BUFFALO — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman prospect John Marino wasn’t shy when asked about his goal for this season.
“To be able to make the team,” he explained. “That’s the main goal and the goal from the start, but you take one game at a time and do what you can.”
That is a lofty goal for a former sixth-round pick whom the Penguins acquired from the Edmonton Oilers last month after Marino declined to sign an entry-level contract. The Penguins quickly signed the defenseman to a two-year deal with a cap hit of $925,000. The deal could be worth as much as $1.775 million with performance bonuses. Marino could have become a free agent but chose to sign with the Penguins, instead.
“Talking to the (Penguins) organization and figuring everything out, it just seemed like the right fit,” he said. “Luckily enough, we were able to figure something out and put something together.”
Edmonton drafted Marino in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-2, 181-pound right-handed blueliner caught their eye after one season in the USHL with Tri-City and was on his way to Harvard. He scored 30 points (5g, 25a) in 56 games before beginning classes at the most prestigious university in North America. While at Harvard, he also became a member of the National Honors Society and graduated with high honors.
The Penguins picked no dummy.
Marino, 22, was an all-around defenseman with the Crimson; that is to say, he skates well but did not exhaust the bulbs of the scoreboard. He scored only seven goals in his collegiate career and only 42 points over three seasons. However, during a pair of games in the Prospects Challenge, Marino flexed his puck-moving and offensive skills. He was a driver of the Penguins offense.
“Yeah, that’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate a little more,” he told PHN. “I’d say defense is definitely my strongest suit, but I’m trying to improve little things on the offensive blue line, get shots through, joining the rush and little things like that.”
Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects Challenge
Marino began to fill up my notebook on Saturday. While other defensemen earned down arrows and question marks in a lackluster game, Marino shined. He quickly, and slyly walked the blue line to find a small lane to get a shot on net. He skated the puck from danger and to the offensive zone. On one especially impressive rush, Marino skated past a defender at the blue line, behind the net and around the zone. Only a lunging defender’s stick broke up what would have been a perfect pass and sure goal to Nathan Legare who was rushing to the net.
“Another good game from Marino,” said coach Mike Vellucci. “He took a couple of penalties, the one I thought was a good hit. I don’t know why it was a penalty, but that is a learning experience.”
Overall, the Pittsburgh Penguins prospects team was a bit flatfooted Saturday, which made Marino stand out even further. College players have a natural advantage over 18 and 19-year-old who are fresh from junior hockey but not every player makes the most of their experience. Nor does every college player have a skill advantage, which Marino showed over the weekend.
Last September, Juuso Riikola who was an unheralded Finnish free agent wowed training camp and earned a stay in Pittsburgh. Riikola played just 35 games but spent the bulk of the NHL season with the Penguins. The Penguins blue line is full with NHL contracts and depth veterans such as Zach Trotman and Chad Ruhwedel, and Riikola would like to displace one of the top-six defenders, too.
So, Marino’s path to the NHL season appears to be blocked, but if he can find a little bit offense, he just might skate around the obstacles. His Harvard stats were not gaudy, but a smart player adds layers to his game, always. Coming from Harvard with a degree earned in just three years, one may expect Marino to be a smart player.
He certainly established himself as one to watch.