When Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan looks at the team's forward group heading into the 2020-21 season, he likes what he sees.
"We think we have the makeup that allows us to play to the identity of this team," Sullivan said in an episode of the Scoop podcast. "And we think we have the versatility and the depth that if we hit bumps on the road from an injury standpoint, which inevitably always comes our way, then we have the ability to move guys and maneuver to continue to put a competitive lineup on the ice night in and night out."
Ever since Sullivan took over in behind the bench in December 2015, the Penguins have had a team identity built around playing fast - both with foot speed and puck movement. That hasn't changed four years later.
"We still feel as though this is a team that that can play a speed game," Sullivan said. "We're trying to surround our core with as much speed as we can."
The biggest departure up top this offseason was two-time Stanley Cup champion Patric Hornqvist, the first player Jim Rutherford acquired after taking over as general manager. Nick Bjugstad, Patrick Marleau, Conor Sheary and Dominik Simon were also among the departures.
Joining the group are Kasperi Kapanen, Mark Jankowski and Colton Sceviour, with Rutherford also bringing back Evan Rodrigues in free agency after he was dealt to Toronto in August as part of the Kapanen deal.
"When you look at the guys that Jim's acquired, they're not blockbuster deals by any stretch, but I think they're prudent calculated moves," Sullivan said. "And I think Jim did a real good job in trying to improve our hockey team."
Kapanen will get a huge opportunity to start the season on a line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, as Sullivan believes that the 24-year-old winger brings speed, size and finishing ability - all attributes that could allow him to have success there. "We think his skillset could potentially be very complimentary to Sid and Jake," Sullivan said.
Meanwhile, Malkin and Rust have quietly developed a terrific chemistry the past couple of seasons, with Zucker settling in pretty seamlessly alongside the two of them during the NHL's Return to Play.
When it comes to the third line, the Penguins are hoping its identity can get closer to what it was during the 2016 and '17 Stanley Cup championship seasons, starting with Jankowski at center with Jared McCann and Evan Rodrigues on his wings.
"We've had a difficult time trying to fill that role, and we think Jankowski has a real good opportunity here," Sullivan said. "First and foremost, he's a good, solid defending player. But that's not the only dimension that is required to play that position for our team, and that's why it's unique.
"It's not good enough just to be a checker. We want a guy that has an offensive component to his game that has the ability to help us at both ends of the rink. And we think Jankowski has the ability to do that."
The running joke last season with the Penguins' fourth line was that the term should be in quotations, as the trio of Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev became an important one for Pittsburgh. However, with Aston-Reese sidelined after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, there will be a lot of competition for that spot to start the season - and within the group in general, as players like Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello battle to earn spots in the lineup.
"We've got a bottom-six where there's going to be some internal competition that's going to drive them to be at their best," Sullivan said. "That is something that we've always valued, is that internal push."
The Penguins will also be permitted to have a 4-6 man taxi squad in an effort to minimize any roster shortages due to COVID-19 protocols. The players will be eligible to practice and travel with Pittsburgh, and must be called up by 5 p.m. on a game day in order to play.
That means depth players along with prospects like Drew O'Connor, Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare will have the chance to make that unit with hopes of getting some NHL experience this season.
"We have some prospects that are capable of being on the taxi squad," Rutherford said. "We have some guys here that are going to be knocking on the door to make the team. We're going to have a pretty competitive camp."
Here's an individual breakdown of the Penguins forwards on the training camp roster heading into the 2020-21 season.
WEIGHT: 210 pounds
Angello made his NHL debut on Jan. 31 and stuck around with the big club for the rest of the season, save for a short stint with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of February. All in all, Angello appeared in eight games with Pittsburgh, and the Penguins liked what they saw when it came to his development. As a result, they rewarded him with a two-year contract extension. They are looking for the big forward to keep making big strides.
WEIGHT: 185 pounds
Blueger had a real breakout year in 2019-20, developing into a key member of Pittsburgh's bottom-six forward group and carving out a niche for himself as the fourth-line center. As an intelligent, conscientious two-way player, Blueger is someone that Sullivan trusts to take a lot of defensive-zone starts and handle hard minutes. Look for him to take on even more responsibility as he continues growing as a player.
WEIGHT: 200 pounds
A silver lining of this second pause is that Crosby had time to fully recover from the injuries that he sustained during the last year-plus: the core muscle surgery he underwent last November that forced him to miss 28 games; the injury he dealt with during the Return to Play; and the arthroscopic wrist debridement surgery he underwent on Aug. 31. Crosby comes into this year healthy and more motivated than ever to get the Penguins past their playoff disappointments of the last two seasons.
