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Poulin, P-O, Legare & Riikola: What Penguins Can Expect Next Season

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Pittsburgh Penguins Sam Poulin, Juuso Riikola, Nathan Legare, P-O Joseph

Young legs, hungry hearts, and perhaps every bit as important, less money. The Pittsburgh Penguins will add a healthy dose of youth to the lineup, which has fans salivating and playing GM as to who fits into the Penguins 2020-21 lineup. Everyone from Sam Poulin to Nathan Legare has been penciled into the lineup.

A Penguins team source was very high on Poulin, earning a spot and exceptionally high on P-O Joseph. Very high on Joseph.

There are some complications before either can earn a spot in the lineup, and there is the primary question: Are the kids ready?

“This could be a year where we try to get younger, but in a way that we feel we can still win,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said on Tuesday. “Bringing some new, young energy in. We’re going to have to make some changes because of the cap.”

PHN has scouted the players in question, both in person and on video. We hope the accumulation of 20 years covering and inside the game will be enough. We’ve also been in touch with internal team sources and scouts. We place the highest value on professionals.

In the enthusiasm for prospects, sometimes, a player’s potential is overstated because it’s yet untapped. There’s certainly been a few overstatements. PHN always will deliver the truths regardless of sentiment or widespread hopes.

Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects and Hopefuls
1. Sam Poulin

We liked Poulin in limited training camp action. The Penguins 2019 first-round pick showed growth in juniors, and his skating seems a step better, too. He’s a big body who isn’t a hitter, but he is tough in the battle areas.

PHN+ subscribers can get the full scouting report here.

The good news is, the Penguins will have a hole on their left win. Maybe.

The bad news is Poulin is left-handed. Even though NHL publications originally listed him as a RW, he played LW at Sherbrooke of the QMJHL. For Poulin to have a spot in the lineup, the left-wing has to be open. If the Penguins decide Jared McCann is not their third-line center, and the results were mixed, then McCann would be the third line LW.

That’s the first problem, and maybe the only problem.

Poulin is close to NHL ready. He’s got a hard shot, he’s a big boy, and he filled the net in the Q. One thing to consider, if the Penguins don’t have the right space for Poulin, or if he’s borderline ready, he is a “slide” candidate. The Penguins will have to choose to return him to juniors or keep him on the NHL roster. He won’t be able to play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. So, if he doesn’t perform well in camp, he’s gone for the year.

NHL Probability Next Season: 7.5/10

2. Pierre-Olivier Joseph

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach and GM Mike Vellucci LOVES this kid. The 21-year-old defenseman skates like the wind, and he has good vision. Vellucci gave the first-year professional a crash course and played him 27-minutes per game, in all situations.

Based on the firm advocation from one team source, who is not on the hockey ops side, a good portion of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization expects Joseph to stick around whenever training camp begins.

PHN did a full breakdown of Joseph’s game here.

For subscribers, Vellucci lent his expertise to our endeavor, too.

The skinny: Vellucci felt Joseph could play sheltered minutes in the NHL this season, but was certain Joseph would be ready for limited NHL minutes in the 2020-21 season.

The million-dollar question is, will Joseph be ready for regular minutes? The Penguins took him along for the all-too-short playoff run, and he was part of the expanded 31-player roster who were in the bubble.

The first problem is Joseph’s size. He’s 6-foot-2, but only 161 pounds. He may have a problem in the NHL until he adds bulk. The question is his readiness to be a regular top-six defenseman. That’s not a guarantee. Lastly, the left side of the Penguins defense is already crowded. Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson have the top two spots. Currently, Jack Johnson has the third spot, though if the Penguins move Johnson, Juuso Riikola has been waiting in the wings.

For Joseph to jump to the NHL, the Penguins will need to move Johnson, AND he will likely need to leapfrog Riikola. It wouldn’t help Joseph’s development to be the seventh defenseman and have press box duty. Despite our source’s enthusiasm, Joseph is not a slam dunk for the NHL, at least to start.

NHL Probability Next Season: 10/10, but don’t look for him to start the season in the top-six.

3. Nathan Legare

Perhaps the hardest shot in the entire Penguins organization, the Penguins 2019 third-round pick, was a first-round pick on some amateur draft boards. The Penguins did not have a third-round pick, but a little tug from Penguins analytics guru Sam Ventura spurred Penguins GM Jim Rutherford into action. The Penguins traded back into the third round for Legare.

It’s important to temper the expectations with Legare. He scored a couple of goals in the preseason and earned an entry-level contract, but he had a tough year in juniors.

Here is the PHN+ full scouting report. 

Don’t expect Legare to be in the NHL this year. Our scouting report showed a continued skating deficiency and exposed defensive zone flaws. If the Penguins can mold Legare, and he works on his skating, his shot could light the scoreboard often. However, he’s not yet ready. The Penguins will most likely return him to the QMJHL for one more year.

The Pittsburgh Penguins did not invite Legare to their Phase 3 training camp.

NHL Probability Next Season: 2/10

4. Juuso Riikola

Riikola will be 26-years-old next season, and it will be his third in North America. Sources told us Riikola plans to stay in North America and won’t play in Finland this fall, as some players are considering as an insurance policy against a further delayed NHL season.

The buzz to insert Riikola into the lineup was widespread in the first month of the season. However, Penguins rookie defenseman John Marino surpassed Riikola on the depth chart.

For the questions about WHY Riikola didn’t play, a Penguins team source opened up to PHN. The Penguins love Riikola’s skill set but weren’t yet comfortable with Riikola’s adjustment to the North American rinks. The Penguins coaches felt Riikola was short on defensive awareness, and his angles were off.

Here the Riikola examination.

Riikola is one of the Penguins RFAs with arbitration rights. Assuming he is on the roster, Riikola would be the favorite to supplant Johnson on the third pairing, regardless if Johnson is on the roster or not.

The Pittsburgh Penguins could set up a competitive training camp battle between Riikola and Joseph for the third pairing. Interestingly, both Joseph and Riikola are mobile, puck-moving defensemen. Rutherford could look for a defensive anchor on the right side

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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