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Summer signings ramp up camp competition for Penguins

July 21, 2018

When Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford talks about the competitive environment he expects to see when training camp opens in less than two months, there’s a level of excitement in his voice.

His stated goal all offseason long was to create more depth and balance among his forwards.

To that end, he signed Matt Cullen, Jimmy Hayes and, most recently, center Derek Grant on Thursday. Prospects Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese look to be close to ready for full-time NHL duty as well.

Add them to the top-nine forwards the team already had, and the picture becomes clear.

Barring injuries or a late-summer trade, there will be six bona fide candidates fighting for three jerseys on any given game night.

That’s the kind of internal roster competition that has Rutherford fired up.

“Certainly our camp is going to be a lot more competitive,” he said after signing Grant. “When you talk about more balance and more depth and you look at all three positions -- forward, defense and goal -- it’s going to be competitive to see where guys slot in.

“Are you in the top six, are you in the top nine, are in you in the top 12 or are you out? Same on defense. We have a number of defensemen. Where do they all slot in? We’ve got the two young goalies to go with (Matt) Murray. This will be a competitive camp.”

There will be token battles on defense and in goal. Theoretically, Tristan Jarry could knock off Casey DeSmith for the backup spot behind Murray, and Chad Ruhwedel could nudge his way into the top six or Finnish prospect Juuso Riikola could muscle into the top seven on defense.

The real action will be at forward, though, as Rutherford’s questions show.

• Are you in the top six? Are you in the top nine?

If coach Mike Sullivan loads up two lines, the top six is largely set with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel filling the roles.

If he spreads those six out over three lines, however, questions abound.

Will Derick Brassard bump up from third-line center to top-six left wing? Is Riley Sheahan the third-line center, fourth-line center or third-line left wing? Could Bryan Rust, armed with a new contract, provide speed and grit to a scoring line? Is Sprong ready for a prime-time role? Does Simon do the kind of little things that Crosby needs in a winger?

• Are you in the top 12 or are you out?

This is where the rubber really meets the road. The three youngsters and the three free-agent additions fighting it out for three spots in the lineup.

Sprong has an inside track. He’s reached the point in his development where he can’t be sent to the AHL without going on waivers, and it won’t do him any good to sit in the press box. It’s time to sink or swim.

Cullen, too, is a front-runner. As long as his 41-year-old body holds up, he brings the kind of speed, two-way presence and leadership any contending team needs, whether it’s at center or left wing.

With his mature game and ability to play both wings, Simon will be tough to unseat. He hasn’t been consistent in his NHL trials, though, so he’s got nothing locked down.

Grant has two things going for him in the race for a jersey. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he brings size to the lineup that most of the other hopefuls do not. He’s also coming off a strong 12-goal season in Anaheim.

Aston-Reese and Hayes are the underdogs because of their contract situations. They’re both hard-nosed competitors, but Aston-Reese could be sent down without waivers and Hayes is playing on a two-way deal.

To make the opening-night lineup, they’ll have to impress in training camp, which is exactly what Rutherford was aiming for.

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