MONTREAL — It seems like a lifetime ago that Bryan Rust and then Jake Guentzel were fresh-faced players a year or two removed from college hockey trying to establish themselves in the NHL. In 2015-16, it took a few trips up and down from the AHL for Rust to finally stick in the big show and a few more years before his offensive game blossomed. Guentzel’s first ascension in 2016-2017 quickly became permanent, and he is the last Penguins prospect to make a lasting impact among the top six forwards.
Guentzel and Rust were third-round picks. More than four years ago, the Penguins snagged Valterri Puustinen from the Finnish Elite League in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL Draft, but Puustinen is looking like the first prospect since the pair to make a scoring line impact.
The Penguins might have found another diamond in the rough.
The 5-foot-9, 183-pound forward has played only three NHL games and has an assist in each, the first rookie since Evgeni Malkin 17 years ago to score in his first three games (Malkin scored a goal in each of his first six). Tuesday, Puustinen assisted on the first Penguins power-play goal, which was the team’s first man-advantage marker in over one month and 37 tries.
That Puustinen, 23, was on the top power-play unit and a contributing part of the Penguins’s second line is also part of the story.
“I think (Puustinen) has been pretty good,” coach Mike Sullivan said with a bit of emphasis. “Always, when you play on a line with Geno and Reilly, you play in the top six like that, there’s pressure to perform. And I think he handles it extremely well. He has a quiet confidence. I think he knows he’s a good player. So I think he’s fit right in with those guys and certainly doesn’t look out of place.”
Still, coaches are sheltering Puustinen. He played just under 12 minutes Tuesday, despite the Penguins getting nearly five minutes of power play time and linemates Smith and Malkin playing 18 and 20 minutes, respectively.
With some help and some good play, Puustinen’s advanced metrics are through the roof. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, he has a 64% Corsi, and 70% scoring chance rate, and a 65% expected goals-for (xGF).
The Malkin line was nearly Sahara dry over the past month as Rickard Rakell left the lineup with an injury. With Puustinen, both Malkin (0-2-2) and linemate Reilly Smith (1-1-2) have two points in the last two games.
The feisty winger won’t be a dominating net-front presence but has shown a little spark. Last week, the team returned Alex Nylander to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after five largely irrelevant performances and no points. Puustinen was part of a three-player emergency call-up as injuries mounted. He immediately claimed a spot on Malkin’s right wing and has done more to earn it rather than lose it.
For a kid who didn’t speak English and could only say “Good morning” and “Hi, I’m Valtteri,” Puustinen has made great progress in a short period of time since crossing the Atlantic from the Finnish Elite League two years ago. He doesn’t yet speak English fluently, and there’s a little language barrier, but he was confident enough to answer questions from Pittsburgh Hockey Now.
He’s also confident enough to hold the puck or distribute it on the Penguins star-studded power play.
“This is a really good time for me to play with the best players in this league, and I’m doing my best now,” Puustinen said on Monday. “I’m helping the power play and helping the offense.”
Last season, spent exclusively in the AHL, Puustinen popped 59 points, including 24 goals, in 72 games. In his North American rookie season, he scored 20 goals with 42 points in 73 games.
Tuesday night, Puustinen showed his offensive instincts. He was quick to a loose puck in the offensive zone before collapsing the penalty killers by briskly skating deep into the zone. His urgency and ability to put the puck on Sidney Crosby’s tape created an opening for Crosby to deftly set up Jake Guentzel for a power-play goal.
“He’s more comfortable in this call-up than he was in the first one. And I think his play shows it,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s a confident kid, and I think he has really good offensive instincts. We’re hopeful that he can get better with each game. I think the learning curve for him will be steep. And, you know, we’re hopeful that with every game he plays, he’s going to get that much better for us.”
It was the first Penguins power-play goal since Nov. 11.
And Puustinen is trying to stick around, he admits to only very modest goals.
“I don’t know. Maybe I can grab a pass and shoot the puck.”