Dominik Simon working to be more consistent, return to top-six role for Penguins
DALLAS — When Dominik Simon initially was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, playing on a line with Sidney Crosby was a dream come true.
Now, it’s his primary source of motivation.
After slumping in recent games, Simon was set to start Friday night’s matchup with the Dallas Stars on the fourth line while Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust played alongside Crosby on the top line.
Simon’s goal is to play well enough in his current assignment to be returned to the lofty spot on the lineup card that he previously occupied.
“One hundred percent,” Simon said. “It’s the biggest motivation for sure.”
After putting up 17 points in 21 games at the start of the season in Wilkes-Barre, Simon was called up Dec. 9. In his first few weeks with the Penguins, there were some landmark moments.
He was a puck possession monster during a 4-2 win at Arizona on Dec. 16. The Penguins had a 16-3 advantage in shot attempts when he was on the ice.
Simon, Crosby and Daniel Sprong had a giant night in a 4-0 win over the Islanders on Jan. 5. When Simon was on the ice, the Penguins had an 18-1 edge in shots and scored three goals.
As time went on, though, the highlights dwindled.
In a 3-1 loss at New Jersey last week, the Penguins were outshot 10-2 when Simon was on the ice. On Tuesday night against Vegas, injuries to Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney in the first period forced the Penguins to go with three forward lines. Simon was the odd-man out.
“We thought the last couple of games his performance has dipped a little bit,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “So we made adjustments to the lineup accordingly. By no means does that change what we think of him as a player. This is just a part of the process a young player goes through when they’re trying to establish themselves in the league.”
Sullivan didn’t pause for a second when asked what it would take for Simon to move back into a top-six position. Simon, the coach said, needs to smooth out the peaks and valleys in his game.
“A lot of it is the little things,” Sullivan said. “It’s puck battles. It’s staying on the defensive side. It’s awareness away from the puck. I think his skill level is evident. Dominik’s a very talented guy. He’s got elite skill. He sees the ice really well. He has real good offensive instincts. One of the biggest challenges a young player faces when they’re trying to break into the league is just bringing it night-in and night-out. Consistency.”
Simon, incidentally, agrees with his coach’s assessment. He has been grappling with the same dilemma that many AHL call-ups face. He’s trying to take the adrenaline rush of a young player’s first few NHL games and marry it with the experience he gains as he plays more minutes.
“The excitement that you have the beginning, you can’t replace that,” Simon said. “Then again, on the other hand, you get more confidence. You play calmer. You’re getting used to things. You’re not just a kid skating around. It depends. It has some upsides and some downsides.”
For the Penguins, the upside of Simon regaining his previous form is obvious. If he can hold down a top-line spot, the trickle-down effect improves the team’s forward depth.
For Simon, it’s a matter of proving himself. If he can show he wasn’t running hot just because he was paired with Crosby, the outlook for the rest of his season improves dramatically.
“One hundred percent,” Simon said. “I’m excited about it. I want to play my best game, and let’s see if we can do something.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.