Count Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins GM and head coach Mike Vellucci a fan of top Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. As Vellucci spoke with Pittsburgh Hockey Now about a range of topics and players, he left little room for interpretation or misunderstanding about Joseph. His enthusiasm for Joseph, who just finished his first professional year, was palpable.
The 53-year-old Vellucci also finished his first year with the organization after coaching the Charlotte Checkers to the Calder Cup in 2019. He is holed up at his home outside Detroit, and as part of the COVID-19 quarantine, he’s already done the Netflix thing. He was quickly bored, so Vellucci returned to pouring over game tapes and preparing for next season, whenever that might be.
Joseph, 20, clearly impressed the coach, on and off the ice.
“He’s outstanding. He had a setback early in the season with Mono(nucleosis), but he played 27 minutes a game. All tough situations,” Vellucci’s praise began. “He got better and better, every day. I’m very impressed.”
Joseph is now the unquestioned top Pittsburgh Penguins prospect on the blueline. He was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in the Phil Kessel trade last summer, and 2019-20 was his first year of professional hockey after four years in the QMJHL, most with the Charlottetown Islanders.
Joseph was the Arizona first round pick in 2017 (23rd overall), but the pick wasn’t without criticism in the draft community. At 6-foot-2, 162 pounds, Joseph was slight, but he is incredibly fast and has good vision. Joseph gained weight, mostly muscle for his first pro season, and kept growing, mentally, too.
“He’s such a great kid. Really wants to get better,” Vellucci said.
And PHN will corroborate the coach’s sentiments. Our dealings with the player in the Prospects Challenge and training camp were authentic. He is humble and genuine. Very few prospects are media-savvy or practiced enough to hide behind non-answers. Instead, their real personality comes out, and sometimes top prospects or and first-round picks can be expectant or lack self-awareness. Joseph clearly didn’t suffer those traps. He was soaking it all in.
Last week, PHN did a full video breakdown of Joseph. You can view the scouting analysis of Joseph here and subscribe to PHN+. We noted some rough spots in his overall game but also that Joseph didn’t often push the play.
Vellucci explained Joseph’s reluctance came from messages he heard in junior hockey. Whether it was a coaching directive or a misunderstood direction, Joseph didn’t join the rush or carry the puck. Yes, the fastest player on the ice who has every skill to create offense, was under the impression he should play like a stay-home defenseman.
We were surprised by that, too. The best defensemen can do both, but Joseph especially has the chance to be a special type of offensive defenseman.
Vellucci and staff quickly set about correcting Joseph’s back-first style. The coaches have worked with Joseph on joining the rush. However, expecting him to race up the ice with the puck, Paul Coffey-style isn’t what we’ll see.
“Everybody telling him not to join the rush–that’s one thing we’ve worked with him. We’ve shown him video,” Vellucci said. “…(Carrying the puck into the offensive zone) is not how you can play working within the system.”
In PHN’s video analysis of Joseph, our expectation was Joseph would need another year in the AHL before he was ready for NHL play. Vellucci could have quickly agreed or been tepid when we asked about his expectations and timeline.
Instead, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton GM and coach was enthusiastic about Joseph’s immediate prospects. He probably won’t be ready for regular top-six duty, but spot duty or injury replacement seems a realistic projection.
“He could have played games this year in certain situations,” he said. “No doubt, he could play games next year.”
As a left-handed shot with speed and playmaking skills, Joseph would be a change on the Penguins left side. The current Penguins left-siders, Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Pettersson, are generally tasked with protecting the Pittsburgh Penguins defensive zone. At the same time, the right defensemen join the rush or push the play.
Joseph’s speed and skating ability are already top-shelf NHL quality.
In theory, an offensive defenseman on the left side is no different than a right-sider. Erik Karlsson takes the left side. Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev are on the left in Tampa Bay, but most offensive defensemen around the league, including Letang, are on the right.
If Joseph is half as good as Vellucci believes he can be, the Penguins may well win the Kessel trade regardless of the flame out of Alex Galchenyuk, who was later dealt to Minnesota as part of the Jason Zucker trade.
Whether Joseph’s debut happens in 2020-21 or beyond, Vellucci has no doubt Joseph is the real deal. He made that quite clear.