WEIGHT: 172 pounds
The Penguins signed Currie as a depth forward on the first day of free agency. He brings 21 games of NHL experience, all accumulated with Edmonton in 2018-19. Overall, Currie has played parts of five seasons in the AHL with Bakersfield, the Oilers' affiliate. He has 103 goals and 188 points in 297 career AHL games, eclipsing the 40-point plateau in each of his last three seasons.
WEIGHT: 179 pounds
Penguins fans likely remember Gaudreau from the 2017 Stanley Cup Final as he scored three goals in that series for Nashville, including the winners in Games 3 and 4. He spent the first six seasons of his professional career with the Predators organization, primarily with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. In 280 career AHL games, Gaudreau has 77 goals, 95 assists and 172 points. In 84 career NHL games, he has three goals, five assists and eight points.
WEIGHT: 180 pounds
The winger was Pittsburgh's first-half MVP and their most consistent producer through a barrage of injuries, scoring 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games and earning his first-ever All-Star nod. Then the injury bug bit Guentzel when he hurt his shoulder on Dec. 31, resulting in surgery and a months-long recovery process. While Guentzel was able to come back for the Return to Play, it was a tough situation for him to step into. Fortunately, he's getting a fresh start this season and will be looking to regain his usual high-scoring form.
WEIGHT: 212 pounds
Jankowski comes to Pittsburgh from Calgary - where he spent the first four seasons of his pro career - as a reliable, trustworthy 200-foot player, and will have a tremendous opportunity to fill the third-line center role. Not only does he have the defensive prowess; Jankowski has displayed some offensive acumen as well. He scored 17 goals in 72 games during his rookie season in 2017-18, and followed that up with 14 tallies in 79 games the next year. Jankowski may be coming off of a down year with just five goals in 59 games, but the Penguins are confident that he can rediscover his game in Pittsburgh.
WEIGHT: 194 pounds
The Penguins' first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft returns to Pittsburgh having matured a lot as a player. Kapanen still has all of the qualities that made him such a high selection, like his elite speed, scoring ability and skill. But Kapanen has rounded out his game by becoming a better defender who can play the penalty kill and bring a physical, gritty element. After the Penguins acquired him from Toronto in August, Kapanen said he wants to come into training camp "ready to go and show everybody that I'm not messing around."
WEIGHT: 195 pounds
Lafferty had a solid rookie season with Pittsburgh, recording six goals and 13 points in 50 games. But he really turned heads and took it to another level at training camp ahead of the Return to Play. The forward stood out with his speed and size and was one of their best players on the ice. That earned him the chance to make his NHL playoff debut in Game 3 vs. Montreal on Aug. 5 and a two-year, one-way contract in October. If Pittsburgh's last training camp is any indication, Lafferty again be ready to make his case for a spot in the lineup.
WEIGHT: 205 pounds
The Penguins traded up to draft Legare in the third round (74th overall) in 2019 after he put up 45 goals in 68 games during the 2018-19 season with Baie-Comeau of the QMJHL. He has continued scoring at a torrid pace, as Legare recorded 35 goals in 61 games in 2019-20 and had eight goals in 14 games to start this season before the QMJHL temporarily shut down on Dec. 1.
WEIGHT: 195 pounds
Malkin just shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. He was named Penguins Team MVP by his teammates last season after recording 25 goals and 74 points in just 55 games and stepping up in a big way with Crosby out for a significant amount of time. Malkin averaged 1.35 points-per-game, which was tied for fifth in the NHL, and led the league in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes. That being said, Malkin wasn't pleased with his performance in the Qualifying Round against Montreal, posting just one assist in the series. History shows that a motivated Malkin is a scary one, which means the league should be on notice.
WEIGHT: 185 pounds
Ever since the Penguins acquired McCann from Florida in 2019, the versatile forward has filled a variety of roles. He can play center or wing, move up and down the lineup and chip in offensively, as evidenced with his 14 goals last season. But he struggled to score late in the regular season and ended up being a healthy scratch for Game 3 vs. Montreal. Coming into this year, McCann wants to be more of a consistent player, regain his swagger and continue to find the upside in his game.
WEIGHT: 197 pounds
The Penguins re-signed Miletic to a one-year deal in October after a solid second season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He finished with 32 points (9G-23A) in a team-high 62 games and was named to the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic. He's been making steady progress since originally signing with the organization as an undrafted free agent in 2017 after attending Pittsburgh's annual prospect development camp, and will look for that to continue this season.
