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Time for closing arguments for Penguins players on the roster bubble

When the puck drops between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night at Nationwide Arena, it’s time for a few players to make their closing arguments.

Winger Zach Aston-Reese, defenseman Juuso Riikola and goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry will make their final cases for inclusion on the Penguins opening-night roster as the team plays its preseason finale.

Rosters must be set by Oct. 2, two days before the Penguins open the regular season at home against the Washington Capitals.

“I’ve been pretty cool with it. Try not to think about it,” Aston-Reese said. “Guys are competing for a spot, and that’s definitely on your mind, but at the end of the day, it’s about the team right now. It doesn’t weigh too heavy. It’s just fuel to the fire.”

Aston-Reese is one of the organization’s top prospects, a hard-nosed winger and a sentimental favorite as he makes his comeback from a concussion and broken jaw suffered on a brutal Tom Wilson hit in last year’s playoffs. After the Penguins added forward depth in the offseason — signing veteran centers Matt Cullen and Derek Grant — Aston-Reese’s road back to the NHL roster became rockier.

Riikola has been a training-camp sensation, a 24-year-old Finnish free agent who has impressed with his skating, smarts, puck skills and physicality. This is Riikola’s first stint in North America, however, and a stay in the AHL to become more accustomed to the smaller rinks might be beneficial.

DeSmith and Jarry, meanwhile, are battling for the backup goalie job behind starter Matt Murray.

DeSmith came into camp as the favorite to win the battle. He outperformed Jarry last season and is the incumbent, having held down the backup role throughout last year’s playoffs.

Jarry, however, has made a solid run at the job in the preseason, turning in a .953 save percentage in two appearances, eclipsing DeSmith and his .857 save percentage. The Penguins might still demote Jarry, since more time in the minors could be advantageous for a 23-year-old prospect, but the race has tightened up.

Aston-Reese, Riikola and Jarry find themselves on the chopping block in large part because they could be sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton without clearing waivers first.

“We have to think about the big picture and the short term,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Waiver considerations, the business side of the game, is part of the equation. It’s not all of it, but it’s part of it. What our team needs are and how these guys’ skill sets can help us win and become the team that we want to become, all those things are taken into consideration. They’re difficult decisions.”

The Penguins started Thursday with 27 players — 15 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies — on the NHL roster, needing to cut four to get to the league maximum of 23.

They started the paring process by putting forward Jean-Sebastien Dea and defenseman Zach Trotman on waivers. If they’re not claimed by noon Thursday, they can be assigned to the AHL.

That leaves the Penguins with two more cuts to make.

One will come in net when the choice is made between DeSmith and Jarry. The team has options with the other.

• They could send down Aston-Reese and keep Riikola. That would leave the team with eight defensemen and only 12 healthy forwards until Daniel Sprong is ready to return from a lower-body injury suffered in a knee-on-knee collision late in Wednesday night’s exhibition game with the Buffalo Sabres. Sullivan said Thursday that Sprong’s status is day to day.

• They could send down Riikola and keep Aston-Reese. They’d still have a solid complement of seven defensemen, but sending down Riikola after the tremendous camp he’s had would be a difficult trigger to pull.

• They could send down Aston-Reese and Riikola and start the season with a 22-man roster. The salary cap isn’t a pressing concern for the Penguins at the moment — they could fit in 23 players and still have almost $1 million in wiggle room — but banking extra cap space for later use is always a luxury.

“We’re really encouraged with the progress of a lot of our younger players,” Sullivan said. “The final decisions get to be very difficult.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.


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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese skates with the secone line as Daniel Sprong skates with the top line during the first day of camp Friday, Sept. 14, 2018 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
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