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Pens Rookie Tournament: 9 Things to Watch

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The Pittsburgh Penguins rookies and prospects will begin their quest to impress or earn a professional paycheck today at the Penguins rookie tournament in Buffalo. The Penguins 24-man team will open against the Boston Bruins rookie team with a 3:30 p.m. grudge match, then face the New Jersey Devils’ youngsters Saturday, and the Buffalo Sabres rookie team on Monday.

Only 12 drafted players will skate for the Penguins squad which does not include a first-round pick and only one second-round pick, 2018 second-round choice Calen Addison. The roster does not include 2018 second-round pick Filip Hallander, who will play in Sweden this season, nor the Penguins top two choices in 2017, Zachary Lauzon (51str overall) and Clayton Phillips (93rd overall).

There are also 12 undrafted free agents, including 2017 free agent acquisition Adam Johnson, on the roster.

9 Things to Watch

9. Lauzon is dealing with a career-threatening neck injury or at least one which could impede his ability to play hockey at the NHL level. Phillips conversely was at the Penguins rookie camp in June. He did not stand out or make a positive impression on Pittsburgh Hockey Now. The Penguins 2017 draft may come down to fifth-round picks Jan Drozg and Linus Ohlund.

Earlier this summer, sources in the Penguins organization touted Ohlund as a real sleeper prospect who could make an impact.

8.  2014 fifth-rounder Anthony Angello. The big Cornell forward fits the Penguins recent pivot to larger, more aggressive prospects. He’s 22 years old, so he’s one of the older players, but he is 6 feet 5, 210 pounds. Last season, Angello played in two WBS Penguins playoff games and scored two goals.

After four years of college hockey, Angello should dominate the rookies as he is a more polished player. His speed and footwork will be the tell-tale sign if he’s a prospect with NHL chops.

7. Undrafted Carter Robertson. Sources also spoke well of Robertson before the Penguins rookie camp and led Pittsburgh Hockey Now to believe the Penguins would like to offer Robertson a contract if he performed well in the prospect camp and rookie tournament.

Robertson is another stiff defender. He plays for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL and he may have delivered the only hit in the 3-on-3 rookie camp tournament. He joked with PHN after the prospect camp, “My agent told me to be gritty.”

6. Freddie Tiffels is a fun player to watch. The 2015 sixth-round choice is a noticeable player in every training camp. He plays with speed and tenacity. He also has been relegated mostly to the ECHL. Beginning with the rookie tournament and extending into early training camp, this could be his last chance to get on the NHL track.

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5. The Penguins defenseman prospect pool is woefully thin. Aside from Addison, the Penguins will ice three sixth-round picks, one seventh-rounder, and three junior hockey, undrafted free agents (Robertson, Jacob Herauf, Wyatt McLeod). The Penguins invested four straight picks in the 2016 draft, beginning with third-round choice Connor Hall. The Penguins also spent their top two picks in 2017 on defensemen.

None of them are on the prospects tournament roster. Yikes.

4. Forward Justin Almeida was invited to the Team Canada World Junior Championships camp but pulled out due to illness. Almeida, the Penguins 2018 fifth-round choice from Moose Jaw, had 98 points (43g, 55a) in just 72 games. His downside is size. Almeida is only 5-9, 158 pounds.

Scouts did not question Almeida’s skills, only his ability to compete against larger competition. The Penguins gambled in the fifth round and may have a steal. He is another player who needs a strong tournament and training camp to get on the NHL track. Because he has been labeled as too small, Almeida must prove the doubters wrong. Fifth-rounders do not get the benefit of the doubt.

He should be fun to watch and has something to prove.

3. Not long ago, the Penguins goalie depth chart was at least five deep including 2016 second-round pick Filip Gustavsson. Now, the prospect pool is running dry. After Matt Murray, Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins no longer have a goalie prospect within shouting distance of the NHL. In fact, the Penguins don’t even have a drafted goalie on the rookie camp roster.

Alex D’Orio earned a contract after good camps last year, but last season he posted a 9-26-9 record in St. Johns of the QMJHL. The other goalies in camp, Christian Propp and Tristan Cote-Cazenave, are undrafted and unsigned 18-year-olds.

Will one of the goalies rise to the challenge?

2. Last September, some in the Penguins front office championed Adam Johnson. Johnson responded by having a strong camp. He was a finalist for an NHL roster spot but showed he wasn’t quite ready when given expanded responsibilities in the final preseason games.

Johnson had 31 points in regular action for the WBS Penguins. It’s somewhat surprising the 24-year-old was added to the tournament and he should lead the Penguins squad.

1. Jordy Bellerive. Bellerive spoke to the media, Thursday. He made national news in June after being involved in a tragic campfire accident which left one teammate in a coma and Bellerive with severely burned hands. Doctors told him he would miss the entire season. Instead, Bellerive took control of his physical therapy and used his hands as soon as he could.

Bellerive was another undrafted free agent who earned a contract with a strong rookie camp and tournament last summer. He was invited to the Team Canada World Juniors camp and opened eyes with a breakout 2017-18 (46g, 46a). He is also the captain of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

The stocky forward has big opportunities in front of him. It’s extremely unlikely Bellerive will make the NHL roster because the Penguins already have 21 NHL contracts in place, but he could lay claim to first dibs in 2019-20. Another dynamic tournament and strong training camp, combined with his personal struggles, will make Bellerive a top prospect.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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