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Penguins Have a Major Shortfall in the Minors



Sam Poulin, WBS Penguins, Pittsburgh Penguins

Filip Hallander was a disappointment during his relatively brief run with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He never lived up to the considerable promise he showed when they invested a second-round draft choice in him in 2018. Back then, Hallander’s versatility, two-way game and hockey sense made him seem like a good candidate to grow into a middle-six job in the NHL.

Hallander stayed in his native Sweden for three seasons after being drafted, and actually was sent to Toronto in the trade that brought Kasperi Kapanen back to the Penguins in 2020, before he ever made it to North America.

The Penguins reacquired him a year later in exchange for Jared McCann and he promptly crossed the Atlantic, appearing in 61 games with their farm team in Wilkes-Barre, as well as one with the parent club, in 2021-22.

He got into two games with the Penguins during the just-concluded season and, as had been the case in his NHL debut, failed to record a point.

Last week, Hallander accepted a five-year deal to return to Sweden.

He still is a work-in-progress — Hallander won’t be 23 until June 29 — so it’s premature to write him off as an NHL-caliber talent, even if there was little reason to project him onto the major-league roster for the start of the 2023-24 season.

Regardless of where he would have shown up on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ depth chart this fall, Hallander was one of the few forwards in Wilkes-Barre who had a reasonable chance of getting in some games at this level, which is why losing him likely stings the Penguins more than it would a lot of other clubs.

At the same time, it underscores the value of re-signing Alex Nylander a day after Hallander departed. Nylander didn’t have a major impact in his nine NHL appearances in 2022-23, but he was able to step in and perform capably at this level.

There aren’t many forwards in Wilkes-Barre of whom that could be said, especially in the short term.

Sam Poulin, probably. Drake Caggiula has established NHL credentials, although he’s going to be an unrestricted free agent. Squint hard enough, and perhaps you can see, say, Valtteri Puustinen or Jonathan Gruden in a Penguins sweater.

It’s difficult to imagine any of them ever becoming a difference-maker in the NHL, though.

Forwards with that sort of potential almost certainly will have to be brought in via early-round draft choices or trades.

A more pressing concern is fleshing out Wilkes-Barre’s roster with players who can fill in when needed in Pittsburgh, which means that whoever is chosen as the Penguins’ next general manager will have to do more than just upgrade the major-league lineup.

That GM will have to convince some forwards — presumably free agents who have been in other organizations — who can compete in the NHL that their best path to steady work in the league goes through Wilkes-Barre.

It worked for Frederick Gaudreau, who parlayed a strong showing there and with the Penguins in 2020-21 into a two-year deal with Minnesota. His play with the Wild subsequently earned Gaudreau a five-year contract worth a total of $10.5 million.

The Penguins were remarkably fortunate in at least one regard during 2022-23: None of the members of their top two lines missed more than four games and three — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell — actually appeared in all 82.

Regardless of whether the Pittsburgh Penguins re-sign Zucker, they can’t count on all of their top-six forwards being so durable during the coming winter, and it’s not certain they will add a player sufficiently skilled to plug in whenever needed on the top two lines.

But if someone must be bumped up from the bottom-six to plug a hole there, that guy will have to be replaced, presumably by one from Wilkes-Barre. One who can do more than the forwards recalled from the American Hockey League did this season.

Five who spent most of 2022-23 there — Nylander, Poulin, Gruden, Caggiula and Hallander — accounted for 21 man-games in the NHL, logging a total of 202 minutes, 59 seconds of ice time.

Their offensive contribution consisted of one goal (Nylander) and two assists (Nylander, Poulin).

There is, of course, much more to this game than scoring and setting up goals. But there’s also more to winning than having 12 NHL-caliber forwards on the payroll for the regular-season opener.

Which is why, until the Penguins can bring in someone better, keeping even under-performing players like Filip Hallander in the pipeline matters.