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Reader Q: Which Penguins Prospects are Ready for the NHL?

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Pittsburgh Penguins prospects PO Joseph
Pittsburgh Penguins PO Joseph Training Camp. Photo by Greg Thornberry. All Rights Reserved.

There have been a few midseason, and later season call-ups who have made a big difference in Pittsburgh Penguins history. If you go back far enough, the Muskegon line with Jock Callander, Mike Needham, and Dave Micalyuk helped save the 1992 Stanley Cup. For those of you who are under 40, the names are more relevant. Players like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, and Bryan Rust made big splashes in the 2016, and 2017 Stanley Cup runs.

Guentzel was heralded, but the Sheary and Rust were not expected to be difference makers, certainly not to the high degree they were. Rust bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL a couple of times before it clicked.

They weren’t exactly young Cinderellas out of nowhere about to win their first Stanley Cup (apologies, Bill Murray), but they were welcome surprises. Sheary had 53 points in 61 games when he finally broke through.

First, a cheap plug. On Tuesday at noon, Pittsburgh Hockey Now is doing a live video chat with WBS Penguins play-by-play announcer Nick Hart. Yes, we’re doing a deep dive into the Penguins prospect pool with a good set of hockey eyes who sees them first-hand, every night.

 

 

So, who is next?

The Forwards

Superficially, this is an easy question. Per the forwards, you’ve seen the best Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had to offer with Thomas Di Pauli, Andrew Aggozino, and Anthony Angello. The Penguins did add Riley Barber and Kevin Roy via trades, and both of those players have NHL experience and could fill-in as NHL players, but neither are long term NHL solutions.

So, no there isn’t another Rust, Sheary or Guentzel coming–at least from WBS.

I often get questions about Adam Johnson. He’s fast, but he’s slight and (without watching much of him this season) he can disappear for a while. The Penguins had plenty of chances to recall him this season but did not put him in the rotation with the others. He’s now about to turn 26-years-old, and the book is likely written on Johnson.

Other names that I get asked about occasionally are Filip Hallander and Kasper Bjorkqvist. Fans got excited when Bjokrqvist began to draw comparisons to Patric Hornqvist, but he didn’t show well in training camp. He’s young and has time to improve, but he lost nearly the full 2019-20 season to injury. He played only six games before being injured. 

In camp, Bjorkqvist lacked explosiveness in his skates. He didn’t have the necessary first steps. So, for now, he’s a work in progress.

Hallander was similar in that his skating was substandard, but Hallander was much further behind. He wanted to come to North America this season (he told PHN, in no uncertain terms), but the Penguins didn’t bite. They sent him back to the Swedish Elite League, where he had 14 points (5g, 9a) in 27 games.

In other words, the Pittsburgh Penguins do not have a forward prospect with the WBS Penguins ready to be the next Bryan Rust. Johnson would have been the guy.

The offseason could bring new names or more changes, but the Penguins don’t have many draft picks to make that happen. Perhaps a veteran trade at the NHL level will bring prospects, but the Penguins next NHL players aren’t playing pro hockey yet.

The Ones to Watch

Sam Poulin, their 2019 first-round pick, is next up for the Penguins. Nathan Legare is behind him. These guys are the real deal. Poulin very well could crack the Penguin in 2020-21. Legare is probably a year behind, or two because he may need a year of AHL seasoning, too.

And some fun names for the devoted to keep your eyes on are Valtteri Puustinen, whom the Penguins snagged with one of their seventh-round choices in 2019. Puustinen, 20, is tiny at 5-foot-9 but had three assists for Team Finland at the 2020 World Juniors. He’s got offensive skills.

Recent free-agent signee Drew O’Connor from Dartmouth isn’t on the immediate radar, yet. His game needs mature, but we’ll revisit this topic next December or January to see where his development goes. Check out the PHN video scouting of O’Connor here.

Defenseman Prospects

The Penguins cupboard isn’t stocked, but it’s not empty even after GM Jim Rutherford dealt Calen Addison to Minnesota as part of the Jason Zucker deal. PO Joseph worked hard this season. The reports from WBS were glowing. He’s not ready to assume a full-time role in the NHL at this moment, but he could handle himself in sheltered minutes for a temporary stint.

Joseph, 20, is young. He’s lightning fast, has vision, and likes to play offense. Pittsburgh Penguins fans who don’t appreciate Kris Letang are going to suffer chest pains when they watch Joseph.

We broke down Joseph’s game, with a few spankings back in September during rookie camp and training camp. WBS head coach Mike Vellucci was and is very high on him. Check it out here. 

Another half-season or full campaign in WBS, and the kid will be ready. A few more cheeseburgers wouldn’t hurt either.

Niclas Almari, 22, from Finland, finished his first year in North America. It was an adjustment to the smaller rinks, but his puck poise and first pass were strong during camp. Things didn’t always go as well during his AHL season, but he really looks to have a chance to be the next Marcus Pettersson…just not for another year or two.

PHN owes you a video scouting breakdown of recent college free agent Cam Lee, too. After John Marino’s immediate impact, we never say never, but it’s unlikely he’s on the radar for NHL ice, just yet.

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