Connect with us

Penguins

Penguins Prospects on the Way: Projecting the Pens’ 2025-26 Lineup

Published

on

Pitsburgh Penguins prospect Brayden Yager

The Pittsburgh Penguins are unlikely to undergo a large-scale youth movement in 2024-25, but like the sun peeking through the storm clouds, optimism is rising.

The fruit isn’t yet ripe. The progress isn’t there yet. But there are enough prospects currently in the Penguins Development Camp to think one or three could be ready by this time next summer. And the youth movement will officially begin.

The Penguins have several prospects who will play their first professional season, including 2022 first-round pick Owen Pickering.

Pickering, 20, has not lept forward in his development, at least on paper. Over the last couple of seasons with the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL, his point totals were largely stagnant, but the string bean defenseman is no longer. Pickering has gained an impressive 15 pounds in the last year and now registers a healthy 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.

Read More: Penguins Former Top Pick Pickering Admits Struggle, Gains 20 Pounds.

In fact, he may have grown another inch or two, as well. As a 16-year-old, he was 5-foot-8. It’s not surprising injuries have plagued him over the past few years as his body rapidly transformed from a small defenseman to a towering player who hopes to add more offense to his already defensively responsible game.

The extra weight and muscle means we may finally see what scouts saw when he was a consensus first-round pick. Hockey IQ will never be an issue, but the physicality of his position was, at least during his brief stint with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at the end of the 2022-23 season, a problem.

Tristan Broz, 21, was the Penguins second-round pick in 2021. He made his professional debut shortly after winning the NCAA national championship with the University of Denver. After lackluster showings in previous Penguins visits, he was impressive during his two-game stint in the AHL playoffs.

He showed a fearless and speedy forecheck aided by markedly better skating. He, too, has gained over 20 pounds since his draft day. There is a chance Pittsburgh fans will see him at some point in the 2024-25 season, but he very well could be ready as a bottom-six forward with a touch of offense for the 2025-26 season.

Villie Koivunen, 21, has fans inside the Penguins organization. He wasn’t very good in the WBS playoff games, but his eye-popping numbers in the Finish Liiga show a player with hockey sense and offensive ability. A season of road dinners at Outback Steakhouse and fighting through the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Hershey Bears should add plenty of seasoning.

Last season with Karpat, he scored 22 goals with 56 points in 59 games–pretty good for a player who was only 20 years old for the entire season.

The Penguins acquired Koivunen in the Jake Guentzel trade with the Carolina Hurricanes. They also acquired Vasily Ponomarev, who should make his Pittsburgh Penguins debut this season, if not on opening night, as the first player called up.

Sam Poulin, the Penguins 2019 first-round choice, is lurking, too. He hasn’t distinguished himself in six NHL games but now is his time. The 2024-25 season is probably make or break for him.

Dubas has avoided labels. He firmly stated he isn’t interested in the team squeaking into the playoffs this season by a point but wants to rebuild the foundations so the team is a contender. Such an undertaking takes time, and through the first week of free agency, beginning with the 2024 NHL Draft, Dubas is obviously keeping his focus on improving the team’s fortunes through a youthful infusion over the next few years, not a quick grab of veteran talent on multi-year contracts.

Of course, not every prospect pans out, especially with only one draft pick–Brayden Yager (14th overall, 2023)–the Penguins will need to make it a volume game. Dubas began that process by acquiring a second-round pick in exchange for taking on Kevin Hayes and his $3.52 million salary.

Also next summer, one of the Penguins 2024 second-rounders will be able to turn pro, and that should provide a tantalizing element for fans and the team. Tanner Howe, a greasy winger who revels in driving opponents mad, will have the opportunity to turn pro based on his November birthday. Fellow second-rounder Harrison Burnicke was born in May, so he has two more years of junior hockey unless he sticks in the NHL.

For the purposes of projections, we’re also assuming Sidney Crosby will re-sign with the Penguins. We’re also going to defer the likelihood of several veteran trades. Yes, numerous Penguins trades are likely, but who goes and who stays will depend as much on market value as it will on the Penguins’ desire.

Lars Eller will be a free agent in 2025, and based on prospects being ready, Noel Acciari is the one trade assumed between now and then. Kevin Hayes would be the other likely trade.

We’re also going to punt on the goalie question with Joel Blomqvist and Tristan Jarry, which has and will fill plenty of future columns.

