Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall knows goalies. After a 13-year NHL career in the net, he picked Carter Hart in the second round while the Philadelphia Flyers GM. As Penguins GM, he stuck with Tristan Jarry last summer, and he’s building a small arsenal of goalie prospects in the Penguins’ system.
Quickly, goalie is a Penguins position of strength.
In addition to Jarry, the Penguins may have another puckstopper on the way. Last week, after the first Penguins development camp since 2019, new director of player development Tom Kostopoulos told the gathered reporters to get used to talking to Joel Blomqvist.
“We weren’t sure if Joel Blomqvist was going to be able to come over. For him to be here, get to know everyone, be on the ice and work with (goalie coaches) Andy Chiodo, Kain Tisi, and Charles Grant, it was huge,” Kostopoulos said. “I think he’s a special kid, and you should get used to talking to him.
The inference was clear. Blomqvist, the Penguins’ 2020 second-round pick, will arrive in the NHL sooner than later and stick around for a while. The Finnish goalie stands 6-foot-2 and close to 190-pounds. He played for Team Finland at the 2022 World Juniors and could begin his North American journey this season.
With Blomqvist’s ability to begin his Penguins career, it is the first time in recent memory that the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool has a logjam … at any position.
The Penguins’ goalie prospects are now four, maybe even five, deep. In April, the talent-flush depth chart afforded Hextall the luxury to deal 2020 third-round pick Calle Clang to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell trade. Clang played for Team Sweden in the 2022 World Juniors. He was not a throw-in.
Last summer, Hextall was noticeably enthused to sign Filip Lindberg, who could block Blomqvist’s immediate ascent to North America from the Finnish Liiga. Lindberg was fresh from his national championship with UMass-Amherst.
The 6-foot-1 goalie was the star of the show in the 2021 NCAA tournament. In 15 regular-season games, he posted a whopping .949 save percentage and 1.24 GAA. He was equally unbeatable in the tournament.
Lindberg, 23, started strong with the WBS Penguins last season. He had a .915 save percentage in seven games with a 4-2-0 record. However, he suffered a severe ankle injury that required surgery. He’s not yet fully healthy and participated sparingly in the development camp.
Blomqvist, 20, posted equally silly stats in the Finnish league last season. In 20 appearances, he had a .940 save percentage with a 1.32 GAA for Karpat. He also played one game at the end of the season with the WBS Penguins and allowed just two goals in a loss (a .926 save percentage) to a top-tier Springfield team.
“He was great when he played with (WBS) against Springfield, a really tough team. He got a lot of high-quality shots and really kind of kept us in the game that night,” WBS Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest said. “He’s big, smart, and he reads the play well. I felt good with him in the net. He also made some really good decisions with the puck on his stick, which is something that we value …”
Hextall inked undrafted free agent Taylor Gauthier to an entry-level contract on March 1. The 6-foot-2, right-glove goalie backstopped Team Canada at the U-18 Worlds and was 3-1 in the silver medal performance. Gauthier played for former Penguins head coach Mike Johnston with the Portland Winterhawks. He broke several team records, including a 252:11 shutout streak.
Split between Prince George of the WHL and Portland, Gauthier’s record was 66-88-16 with a 3.06 goals-against average, .908 save percentage, and nine shutouts. He’s on a three-year ELC. He, too, will have time to develop.
Gauthier was OK in the development camp. He completed his overage year in juniors, so he will turn pro this season. Wheeling of the ECHL looks like the spot for him, but more than a few goalies have come out of “the E,” including former Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun and Stanley Cup winners Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick, and Braden Holtby.
Let us not forget Ohio State standout Tommy Nappier, 24, who could become a Penguins prospect. Nappier was thrust into AHL duty last season after injuries to Louis Domingue and Lindberg. He performed admirably.
It was Nappier’s first professional season. He played 25 games for the WBS Penguins and seven for the Wheeling Nailers. The large goalie (6-foot-3, 217 pounds) appears even larger and is on an AHL deal. His save percentage was only .897 in the AHL, but he upped that to .903 in six playoff games.
After the Pittsburgh Penguins signed UFA Dustin Tokarski as their third goalie, Nappier is probably ticketed to resume his professional career with Wheeling, too. Gauthier and Nappier in the ECHL only speaks to the depth of the position.
Playing time and the chance to develop are crucial. Gauthier and Nappier will get those.
The Penguins also drafted Sergei Murashov in the fourth round of the 2022 NHL Draft. The 6-foot Russian goalie has played Internationally with Team Russia (2020 U-16s, 2021 U-17s).
You may have noticed that Russian goalies are all the rage across the NHL, from Igor Shesterkin to Ilya Sorokin and Andrei Vaseilevskiy. Since Russian teams are now banned from international play, and young Russian players are being “persuaded” to fulfill their military duty, it may be a while before we see Murashov play outside the country.
No doubt, that factor dropped his draft stock, and perhaps the Penguins got a steal. Kostopoulos said they loved his athleticism.
Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects Outlook
Hextall and his team, with AGM Chris Pryor, will have a couple of tough decisions this summer. Both revolve around Blomqvist. They are the first tough decisions the organization will make regarding prospect placement and advancement in years.
For Penguins fans who are accustomed to tuning out prospect talk, that is something to get a little excited over.
The easy path is to let Blomqvist marinate for another season in Finland. The competition there is strong, and he is comfortable. Hopefully, Lindberg will be healthy enough to be a 1A goalie with the WBS Penguins, and the older prospect will develop quickly.
However, if the Penguins feel Blomqvist can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, it may behoove them to fast-track him over Lindberg.
The Finnish Liiga begins its season in mid-September, and the Penguins are not currently slated to play in any rookie tournaments in September, so barring a few prospect games, the decision may be made within a few weeks.