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Penguins Prospect Camp Begins! Poulin, Pickering & 5 Players to Watch



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sam Poulin

The ice at the UPMC Lemieux Complex will have an official use on Thursday. The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect camp will serve as a gathering point for instruction and education for the Penguins hopefuls, which will include a game on Saturday at the prospects tournament in Buffalo against the Boston Bruins prospect team.

The Penguins will play only one tournament game and return for practices at the complex. The camp runs through Tuesday and gives way to the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp in one week on Sept. 22.

Get ready. Hockey season is back.

The prospects camp will provide a first look at a few players signed over the summer, a reintroduction of many of the players we saw in July, and an integration of the Penguins’ established prospects such as Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare, Filip Hallander, and Valtteri Puustinen.

PHN will be watching the development, improved skating, and for those established prospects to separate themselves. They played professionally last season, and Puustinen made his NHL debut.

Pittsburgh Penguins Watch

*Poulin will be under the microscope. It’s not a make-or-break moment for the 2019 first-rounder. Still, signs of NHL potential and being close would be a welcome sight for an organization that has developed precious few prospects since elevating Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, and even Matt Murray to the NHL. Since that crop of draftees began their NHL journeys between five and seven years ago, no Penguins prospect drafted after 2014 remains in the Penguins lineup.

To whit, even Teddy Blueger and Tristan Jarry were drafted in 2012 and 2013, respectively. 2014 first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen was traded away one year later and not reacquired until the summer of 2020, so he doesn’t genuinely fall under the “developed Penguins prospects” banner.

*At the moment, it seems 2019 seventh-round surprise Puustinen is much closer to the NHL.

“I think he has a game that could play up and down the lineup. I think when you look at (Puustinen)’s game, his strengths are his offensive instincts. He can really finish. He can really shoot the puck,” coach Mike Sullivan said on March 11.

Puustinen, 23, got his rookie lap at PPG Paints Arena that night and earned an assist in 10:14 of ice time as the Penguins beat the Vegas Golden Knights 5-2. It was Puustinen’s only NHL game. If it matters, he is a year older than Poulin and Legare. He turned 23 in June, while the others will turn 22 this season.

Puustinen had 42 points and reached the 20-goal plateau with the WBS Penguins last season. It was his first season in North America and first pro season after three years with HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish elite league.

*Conversely, Dave Molinari noted last week that Nathan Legare has a bit of pressure to show well in camp. He had a subpar first professional season with only 16 points, including seven goals. The stocky winger with an edge to his game and booming wrist shot needs to show improvement in his skating and on-ice awareness. He’s too talented for a 16-point season at the AHL level, but the speed of the pro game, even at the AHL level, isn’t getting slower.

We’ll be looking for skating and separation in the offensive zone for Legare. Can he detach from coverage and put himself in passing lanes for shot opportunities?

Poulin, Legare, and Puustinen will stand out in the crowd of prospects

*2022 first-rounder Owen Pickering will also be in camp. There isn’t much pressure on Pickering. Everyone, including the lanky defenseman, knows he is a work in progress. The 21st overall pick is still growing up and out. He’ll need to add more muscle and continue filling out, but the 18-year-old was widely seen as an astute pick who could pay dividends as an all-around defenseman in a few years.

On draft day, Pickering flashed the well-spoken nature that had a few of us looking forward to his permanent Pittsburgh arrival.

“The strengths of my game are the skating and hockey sense, as well as puck skills,” Pickering said. “I would like to work on physical strength. With the growing, that would be the natural path … I don’t lack competitiveness one bit. I just feel it’s a little bit difficult sometimes, being 180-pounds, but that’s not an excuse. I feel like from the start of the year to the end of the year, my game developed a lot.”

Pickering is now 6-foot-4. Three years ago, he was 5-foot-7 and about 130 pounds. He is still dealing with a brand new frame. The Penguins met with him before every workout in July. He went through seminars on nutrition and the weight room. In July, Molinari aptly titled his feature piece, “Weight and See, Pickering Has a Lot to Gain.”

PHN will be looking to compare Pickering’s skating and engagement, especially in the prospects game and in training camp. We’ll also see how the Penguins organization put the last couple of months to use by getting Pickering into the weight room.

As we reported in July, other teams privately praised the Penguins’ draft selection. It seems a few teams were hoping he would be available in the late first round or early second.

Other Things to Watch:

We also want to see a couple of other things in the camp. Notably, the health of goalie prospect Filip Lindberg. The brick wall, who helped UMass to a national championship by allowing less than two goals per game, suffered a severe ankle injury just seven games into his AHL season. He had surgery and was not yet 100% at the Penguins development camp in July.

He sparingly participated.

PHN wants to see just how good Lindberg can be, though if Lindberg is a full participant, he probably has quite a bit of rink rust to overcome. He hasn’t seen much hockey for nearly a full year. The 6-foot-1 goalie excited Penguins management when they signed him as an undrafted college free agent last summer.

Lukas Svejkovsky and Raivas Ansons are beginning their first professional season. We’d like one or both to pop, but their big tests won’t be in camp but in adjusting to the professional grind this season. Both will go through the same challenges that Poulin and Legare faced last season.

And we want to see how the Penguins compare to the Boston Bruins prospect team.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall is not believed to be a fan of the prospects tournament idea, and it was somewhat of a surprise that the Penguins are playing one game.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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[…] Pittsburgh: Penguins rookie camp is underway, and Samuel Poulin, Nathan Legare, and Owen (great name) Pickering are the top prospect to watch. […]