Way Too Early 2025-26 Penguins Lineup Projections

Best Case Scenario

Drew O’Connor-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust

Michael Bunting-Evgeni Malkin-Rickard Rakell

Vasily Ponomarev-Brayden Yager-Valtteri Puustinen

Tanner Howe-Blake Lizotte-Tristan Broz

Defense

TBD-Kris Letang

Ryan Graves-Erik Karlsson

Owen Pickering-Jack St. Ivany

Analysis: Malkin would seem to be a question mark. The 2025-26 season will most likely be his last, and his decline has begun. Could Yager or Ponomarev take the second-line spot? Could the Penguins make that ice-cold decision to either force Malkin to the wing or … worse?

In a somewhat surprising possibility, the Penguins could have too many prospects ready. Unfortunately, there is a glut of left-handed natural centers, including Broz and Ponomarev, but no righties. That logjam could keep Koivunen in the AHL for another year to refine his game as he learns how to find space to score in the North American game (not as easy as it sounds).

Likliest Scenario

Drew O’Connor-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust

Michael Bunting-Evgeni Malkin-Rickard Rakell

TBD-Kevin Hayes-Valtteri Puustinen

Vasily Ponomarev-Blake Lizotte-Noel Acciari

Defense

TBD-Kris Letang

Ryan Graves-Erik Karlsson

TBD-Jack St. Ivany

Analysis: We’re not bullish on Sam Poulin’s NHL future, but the Penguins will give him ample opportunity to stick in Pittsburgh. It’s also quite likely that Yager and Tanner Howe will need some time to marinate in the AHL.

Of course, there could be some surprises, such as Yager or Broz making the NHL club this fall. Pickering will get a chance, but he’ll need to leapfrog several defensemen, including Sebastian Aho and Ryan Shea. Heck, maybe Howe is such an irrepressible pest that Dubas can’t help but keep him.

That’s the unique thing about prospects–growth isn’t linear. Players take large steps forward seemingly overnight, while others creep toward breaking through but never take the final step.

11 Comments
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

11 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michael Pizzulli
Michael Pizzulli
5 days ago

Neat article

Rich81
Rich81
5 days ago

I think Poulin is gonna be part of a trade this off-season. Perhaps part of the Laine trade or one similar to it. Don’t see the progress or fit here.

Steve
Steve
5 days ago
Reply to  Rich81

Could well be. Am I wrong or did Poulin have a really strong camp last season before he was edged out by the vets? Then everyone hoped he’d go to WBS and dominate and force his way back up, but as seems to be a common theme for him, he got hurt and took awhile to get back on track. So, maybe, this is the season it falls in place for him. I’m rooting for the guy. If it doesn’t, maybe he is a piece of a Laine deal as you say. At least the cupboard has more than Poulin… Read more »

Steve
Steve
5 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Fortunately the site has a search function. Sept. 18, 2023. It was development camp, but positive. 😉

Dean
Dean
5 days ago

My 2024 – 2025 if Dubas is serious.

O’Connor – Crosby – Rust
Bunting – Malkin – Rakell or Laine
Ponomarev – Hayes – Puustinen
Poulin – Lizotte – Accari or Beauvillier

Pettersson – Letang
Grzelcyk – Karlsson
Graves – St. Ivany

2025 – 2026

Koivunen – Crosby – Laine
O’Connor – Malkin – Yager
Poulin – Ponomarev – Rust
Gruden – Broz – Puustinen

Christopher Castine
Christopher Castine
5 days ago

Cant understand why anybody wants Laine. Plays a slow perimeter game, lacks drive, diminishing production, huge contract. Kingerski seems to be intentionally underselling Yager or something. Id play him at 3rd line center and skip returning him to a boys league. A part of the CBA I really dislike. By sliding Hayes to the left wing or perhaps Eller you can out Puustinen n the tight and have veteran two way presence and youth and speed. This line could help take minutes away from Geno, but not overplay Yager in a 2nd C role before he is ready for the… Read more »

Sam
Sam
4 days ago

After a string of bad luck and personal issues, Poulin will make the team this year out of camp. He has the size needed, the NHL bloodlines, and the will to succeed. Trading him at the low point would be a mistake. 3rd or 4th liner to start.

Ujn Hunter
Ujn Hunter
3 days ago
Reply to  Sam

To start? He’s going to be a 3rd/4th Liner no matter what… and that’s fine.

Web1350
Web1350
3 days ago

A Karlsson/Graves D-pairing? Good grief.