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Penguins Blog: Penciling Prospects into Pens’ Lineup

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Brayden Yager. Penguins Prospects

It may come as a shock, but the Pittsburgh Penguins may have too many prospects ready for a spot in the NHL lineup next season.

No joke. The Penguins organization, which has been bereft of minor league talent for a handful of years or more, very well could have a handful of contenders who will fight for only a couple of NHL spots next fall. And those spots may not exist after free agency or any summertime trades.

It was quite a sight, with about 40 players on the ice at a time during the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ April practice, which had to be held in stages leading up to their first-round playoff series.

The WBS Penguins could have iced an entire second team with the players who didn’t get to play, including 2022 first-round pick Owen Pickering.

Keep in mind that Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’s goal is to build a better team, not specifically a much younger one, lest they risk wasting one of the final two years of the Penguins core three with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang by forcing prospects into the lineup. The NHL betting site has already downgraded the team’s chances.

Thus far, the only forward prospect to muscle his way onto NHL ice and be expected to remain is Valtteri Puustinen. The rest are an unproven lot, including 2019 first-rounder Sam Poulin and recently re-signed Jonathan Gruden.

In addition, Vasily Ponomarev, who was acquired in the Jake Guentzel trade, figures to be a strong contender for an NHL sweater. He made his NHL debut, playing two games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season, and Dubas intimated he was expected to join the Penguins last season. However, Ponomarev suffered a season-ending injury just a few games into the WBS Penguins tenure.

And it seems 2023 first-round pick Brayden Yager is rapidly gaining on the field, too.

Penguins Lines, Contenders

Basing the projections off the final 10 games this season, factoring in the departure of Jeff Carter due to retirement and others due to free agency, the Penguins’ situation tentatively has two spots open. Puustinen’s spot is probably his, but he’ll have to earn it, as well. He won’t get a free ride.

Noel Acciari was almost exclusively slotted as the Penguins’ fourth-line center, but he can also play either wing. The Penguins might find room for others by sliding him around the lineup as a faceoff man and defensive replacement, similar to coach Mike Sullivan’s usage of Carter.

O’Connor-Crosby-Rust

Bunting-Malkin-Rakell

Smith-Eller-Puustinen

??-Acciari-Jesse Puljujarvi?

Is Jesse Puljujarvi’s spot safe? He could easily take the third-line spot, stick on the fourth line, or be sent to WBS. He has the talent to be a middle-six winger but has not yet shown that consistent ability. He’s big, can be physical, and can score … but hasn’t done any of it consistently. Where he winds up is more up to him than anyone else.

Contenders

Sam Poulin: He moved back to LW at WBS after playing center for a couple of seasons. The move to the wing was curious, as the organization previously moved him to the middle so he could play with momentum in an effort to mitigate his lack of speed. Poulin, 23, had 31 points, including 16 goals in 41 games last season. The 2024-25 training camp and preseason might just be make or break for him.

He can play heavy and is defensively responsible, but injuries and his skating have been major issues. He’ll get every chance to stick in the NHL, but it’s up to him now. Five years is enough time.

Jonathan Gruden: The fast but light 24-year-old forward played well in 13 NHL games this season. Although he scored only one NHL goal, his stock is on the rise despite being a year older than Poulin. He was a 2018 fourth-round pick by Ottawa, and he might be the likeliest to earn a roster spot because of his defensive responsibility and versatility. The 13th forward spot with potentially a fourth-line role could be his to win.

Brayden Yager: It’s all or nothing for Yager, whose Jan. 3 birthday means he must return to Moose Jaw of the WHL if he doesn’t make the NHL roster. He told PHN that Matt Cullen was working with him on faceoffs, so perhaps he’ll be ready next fall. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing to bring him along slowly as the fourth-line center if the organization believes he can handle it.

Read more: (Exclusive) Penguin’s Top Pick Brayden Yager: Bigger, Faster, & On a Roll (+)

Vasily Ponomarev: The 22-year-old center scored 24 goals for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL in his first full season in North America. He scored eight in 39 games last season. He’s not a big forward at just 5-foot-10, 180 pounds but he plays larger. He didn’t get much of a chance to integrate into the Penguins’ system, suffering an injury in his fourth game with the WBS Penguins, but the book on him is a tenacious two-center who doesn’t fear the dirty areas.

Tristan Broz: After a three-year collegiate career, including the 2024 National Championship with Denver, Penguins assistant GM Jason Spezza met with Broz and said it was time to turn pro. Broz had been waiting to hear those words and immediately did so.

Our scouting report from his first two AHL games–those playoff losses to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms–graded Broz well. His skating significantly improved from last summer, and he was able to get after the LVP defensemen with some success. He’s a bit of a longshot because he’ll need more professional seasoning and to earn trust, but it looked like he’s got the tools to quickly catch Sullivan’s eye.

Villie Koivunen: We’re not bullish on this one, read the scouting report here. Koivunen put up big-time numbers in the Finnish Elite League as a 20-year-old this season, but he struggled in the AHL playoffs. He needs some seasoning and some work on his skating.

Yet there is always the possibility that he finds those

Older Contenders

The Penguins have a few older players who might make a few more NHL appearances like 26-year-old Marc Johnstone did this season. Corey Andonovski is a big winger who can fill a bottom-line role. And Jagger Joshua, who completed his first professional season after a career at Michigan State, is a big-bodied banger who can play the physical game, like his older brother Dakota Joshua for the Vancouver Canucks.

Neither are front-line contenders for an NHL sweater, but they could elevate themselves to get a look.

Defense & Goaltending

This is the easy section. Jack St. Ivany just signed a three-year deal at a bargain price. In all probability, he’ll anchor the third pairing next season.

That’s the only spot open on the blue line.

Pickering has yet shown himself to be on the cusp of NHL readiness. The former first-round pick is still maturing and physically growing. He can turn pro next season, but he’s unlikely to be ready.

Goaltending prospect Joel Blomqvist drew Dubas’s eager attention after a strong rookie season with WBS, but he stumbled in the playoffs, which could give Dubas enough pause to seek a veteran backup goalie to Tristan Jarry. He probably should do that, but Dubas has a checkered past with goaltending decisions since they don’t neatly fit into advanced analytics nearly as well as skaters.