Fourteen shot attempts, 11 scoring chances and two goals at even strength. That’s a high-level view of what happened on Wednesday night when Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary shared the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Sidney Crosby as their pivot, of course. Two players who were developed internally and groomed for top-six roles, now playing beside arguably the best center in the world and contributing regularly to Stanley Cup runs. Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong are next.
The Penguins organizational depth and development processes are creating a sustainable winning culture in the salary cap era.
When the Penguins faced the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night, they boasted a lineup that resembled an actual NHL roster for the first time this preseason. This comes after the team sent 21 players to their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. A few onlookers likely saw the most recent wave of cuts by the Penguins and thought… Really? Daniel Sprong and Zac Aston-Reese have already been shipped off? What happened to Adam Johnson’s impressive camp? Teddy Blueger doesn’t have a shot at competing for third line center duties?
Pittsburgh — while this hasn’t always been the case — understands the importance of building from within when your roster is comprised of players like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang — all of whom demand a high salary.
And their plans for these players will pay large dividends in the future.
Ready or Not, There They Go
The most surprising names on the list of roster cuts for much of the Penguins’ fan base are Sprong and Aston-Reese. Sprong set the world on fire during his first preseason in 2015, which directly followed the Penguins drafting him with the 46th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He was given a chance to cement a spot in the lineup for the long-term but failed to impress when the regular season rolled around. Pittsburgh botched the decision to keep him around for a few extra games, as they ended up burning a year of his entry-level contract but ultimately, sending him back to juniors with the Charlottetown Islanders was the right call. Just as sending him to the AHL is today.
There’s no question Sprong’s shot is elite and truly rivals some of the best shooters in the big leagues. His release is almost effortless and the puck sails with extremely impressive velocity and accuracy. Unfortunately, that’s only a small part of the game, though. The young up and comer looks lost on the defensive side of the puck and will have to learn that if he’s going to play at the highest level, relying on his natural offensive abilities alone won’t cut it.
His development will be a process, but he’s a hard-working kid that seemingly understands what’s required of him. It’ll be fun to watch him grow as a player.
Aston-Reese is a different story altogether. He’s a more rounded player than Sprong at this point in their development and throughout the preseason, he showed a bit of toughness that surprised most folks. If there’s a Penguins’ prospect winger that’s ready for the NHL, it’s Aston-Reese. That doesn’t mean he has to stick around just yet, though.
Like Guentzel proved last season, accruing professional hockey experience in the AHL is beneficial to youngsters making the leap from college play. Aston-Reese got a small taste last season and netted three goals and eight total points through 10 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins but a few more months — or, even a full season — certainly won’t hurt his cause. He’s being groomed to play top-six minutes with the Penguins and at the moment, they’re already set up for success there. He’ll be better off logging a ton of minutes with WBS than seeing bottom-six time in the NHL.
It’s all part of the process. A process that’s been sitting in the Penguins’ wheelhouse for quite some time, even if their former regime wasn’t willing to wind up and take advantage.
Shero’s Pittsburgh Penguins Provided Groundwork
Ray Shero’s Penguins were known for piling up prospects, then moving them in an attempt to surround the likes of Crosby and Malkin with veteran help — a tactic that’s still deployed by quite a few franchises. Experience is a must, right?
Kinda, but not at the expense of skill.
Sheary, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl — among others — are all remnants of Shero’s time with the Penguins. That regime could draft, and they had a great group of scouts that consistently loaded their farm system with talented youngsters. But they didn’t utilize those young legs. It was a trust issue, an inability to escape traditional mindsets and eventually, it had a catastrophic impact on their ability to build a contender. The NHL roster was aging and expensive and lacked the necessary depth to truly contend for a Stanley Cup.
Then came Jim Rutherford and his staff.
Tom Fitzgerald and more recently, Bill Guerin, have been tremendous with the young players within the Penguins organization. Both have been pivotal in the success Pittsburgh has recognized in the development and deployment of their youth. They’ve become a destination team for highly touted college free agents and it isn’t solely due to winning championships. It’s because they know that this group of coaches, managers, and front office personnel continue cranking out NHL caliber players.
Pittsburgh will show patience with Sprong, Aston-Reese, and Blueger — just as they did with Guentzel, Sheary, and Rust. They’ll give Johnson every possible chance to move from a pleasant surprise in training camp to a legit bottom-six forward in the NHL. Using their strong farm system and their willingness to give young guys NHL minutes when injuries deem it necessary, they’ll continue to groom the next crop of forwards to play alongside their superstar core.
And by doing so, they’ll keep their championship window wide open for years to come.