Quick, name the last standout in a Pittsburgh Penguins rookie camp. That’s OK. We’ve got time. A prospect camp probably carries little to no weight in the grand scheme of life and rebuilding a franchise while the stars are still center stage. The last time a kid rolled through the development summer, showed genuine promise and earned a contract in the fall was…Jordy Bellerive in 2017?
In the meantime, a few players earned undrafted free agent contracts, but none of note. And Bellerive hasn’t had the easiest path, on or off the ice.
The Pittsburgh Penguins director of player development Scott Young did his annual prospects wrap with us media types after the intra-squad scrimmage on Tuesday. To a bit of disappointment, Young indirectly sidestepped the importance of the four-day camp. Young is usually an eternal optimist and offered a little dose of realism.
“You know, we got to see a good amount, but will we’ll see more when it really gets into the main camp. This was a combination of rookie camp and development camp. We kind of called it a hybrid between those two because we haven’t been able to have our last two development camps,” Young said. “So we wanted to get these guys in early, get them used to the facilities, get them accustomed to what we do here so they’ll have a better chance and feel better going in the main camp.”
That pretty much sounds like an orientation camp, eh?
Without a tournament to show their wares against other organizations’ top prospects, the Penguins intra-squad work also stands alone for its lack of competition. However, there have been a few eye-openers or kids we otherwise have not mentioned among the Penguins’ shallow list of genuine prospects.
“They’ve done very well…They’ve done very well. They’ve made good strides, and I think they’re close,” Young said. “I think it’s it’s something we’re going to have to just watch through the main camp and see how they do. But there are two guys we’re very excited about.”
And, I’m happy to tell you, at least one has a real shot at making the team.
There have also been a couple of kids who didn’t have a good four-day camp. There is a common theme amongst those who I would dish a lower grade.
Every time I see them together, I am more impressed with Legare than Poulin. Poulin does everything well enough, but nothing great. His skating is still mediocre, and his offensive instincts are more playmaker than finisher.
Legare jumps off the page. When you watch a shift, you notice him; he hit someone, drove to the net, pushed the puck forward into the low zone, snapped a one-timer, or…he hit someone, again. If the Penguins could cryogenically freeze Evgeni Malkin, Legare could be the second coming of James Neal, minus bad penalties, plus more honest physicality.
Yeah, I see that much in Legare.
The Penguins have a small number of professional prospects, and many of them are physically small, too. Lukas Svejkovsky, Chris Merisier-Ortiz, Sam Houde, and Valtteri Puustinen–no one is both over 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
I felt like a giant talking to a few of these guys.
Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects, Stock UP:
1. Nathan Legare
This video should tell the story. This was from Monday. He got his feet moving and swept around professional defenseman Niclas Almari. His wrister plunked goalie Filip Lindberg and flew out of play.
Legare gets the feet moving for a rush and a bruised collarbone shot on Lindberg pic.twitter.com/CRaZpohszj
— Dan Kingerski (@TheDanKingerski) September 20, 2021
In the scrimmage on Tuesday, Legare got just an inch ahead of defenseman Ryan McLeary on the left wing. Rather than speed past the net and shovel a backhander, Legare used that inch to quickly flip the puck to his forehand and snap a hard wrist shot before McLeary could stop him. It was a pro move.
Legare set up for one-timers in the scrimmage, but frustratingly the puck only came his way for the locked-and-loaded shot once.
2. Cam Lee
After a bad first day, Lee played on his toes in Days 2 through 4. He’s quicker than I thought. He still has a road ahead to learn the game, to figure out the nuances from the top of the offensive zone, but he moved pretty well.
We’ll see how he does in training camp. Right now, I’d still put him as a career WBS Penguins defenseman with cups of coffee, but things can change quickly.
3. Lukas Svejkovsky
Loved this kid—Conor Sheary with an edge. I had the chance to chat with him one-on-one. His father played against Jaromir Jagr in the Czech Republic, but he’s an American. After talking with the player and Scott Young, I hate to be the bearer of bad news–Svejkovsky wants to turn pro.
But Scott Young pretty much dissed the idea it could happen this year. Sorry kid, I know I’ll see you again.
“We’ll see how he does in the upcoming camp, but he probably needs to go back to Medicine Hat (WHL). But his skill level is really impressive. So it’s one of those guys that we’re not going to rush the process. We’ve got to go about this the right way. But I like I said, his skill level is something we’re really excited about.”
They should be excited by his skill level. Svejkovsky was the Penguins 2020 fourth-round pick. I think he’s got “it,” too. You will hear more from him. He’s going to torch the WHL this season if he goes back.
4. Chris Merisier-Ortiz
Three days in a row. He backstopped well during the scrimmage but didn’t provide as much offense as I thought. Of course, the 45-second clock kept the defensemen pinned. There wasn’t enough time for plays to develop and defensemen to lead the counter-attack.
He’s on a two-year AHL deal. He needs time to develop, so don’t expect to see him beating on the NHL door anytime soon. We need to see how he defends against men and see if he can play the game at full speed every shift.
The seeds are there. He’s no Mickey Dupont, but he’s undersized, which is again becoming a bigger impediment. No pun intended.
In the Middle:
1. Valterri Puustinen
He showed some skills. He showed some ability in the battle drills but didn’t dominate or stand out. He’s got individual skills, but the adjustment is going to take a bit. Still, not bad for a seventh-rounder.
It’s going to be a Herculean adjustment from Finland to North America, but if he just grinds away, he may be a better prospect than Filip Hallander. No joke.
Let’s see what he does in WBS. Expect him to get bottom-six minutes this season and don’t expect much, but if the switch flips, he could be a guy banging on the Pittsburgh Penguins door.
1. Sam Poulin
Perhaps I expected too much? Perhaps Poulin realized the lack of urgency in the camp. Probably the latter. His skating seemed OK but not explosive, and he didn’t get rough.
His size stands out, but we were waiting for him to show the same energy as Legare.
2. Filip Hallander
Don’t shoot the messenger. Hallander looks like he’s miles away. Miles and miles away. His skating isn’t quick enough to get into the battles, which puts him behind the play. He wasn’t able to get around or through the Penguins prospect defensemen.
Perhaps he has a great shot, but if he can’t beat the Penguins development camp d-men, he’s going to hand over his lunch money to the professionals in WBS. Since this isn’t his first trip to North America, we can say there may be some adjustment, but it shouldn’t be the steep learning curve that Puustinen will endure.
Hallander looked average and certainly not like a player who could challenge for a spot in training camp.
3. Jonathan Gruden
The throw-in prospect in the Penguins Matt Murray trade did little to distinguish himself. Like Poulin, perhaps Gruden, who has 32 games of AHL experience, didn’t feel challenged by the orientation week, but one would think he could have danced circles around the available players. He was swallowed up, instead.
Pittsburgh Penguins Wrap
There was more talent than I expected. The WBS Penguins may be fun to watch if a few kids stick around, and we get to watch Hallander/Puustinen/Cam Lee develop. Of course, Poulin and Legare will likely be there, too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lack size in the prospect pool and assuredly depth, but one or two prospects may surprise with the WBS Penguins. At this moment, that would seem like a win.