NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It will be years before anyone knows whether Moose Jaw forward Brayden Yager, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round pick in the NHL Draft, will be a productive player in the pros.
But he’s picked a pretty good guy after whom to pattern the way he plays.
“I’ve role-modeled my game after Sidney Crosby’s,” Yager said. “So it’s pretty crazy to think I’m wearing the same jersey he does.”
He went on to describe Crosby as “one of the best complete players ever.”
Crosby, of course, isn’t the only future Hall of Famer in the organization Yager is joining. He’s well aware that Evgeni Malkin is on the depth chart, too.
“Guys I can really learn from,” Yager said. “Guys I’ve looked up to growing up.”
Of course, whether he’ll ever actually share a locker room with guys like Crosby and Malkin isn’t clear.
Yager estimated that he won’t be ready for the NHL for “two or three years.” Crosby has two years remaining on his contract — although it’s hardly out of the question that he’ll sign another — and Malkin has three.
Yager said “getting bigger and stronger” will be important in his development, and that he anticipates the Penguins giving him guidance on how to accomplish that.
Although Yager was a bit of a surprise selection in the 14th slot — the earliest selection the Pittsburgh Penguins have had since 2012 — president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas said he was the highest-rated player remaining on the team’s prospects list after the first 13 selections at Bridgestone Arena.
“He was in a mix of players that we were really hoping would drop down to 14th,” Dubas said. “The things we like about him are that he competed as a center in a really difficult division. Against Winnipeg. Against Regina. Against Saskatoon. All really high-quality teams. He had to go against really difficult competition.”
He went on to cite facets of Yager’s game in various areas of the ice, and Yager made it clear that he prioritizes trying to be effective in every zone.
“Being able to play a 200-foot game is huge, when you transfer to the NHL level and get the trust of your coaches,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in playing both ends of the ice. My coaches in Moose Jaw do a really good job of showing me clips of where I need to be, supporting the puck for my (defensemen).”
Yager is 5-foot-11, 170 pounds and had 28 goals and 50 assists in 67 games with the Warriors last season. He is capable of playing on the middle or on the wing, but acknowledged that he prefers to play center.
Regardless of where he is deployed, Yager has a shooter’s mentality, something the Pittsburgh Penguins encourage in their players.
“You’re not going to score if you don’t shoot the puck,” he said. “I worked on my shot a lot growing up, so I try to use it as much as I can.”
Crosby, it must be noted, is not the only Nova Scotia native who has made an impression on Yager. Turns out he’s a fan of Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon, too.
“Both of them are guys that I model my game after,” he said.
Crosby and MacKinnon are top-line centers. There’s no way of knowing whether Yager will fill such a role as his career progresses, but he seems prepared to serve an apprenticeship.
“As a young guy stepping into the NHL, I think it’s important to … you might not be able to play top-six minutes,” he said. “So if you can gain your coaches’ trust playing on the bottom two lines and work your way up, that’s super-important.”