BUFFALO — The next three days could make or break the chances of some Pittsburgh Penguins prospects. For some, the Prospects Challenge at the Harbor Center in Buffalo will be a chance to make a first impression. For others, it will be a review to see how far they’ve come since last season and for a few others it will be a desperate scramble to land the coveted prize which includes nothing more than more extended look in training camp.
For a young player attempting to break into professional hockey, that longer look is like water and air.
“Our message (Wednesday night) to our players, in the last two or three years, (the Penguins) have brought two or three free agents into the main camp and signed those guys to NHL contracts,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach/GM and Prospects team coach Mike Vellucci. “It’s very important for everybody. It’s for the free agents; the guys who aren’t signed who want to make the main camp. They guys who are signed, who want to stay longer in the main camp.”
“You make a good first impression for your draft, and that’s the best thing you can do.”
But life isn’t always fair. Well, it never is.
1. Lauzon’s 2nd Chance
One very under-the-radar story to watch in the tournament will be the re-emergence of former Pittsburgh Penguins second-round pick, Zachary Lauzon. Word is the Penguins had him circled as one of their potential first-round picks in 2017. The felt comfortable trading Oskar Sundqvist and their first-rounder to St. Louis for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick (51st overall) because they thought they could get Lauzon.
The Penguins grabbed the stay home defender after his second season at Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL. He had a combined 13 points over 71 games in his first two seasons. The 6-foot, 190-pound rearguard was befallen by severe neck and concussion issues over the next two seasons. He played just 25 games last season, and 63 games the season before. There was serious doubt if he would play again.
In June, the Penguins did not qualify their former prospect, thus making him a free agent. Lauzon, 20, decided to give it another go and appeared in the Penguins rookie camp in June. The 3-on-3 tournament format doesn’t generally benefit a mediocre skating, defensive blueliner and Lauzon did not stand out.
A massive layoff from last season probably did not help, either.
But Lauzon is back for a big chance to stick in the Penguins organization, two years after being a second-round pick, but just months after being non-tendered.
2. Poulin and Legare.
The Pittsburgh Penguins finally have a blue-chip prospect. Actually, they have a pair. The lifelong friends were snared by the Penguins in the 2019 NHL Draft; Poulin as the first-round pick (21st overall) and the Penguins traded back into the third round to get Legare.
The pair shined in rookie camp. They were steps ahead of the play and well above their competition. That was in-house, 3-on-3 play. Now, they get to do it against other organizations, including New Jersey and Buffalo which have been stockpiling young players for several years.
Legare led his Biae-Comeau Drakkar QMJHL team in goals (45) last season. Poulin led the Sherbrooke Phoenix in points (76).
They represent the Penguins best prospects since Jake Guentzel began making noise in 2015. A good showing here could catapult either to a nine-game tryout if the Penguins can finagle the salary cap and roster crunch to make it happen.
3. The Defensemen
Pierre-Olivier Joseph, 20, and Calen Addison, 19 are the Penguins most heralded D-man prospects. Addison, like Lauzon, carries the cursed second-round pick designation. He was selected 55th overall in 2018. The zippy defenseman from the Lethbridge Hurricanes has shown flashes of a standout offensive game in camps, but some of his individual skills and decision making are those of a 19-year-old.
Joseph was acquired as part of the Phil Kessel trade in June. Joseph was the Arizona Coyotes first round pick (2017) and has an electric skill set. He also struggles with puck management and takes bad penalties. But he can out-skate most opponents at the lower levels. The tournament will the Penguins first look at their acquired treasure. An excellent first impression could begin to turn heads and start to enter him into the NHL roster conversation. Given the Penguins logjam of salaries on the blueline, more depth could make the pain of sacrificing a player, now or later this season, a little more bearable if it creates space for Joseph. But he has to show he is worthy of that sort of lofty responsibility.
Game on! While other outlets give it some half-hearted coverage, Pittsburgh Hockey Now is covering the tournament in Buffalo this weekend. Follow along for updates, sharp-eyed scouting reports, and news. Much of it will be exclusive to our PHN+. Join today!