our question is always going to be, ‘Which guys are going to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win?' ”

For Warsofsky, 26, who played in 12 games under Sullivan last season before a concussion in January complicated his chances of staying on the roster, there is no need or desire within him to second-guess his decision to sign a one-year, two-way contract with the Penguins on July 1. He recognized the crowded defensive corps, and he joined it anyway.

Then when he garnered praise from Sullivan in training camp, he understood why he needed to temper his hopes.

“The confidence boost is good,” Warsofsky said. “So is hearing the praise. But at the end of the day, it's a business, and moves need to be made. You've got to be ready for those whenever they happen.

“Sometimes things don't work out right away. There are things that happen throughout the course of the year. It's a long season, so you kind of take everything in stride and just do your best to make an impression, and hopefully when your name is called, you perform.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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