Hello Jeff Carter. The Pittsburgh Penguins lines through training camp and the beginning of the season will bear little resemblance to the units that roll off head coach Mike Sullivan’s bench once Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin recover from their respective surgeries. The centers’ absences are both a disappointment and an opportunity for a few Penguins prospects.
The disappointment factor will be when top Penguins prospects Sam Poulin or Nathan Legare don’t get to skate beside a top-six center, even in for a few days in camp. The further disappointment will be that none of the Penguins’ hopefuls get a look with talent in the middle.
With full respect to Teordors Bleugers (Teddy Blueger), who was a force in the Olympic qualifying tournament for Latvia, Blueger isn’t going to shine the spotlight on the kids in the same way, nor will playing with Blueger begin to answer THE fundamental question about the young wingers:
Do they have the hockey IQ, speed, or ability to play on the Penguins’ top lines?
We’re just not going to get those answers in the coming few weeks, but we will see who is taking steps forward to make the NHL club.
Which Pittsburgh Penguins Stock Can Rise?
1. Sam Poulin.
No question the 2019 first-round pick can impress with a strong camp and perhaps force his way into the lineup. Some scouting projections have upgraded his ceiling from productive third-line winger to a possible top-six sidecar.
PHN isn’t ready to elevate him to top-six material just yet, but a productive, hard to play against winger on the third line would be a nice get. Poulin has shown well in a pair of camps, including the scrimmages before the 2020 bubble playoffs.
Poulin has the ability to get to the right spots for scoring chances, and he’s a thick player. However, he can also be too conservative, almost deferential with the big club. His finishing skills have not yet shown up against professional goalies, either.
So, he is a blue-chip stock poised for growth.
2. Nathan Legare
Perhaps no Penguins prospect has a better chance to shape perceptions than Legare. Like Poulin, he won’t get to shine with a talented pivot in camp, but oh that wrist shot. Happy Gilmore tips his cap.
PHN video scouting reviews of Legare’s evolution later in the QMJHL season showed a better skating stride and increased hop. He got to pucks quicker, and he was more effective on the forecheck. He’s also got an edge that Poulin does not. Legare is more physical.
He lacks Poulin’s complete game polish, but if Legare can show he can take care of his own end without needing a roadmap, he could leap over Poulin on the depth charts. Legare’s wrister puts him in the top-six conversation, eventually.
3. P.O. Joseph
Based on a cryptic Instagram post, it looks like P.O. Joseph moved out of his family home in QC and is headed to Pittsburgh. Of course, “–>Pgh” could be hope or something the organization told him.
Joseph was damn near spectacular when the Penguins called his number last February. Injuries crushed the Penguins defense, and for two games, Joseph joined right-side defenseman John Marino as the Penguins top pairing. Joseph was on his toes for five or so games, and the coaching staff used him perfectly.
However, as with all young players getting their first shot, the adrenaline wore off, and Joseph settled into his game. It wasn’t quite NHL-ready. So, in training camp Joseph will again have an unspoken (and probably outside) chance to move aside Marcus Pettersson on the third-pairing.
Joseph probably starts the season with the WBS Penguins again, but with a standout camp, he can force GM Ron Hextall’s hand–which is probably what Hextall wants. The Penguins GM likes prospects to force the issue rather than be called up prematurely.
4. Radim Zohorna
What you want to hear: Put in Zohorna! He’s big, he scored four points last season, he’s ready!!
What I’m going to tell you, instead: Zohorna is a big body whom the Penguins pushed to play between the dots and closer to the net. He showed a little more at the AHL level as the short-season progressed, but he didn’t get enough AHL seasoning to implement the lessons the Penguins were preaching.
He’s a perimeter player with soft hands. Don’t get too excited until he does, in fact, implement those lessons and learns to use his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame with some ill intent. He might stick on the roster until Sidney Crosby returns, but he must show more North American grit to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Camp is a perfect place to do it.
5. Jordy Bellerive
Insiders told us that consistency has been missing from Bellerive’s game, but he took a significant step forward in the shortened COVID season. After scoring just 22 points in 53 games in 2019-20, Bellerive sprung for 18 points (8-10-18) in 29 games last season.
An undrafted player, he used rookie camp in 2017 to earn a contract from the Penguins. He has the skills to be a tornado in the low zone and add some offense on a third or fourth line. He’s had a long road to recovery after suffering severe burns from a campfire accident in the summer of 2018.
The accident and subsequent injuries slowed him for more than a season. The Penguins organization, scouts and management, noticed.
Bellerive hasn’t been a factor in the last few Penguins camps, so this will be his chance to shine. New scouting personnel, new management, new chance.
With Drew O’Connor, Anthony Angello, and Filip Hallander in WBS, Bellerive is probably off the Pittsburgh Penguins radar, and this is his last best chance to get back on it.
6. Kasper Bjorkqvist
He’s already 24-years-old. The Providence College product improved every year under Providence coach Nate Lehman, but injuries and COVID limited him to just 11 career professional games in North America over the past two seasons.
The 2016 second-round pick risks being lost in the Penguins prospect shuffle. He’s not the net-front grinder that many hoped when former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford compared him to Patrik Hornqvist, but he is a gritty player who could add a little size and strength on the fourth line. At 6-foot-1, 211 pounds, he’s got the frame.
Does he have the speed and willingness to play the NHL game? The answer is to be determined.