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Penguins Draft Notebook: Sullivan’s Input, When Will Yager Be Ready?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan, Kyle Dubas, Brayden Yager, and Penguins trade for Reilly Smith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Pittsburgh Penguins made a pair of acquisitions Wednesday, adding players to the organization on the opposite ends of the spectrum of their career, but with several common themes between Penguins trade acquisition Reilly Smith and first-round draft pick Brayden Yager.

Smith, 32, will obviously join the Penguins immediately. The all-around winger notched 56 points last season and played a fierce defensive role in helping the Vegas Golden Knights win a Stanley Cup. The original misfit plays on both the power play and penalty kill and has some hop in the transition game.

Smith had four shorthanded goals last season. His ability to stay on the right side of the puck and do some dirty work while chipping in wasn’t lost on coach Mike Sullivan.

“For sure we are (looking for penalty-killing help). It’s such an important aspect of the game,” said Sullivan. “I thought our penalty kill was somewhat volatile this past year. We have higher expectations there, and I think (Smith) can help us.”

Volatile is probably a kind description. Smith may also alleviate some PK duties for Bryan Rust next season, but his biggest role will be replacing Jason Zucker beside Evgeni Malkin. Though neither Sullivan nor president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas conceded Smith’s acquisition precluded them from re-signing Zucker, a cursory look at the salary cap math and depth chart does that for them.

Smith carries a $5 million salary cap hit for two seasons. Would it be wise to pay $5 million or more to each of the middle-six LWs?

Jason Spezza, AGM, Kind of

Dubas hired former Toronto Maple Leafs special assistant to the GM Jason Spezza as Penguins assistant GM on June 14. Spezza worked closely with Dubas in Toronto, and Spezza resigned immediately upon Dubas’s Toronto termination. However, Dubas confirmed Wednesday night that Spezza could not work the Draft or free agency for the Penguins.

Spezza won’t be fully available until sometime in July.

“Jason can’t be involved in the draft or free agency, so we’ll look forward to having him be fully on board in July or whatever the negotiated date is,” Dubas said.

Given the hire date being too close to the Draft and free agency and Spezza’s familiarity with Toronto’s proprietary information, the Toronto agreement is understandable.

Sullivan Getting Input

Last Friday, Dubas joked that there were no short conversations with Sullivan, who loves to talk hockey, but confirmed he sought input. Wednesday, Sullivan praised Dubas for being transparent and seeking input on significant decisions.

“I think his transparency and how collaborative he is in trying to utilize all of the people around him to try to game plan to make the best decisions,” said Sullivan. “He’s been very inclusive with our coaching staff, our whole coaching staff. As an example, trying to prepare for free agency, who might be available and might fit within the group that we have.

“He’s very collaborative. And I think that’s the biggest thing that jumps out to me.”

That’s probably not an intentional shot at the former Penguins’ officeholders. It’s just a fact. The Smith trade was an example of adding a player who fits Sullivan’s system. Even if Smith isn’t blazingly fast, he plays fast and should complement Malkin’s game while also being in a good position defensively.

The additional contrast between the former Penguins former GM spending a second-round pick on Mikael Granlund at the NHL trade deadline and Dubas snaring Smith for a third-rounder in 2024 was startling.

Brayden Yager

The kid was on cloud 9. Not even a few pointed questions could wipe the smile from his face.

“I can’t believe it,” he said a few times through a smile somewhat reminiscent of Marc-Andre Fleury’s humble beam.

Yager idolizes Sidney Crosby and tries to model his games after Crosby, but the thing that stands out about Yager is what Sullivan would call the details of his game.

Yager is a ferocious forechecker with good technique and smarts. He doesn’t lose himself or get on the wrong side of the puck and has good closing speed. He also makes a point to be in the proper positions. Those small details that make a big difference seem uncommon for players at his level.

“I think that’s something, especially my parents, have tried to get me to work on. I’ve modeled my game after Sidney Crosby. So it’s pretty crazy to think that I’m wearing the same jersey he does,” Yager gushed. “I think just being able to play a 200-foot game is huge, and (transfers) to the NHL level and getting the trust of your coaches. So yeah.”


However, even Yager admitted he projects himself in the NHL in two or three years. Perhaps he underestimates the power of earning a coach’s trust or being responsible in the defensive zone.

Round 2 begins at 11 a.m. ET Thursday. The Penguins don’t pick until the third round, and things go rapid-fire on Day 2.