WEIGHT: 219 pounds
While Nolan is currently signed to an AHL contract, Rutherford said that can be flipped to an NHL contract at any time. The Penguins have invited him to training camp because they like him as a player and want to see what he can do. Nolan, who has appeared in 375 career NHL games, brings a veteran presence and pedigree as he captured two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and '14 and was part of the St. Louis Blues organization when they won in '19. Nolan also brings a big, strong, physical presence and a tough, hard-nosed style.
WEIGHT: 200 pounds
The Penguins were thrilled to land the highly sought-after college free agent out of Dartmouth this spring. The 21-year-old ranked fifth in the NCAA with 21 goals in 31 games during his sophomore season and finished his career with 38 tallies and 59 points in 65 contests. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, O'Connor has a unique package of size, scoring touch and skating. The Penguins feel that he has plenty of potential, and could help the NHL club sooner rather than later.
WEIGHT: 208 pounds
It's been an eventful year for Poulin, the Penguins' first-round draft pick in 2019. He had 32 goals and 77 points in just 46 games while captaining Sherbrooke of the QMJHL to the best record in the entire Canadian Hockey League, but didn't get a chance to compete in playoffs with the season cancelled due to the pandemic. He then earned an invite to Pittsburgh's Phase 3 training camp before returning to the Phoenix this fall, where Poulin had three goals in five games before attending Canada's National Junior Team Selection Camp ahead of the World Junior Championship. Unfortunately, Poulin was among the final cuts, and he'll be looking for a better result at Pittsburgh's training camp.
WEIGHT: 184 pounds
Rodrigues returns to the Penguins after being dealt to Toronto as part of the Kapanen deal on Aug. 25. He was originally acquired from Buffalo on Feb. 24 and appeared in seven regular-season games for Pittsburgh, registering one goal. What the Penguins like most about Rodrigues is his versatility. Sullivan dubbed him "a utility guy" that the Penguins can plug in up and down their lineup in all different capacities, something that was evidenced when he filled in for Sidney Crosby on the top line during the Phase 3 Training Camp. Rodrigues also adds to Pittsburgh's team speed, which is a bonus.
WEIGHT: 192 pounds
Rust is coming off the best season of his NHL career. The winger led the Penguins with 27 goals - a new personal best - and set more career highs across the board with 29 assists, 56 points, a plus-14 rating and eight power-play goals in just 55 games. He also played in all situations, earning a spot on the power play with an average of 2:48 minutes per game along with 1:38 shorthanded minutes per game. Rust has developed from one of the "young guys" on the 2016 and '17 championship teams to one of the leaders.
WEIGHT: 190 pounds
Sceviour is the definition of a veteran depth forward who plays his role to a T. Mike Matheson, who came over with him from Florida in the Patric Hornqvist trade, said he's a great guy to have on an energy line, as he'll do everything within his power to create momentum for his team. However, Sceviour's biggest impact will likely be on the penalty kill. He takes a lot of pride in his shorthanded prowess and is someone who makes good reads and "blocks everything," according to Matheson.
WEIGHT: 180 pounds
Tanev endeared himself to everyone around him with his energy, enthusiasm and passion in his first season as a Penguin, and quickly became a glue guy both on and off the ice. Nicknamed "Turbo," the fast and tenacious winger adds to the Penguins' team speed and brings a physical element as he ranked fourth in the NHL with 244 hits. That paired with his shot-blocking ability make him one of Pittsburgh's best penalty killers. Overall, Tanev had an incredibly solid first season with Pittsburgh, and will be looking for more of the same this year.
WEIGHT: 192 pounds
It was amazing what Zucker was able to do in such a short time and tough circumstance after being acquired from Minnesota on Feb. 10. He posted six goals and 12 points in 15 games with his new team before the season was paused on March 12, then scored twice in four games during the Qualifying Round vs. Montreal. He's got all of the attributes that allow him to complement Pittsburgh's star players, like speed and hockey sense, along with a competitive edge to his game that makes him a factor come playoff time. It will be exciting to see what Zucker can do now that he's comfortable.
WEIGHT: 233 pounds
The Penguins signed the Czech forward to a one-year, two-way contract back on April 29. He joins the Penguins after spending the last six seasons in the Czech Republic's top professional league, where he made his debut as an 18-year-old in 2014. Rutherford called Zohorna a smart player with good hockey sense that uses his size to his advantage and also has the ability to play all three forward positions.
Aston-Reese will not be available to start the season, as he underwent shoulder surgery on Aug. 17 that has a six-month recovery timetable. He just can't seem to catch a break when it comes to injuries, as his first four pro seasons (including this one) have been shortened by them. But when healthy, Aston-Reese settled into a role on the fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev, and will look to earn that spot back upon returning.