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Penguins Notebook: No. 1 Pick Sparkles; Growing Goalies



Brayden Yager

The Pittsburgh Penguins missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second year in a row.

Their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre lasted all of two games in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Still, not all of the postseason news for the Penguins this spring is glum.

Their ECHL affiliate in Wheeling has reached the Central Division Finals, where it will face the Toledo Walleye in a best-of-seven series beginning Friday.

And, more importantly for the future of the franchise, their first-round choice in the 2023 NHL Draft is following a strong regular season with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League with an equally impressive showing in the playoffs.

Center Brayden Yager, who put up 35 goals and 60 assists in 57 regular-season appearances, has eight goals and eight assists in the Warriors’ first 11 playoff games.

His most recent goal might have been his biggest, as Yager scored at 12:24 of overtime to give Moose Jaw a 4-3 victory at Saskatoon in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. (The Blades countered with a 3-2 overtime victory Saturday to tie the series heading into Game 3 Tuesday in Moose Jaw.)

While success in major-junior or college hockey doesn’t guarantee that a player will do well in the pros, anymore than being productive in college football assures that a player will do likewise in the NFL, Yager has done nothing since the Penguins invested the 14th overall pick in him to suggest that he can’t be a significant piece of their future, likely as a top-six forward.

He is listed at 6-foot, 170 pounds, so the Penguins presumably would like to see him add a little muscle in coming years, but that didn’t seem to be a major issue when he participated in training camp last fall.

Yager did some nice work then, and should be able to replicate — if not improve upon — that performance this year. Play well enough, and he might just force his way into conversations about who will be on the NHL roster when the 2024-25 season opens.

Here’s a look at Yager’s overtime winner in Game 1 against Saskatoon.

What’s the rush?

Although it remains to be seen how Joel Blomqvist’s lackluster performance in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s playoff series against Lehigh Valley will affect the Penguins’ goaltending plans for the coming season, a two-game snapshot hardly is cause to pass final judgment — positive or otherwise — on a prospect’s NHL readiness.

Still, the history of guys who have become the Penguins’ go-to goalie during the past couple of decades indicates that spending time in the American Hockey League before ascending to the parent club is not a bad thing.

Marc-Andre Fleury joined the Pittsburgh Penguins just a few months after they got him with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, but eventually was sent back to his major-junior team in Cape Breton and appeared in 66 games with Wilkes-Barre over the following two seasons before returning to the NHL.

Fleury’s successor as the Penguins’ top goalie, Matt Murray, played 72 games over parts of three seasons in Wilkes-Barre prior to being summoned to the parent club.

And Tristan Jarry, the incumbent No. 1, spent the better part of four seasons in the AHL, appearing in 141 regular-season games with the Baby Penguins.

Blomqvist has, to this point, made it into 47 regular-season games — 45 of them in 2023-24 — and two during the playoffs with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

If, at 22, he would benefit from more time in the minors, it would border on managerial malpractice to put him in the NHL before he’s ready.

Gone too soon

There is no upside to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton departing the playoffs so quickly.

The franchise loses revenue it could have gotten from ticket sales for future games, for example, and Pittsburgh Penguins officials get an abbreviated look at how prospects perform in high-stakes games. Something that might be overlooked is how promising players who have spent most of the season elsewhere had little time to get acclimated to the systems the Penguins employ throughout the organization.

Two obvious examples are center Tristan Broz, who helped Denver University win an NCAA championship, and forward Ville Koivunen, who was acquired from Carolina in the Jake Guentzel trade and spent the season with Karpat in Finland’s SM-liiga.

Both look to have the potential to be valuable contributors for a lot of years, and being involved in the Calder Cup playoffs for more than a couple of games could only have enhanced their development.