Penguins wingers line up for spot alongside Sidney Crosby
Camp countdown: With one day left before the Pittsburgh Penguins open training camp Friday morning in Cranberry, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie highlights the No. 1 roster battle set to take place.
With a mature roster featuring a stable superstar core and only a few offseason additions, the chances of a true Cinderella story developing at Penguins training camp are pretty slim.
With precious few exceptions around the fringes of the 23-man roster, the die is already cast. NHL players will make the NHL roster, AHL players will be assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the season will get underway Oct. 4.
That doesn’t mean the next four weeks at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry will be devoid of intrigue, however.
Lines and defense pairs need to be formed. Power-play time will be battled for. Players must fight to avoid spending opening night in the press box.
The most interesting battleground, as often has been the case in the past decade or so, will come on the team’s top line.
After their brilliant playoff performances last season, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel look to be cemented into the center and left wing spots, but who will earn the right to become the line’s third wheel?
In general, hockey players publicly downplay any strong feelings they might have about their line combinations. The roster is full of good players, they’ll say. Any old spot will be fine.
When it comes to the thought of playing alongside Crosby, however, wingers sometimes have a hard time playing it cool.
“(The goal is) a spot on this team and then a spot on his line. A hundred percent,” fourth-year pro Dominik Simon said. “He’s an unbelievable player. Everybody wants to play with him. He makes plays. He scores. He’s just unbelievable.”
Patric Hornqvist comes into camp as the favorite. Among the lead contenders, he has the longest track record as a bona fide NHL scorer.
Hornqvist isn’t a lock, however. Crosby generally has his greatest success playing with quick linemates who excel in the give-and-go game. Hornqvist’s hard-nosed approach sometimes creates a style clash.
Daniel Sprong is the candidate with the most upside. Sprong was among the AHL’s goal-scoring leaders last season, and his dastardly release could pair perfectly with Crosby’s playmaking skills.
Sprong said his apprenticeship in the minors helped him become a better player without the puck, and a summer working out with NHL players such as Kris Letang, Jakub Voracek and Anthony Duclair in Montreal has helped pack on a few pounds of muscle.
He officially has thrown his hat into the ring.
“This season is a new chapter, and new things can happen,” Sprong said. “I look forward to it.”
Simon, meanwhile, is the de facto incumbent. He was Guentzel and Crosby’s primary linemate in a second-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals last season.
Simon has the quickness, skill and 200-foot game to fit nicely in the role, but the results on the ice have been mostly underwhelming so far.
A translated article from a Czech news outlet over the summer indicated Simon was planning to spend his summer training with Crosby, which might have made him a sneaky frontrunner to claim the role, but the 23-year-old winger said the reports were overblown.
He said he spent a few days working out with Crosby in Toronto, not three months hunkered down in the captain’s guest bedroom in Cole Harbour.
Rust, finally, might be the safest candidate for the job, given his speed and defensive acumen. On top of that, when Rust and Crosby were on the ice together in last year’s playoffs, the Penguins outscored their opponents 5-0.
Don’t expect Rust to walk around trumpeting those facts during training camp, though.
Oh, he’d like a first-line spot just like any other winger on the roster, but he’s been around long enough to know winning a training camp battle isn’t something worth celebrating for too long.
“It’s a spot a lot of guys are trying to earn. We have a lot of really talented wingers and right-handed shots,” Rust said. “Whoever comes out of that spot in camp, kudos to them, but I think it’s a long year and consistency is going to be the real challenge.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.