Yohe’s 10 observations: Radim Zohorna continues to make push for playing time

The Pittsburgh Penguins, playing against a Detroit Red Wings team boasting considerably more top-tier talent, dropped a 4-3 decision in preseason action Tuesday on the road.

Radim Zohorna, Valtteri Puustinen and Sam Poulin scored for the Penguins, and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 29 of 33 shots.

Nate Danielson, Dylan Larkin, Moritz Seider and Michael Rasmussen scored for the Red Wings.

Up next for the Penguins is a preseason game at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres.

Ten postgame observations

• It’s time to start talking about Zohorna.

In the early days of camp, he has been outstanding. Then, in the preseason opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he set up Alex Nylander’s goal.

He was even better in Detroit. Zohorna opened the scoring by blistering a shot past James Reimer after receiving a pretty feed from Puustinen. In the second period, he was a one-man wrecking crew on the forecheck, creating a turnover and feeding Puustinen for a goal.

We know Zohorna has size, and then some, at 6 feet 6. It’s also become evident in his NHL cameos that his skill level is fairly high and he’s capable of playing with good players. He thinks the game at a high level.

What I’ve liked from Zohorna over the past week is his forecheck and willingness to do the dirty work. He has asserted himself in ways I haven’t witnessed previously. I’ve always thought him to be an intriguing player, and he looks to be in excellent form.

Can he make the team? I wouldn’t bet on it just yet, but he’s making a push and a couple of spots are up for grabs on the third and fourth lines. He’s playing at a high level.

• What a pass by Puustinen on Zohorna’s goal.

He was behind the net, pulled Reimer toward the left post, then delivered a beauty of a pass.

We see flashes like this from Puustinen and Nylander, who are fairly similar. They’re right-handed wings who stylistically play like top-six players.

I bring this up for a reason.

I don’t know how much playing time either player will see this season. There is talent there, yes, but neither is a sure thing. Wouldn’t it be something, though, if one of them far exceeds expectations and becomes an NHL regular? And maybe even the kind of player who can play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin from time to time?

That might be a long shot. And it’s obvious which forwards will play in the top six this season. But the Penguins would be a much more potent, playoff-ready team if someone like Puustinen or Nylander could play in the top six, allowing them the luxury of having, say, Bryan Rust on the third line. That’s not a knock on Rust. He’s the rare player whose talent and lack of ego allow him to be effective in either role.

Alas, Nylander and Puustinen have a ways to go before Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would even think about such a thing. Still, we see those flashes, and it makes me want to see a little more.

• Nedeljkovic played well and is likely to start the season as Tristan Jarry’s backup.

This is a goaltender with obvious physical gifts. It will be interesting to see how he develops. The Penguins were outplayed in most of Tuesday’s game, and he did well to keep the contest close.

As a bonus, Nedeljkovic is good at playing the puck. So, too, is Jarry. It helps a blue line when two goalies are comparable in terms of this skill.

• Poulin scored a pretty goal in the second period.

Good for him. Everyone — and I mean everyone — is cheering for this kid. As most of you know, Poulin missed much of last season because of depression. By all accounts, he’s doing well. There has been a notable smile on his face for most of camp. Less important but still relevant, the 2019 first-round pick is having a nice camp.

The presumed Penguins centers are 36 years old (Crosby), 37 (Malkin), 34 (Lars Eller) and 31 (Noel Acciari). Jeff Carter could play center, too. He is 38.

This franchise is thirsty for a young center to assert himself. Poulin has been significantly better at center than he was at wing, and in his NHL cameo last season, he didn’t look out of place. Things are trending nicely for him.

• First-round pick Brayden Yager had a fairly quiet evening Tuesday, though he’s been fine in camp.

With Yager, you can see the talent. His skating and heavy shot are impressive. But it’s also clear that he’s a couple of years away from being NHL-ready.

• Before Tuesday’s game, Sullivan gushed about Pierre-Olivier Joseph.

“He’s light-years ahead of where he was a year ago,” said Sullivan, who also noted that Joseph is a step faster this season.

Joseph was solid against the Red Wings, and it’s clear he’s a lock to begin the season on the third pairing. Last season, we saw a competition between Joseph and Ty Smith. Joseph has pulled away.

• Speaking of Smith, he led the team with 22:18 of ice time against the Red Wings.

He wasn’t bad, by any stretch. It was a solid performance. It’s clear to me, however, that Joseph has far exceeded Smith in the coach’s eyes.

I wonder what the future holds for Smith in Pittsburgh. He arrived more than a year ago as a bit of a project following a disastrous 2021-22 season in New Jersey. Perhaps there has been minor progress, but he doesn’t look like an NHL regular at the moment. His defensive work and decision-making need a considerable amount of work. Frankly, when I watch Smith play, all I see is Derrick Pouliot, which is not a compliment.

It might be in Smith’s best interest to be traded to a young, rebuilding team, someplace he can get a chance to play and learn from his mistakes. The Penguins aren’t in a position to have the patience for him. It’s winning time for them.

• Mark Pysyk is out “longer term,” according to Sullivan.

This is a blow, as Pysyk seemed to have the inside track on becoming the No. 6 defenseman and playing alongside Joseph. So, now what?

It’s shaping up as a battle between Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman. This one could go either way. Friedman is a better skater and adds more sandpaper to the lineup. Ruhwedel, however, is a bit more dependable and a better penalty killer.

• When I watch the Red Wings, I can’t stop watching Seider.

He’s special, and I predict a Norris Trophy is in his future.

• The Penguins play Buffalo on Thursday.

Look for some more familiar names in the lineup that night. Then, next Monday, the Penguins will head to Halifax for a preseason game; they leave for Nova Scotia on Friday afternoon. If Crosby doesn’t make his preseason debut Thursday — he might — you can safely bet he’ll be in the lineup when the Penguins play in his home province.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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