WILKES-BARRE – Setting an opening-day roster can be a challenge for any NHL coaching staff. That task is shaping up to be a daunting one this year for Penguins head coach Eddie Olczyk and his assistants Randy Hillier, Joe Mullen and Shane Clifford.
Indecision or poor preparation are not factors. Rather, the competition has been so intense that it blurs a majority of the players’ differences and makes it hard for the staff to pick the right mix.
Olczyk views this as a positive, rather than a dilemma.
“I love it. It’s good,” he said. “As a coach, it feels real comforting.”
With a large, experience-laden core, the Penguins don’t have many job openings, but the ones that exist are vital to the team’s success.
“On the blue line, we have a lot of options. Up front, we are looking for guys to step up and be role players and guys that can fill voids killing penalties, taking face-offs and bang bodies,” Olczyk said. “We feel that we want to add some complements to the guys we already have.”
Those roles will come on the less-than-glorious third or fourth lines and penalty-kill units.
“I think we’re going to have to incorporate four lines with the way special teams and everything has been going on. There is a little more flow,” Olczyk said. “I am a big fan of 25- or 30-second shifts and off. It all depends on how guys are playing. Overall, we’d like to definitely incorporate four lines.”
Pittsburgh’s veteran players have not slacked off during camp. A sense of urgency and intensity permeates the Penguins’ practice groups.
“That’s what we hope for. It’s healthy competition,” Olczyk said. “We want to make sure we push each other.”
Two young guys who figure to have good shots at making the roster are center Maxime Talbot and left wing Matt Murley. Those players have opened eyes with their inspired play.
“I think Talbot has had a really good camp. Murley looks strong,” Olczyk said. “Our new guys, too, have looked good. Ziggy Palffy is an absolute creator. We are definitely pleased with the way he’s played. You know how good these guys are, but until you have them on your team and see them every day, you don’t get a true appreciation for them. (Mark) Recchi is no different – just the way all of our guys are playing. Those guys are real class players and they complement Mario and the guys that we have are ready and we think it’s a positive.”
Another question Olczyk and his staff must answer: What goaltender will join Jocelyn Thibault in Pittsburgh – Marc-Andre Fleury, Sebastien Caron, Andy Chiodo or Dany Sabourin?
“No we have not made a decision yet; it’s still up in the air,” Olczyk said. “Jocelyn is going to be there, but it’s just a matter of who is going to share the load. Time will tell.”
As far as Olczyk is concerned, it’s all on the players to earn the way onto the team.
“We just evaluate the games, practices and our needs. We’re talking about where we have holes and where we think guys can step up and make our team and you evaluate from there,” he said. “Guys certainly get a look if they play well in a game – maybe they play another one. Maybe you have a guy penciled in for one game, but all of a sudden he gets three or four. There’s a lot that goes into it, no question.”
The three-game stretch this weekend will be a crucial one for Penguins hopefuls. Pittsburgh travels to Binghamton at 7 p.m. Friday to take on the Ottawa Senators. The Penguins welcome the Senators at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre. On Sunday, Pittsburgh treks to Hershey to battle the Washington Capitals at 5 p.m. The Penguins return to Pittsburgh following the game. Their roster figures to be slimmed down dramatically when they arrive at Mellon Arena.
“I hope by the time we get to Pittsburgh we will be down to 32 or so,” Olczyk said.
Pittsburgh opens the season Oct. 5 at New Jersey. So far, Olczyk is pleased with the team’s preparation for the season.
“It really has been an excellent camp,” he said.