While the defensemen in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization have brought most of the talk as far as highly-touted prospects are concerned, several rookie forwards with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins – particularly those transitioning from college – are enjoying success at the pro-level through the first quarter of the 2014-15 season.
“It’s nice to be able to see those kids be able to come in and contribute right away,” AHL Penguins head coach John Hynes said after one of the team’s recent practices at the Toyota Sportsplex.
“The contributions are always nice but there’s a reason why they’re contributing,” Hynes added. “It’s been how they’ve played, their competitive level, and they’ve been fairly consistent. That part of their mental make-up and how they are playing and how they approach the game has been good to see and we want to make sure we continue that.”
One of several forwards who have made an immediate positive impact on the ice is Bryan Rust, the Penguins third round pick in 2010. After finishing his senior season at the University of Notre Dame last spring, Rust joined the AHL Penguins for their 2014 Calder Cup Playoff run, playing in two regular season games late in the year and one playoff game.
Entering his first pro season, Rust recalled his rookie experience earlier this month after a team practice in Wilkes-Barre.
“At first, it’s a little bit nerve-racking,” Rust said. “You don’t know what to expect coming in for your first training camp and your first season, so you just kind of have to come in with an open mind. You just have to work as hard as you can. I’m happy with where I’m at now and I’m happy with how I’ve worked so far.”
Rust has made it a habit in his first 22 games this season to create offense off the rush, using his speed on the wing to take the defensemen wide on the edge.
“He’s developed himself physically,” Hynes said of Rust. “I think you can see his speed and skating. His fitness level is high. It doesn’t matter what game it is, the third game in three nights, he’s one of the fastest players on the ice. That’s something that we’ve seen coming but you can see that for sure now.”
Entering the last weekend of November, Rust is tied for second in the league among rookie goal scorers with seven – one behind Bridgeport Sound Tigers defenseman Ryan Pulock (NYI).
“The thing that has really separated [Rust] now has been his work ethic and speed,” Hynes said. “That’s allowed him to be able to create a lot of chances.”
Another forward turning heads in his first pro season is Jean-Sebastien Dea, an undrafted QMJHL goal-scorer who came into the Penguins’ annual development camp in the summer of 2013 and earned an NHL contract. Dea is certainly used to having to prove himself, and he’s done well with regards to continuing to add muscle to his frame – a previous knock against Dea that scared off NHL organizations during the time of his draft eligibility.
“Every day you have to prove yourself,” Dea said after practice. “It’s never in your pocket. Every day you have to work hard and earn your spot in the lineup.”
Dea found himself out of the lineup as a healthy scratch for a few games earlier this season, but according to coach Hynes it wasn’t a performance-based decision.
“It was a little bit of adjustment for him going from junior to here, but he’s a really smart player,” Hynes said of Dea. “For him it wasn’t so much a work ethic issue it was just more about understanding the league and the game. The games we sat him out it was to have him watch guys like Andrew Ebbett that were similar to him that were older so he could get a feel for the how the league was going and put him right back in the lineup. It’s nice that he was able to do that and he keeps getting better.”
Dea also acknowledged that, while everyone wants to be playing, sitting and watching was a good learning experience for him.
“The two games I sat was good to see how the guys play and learn the little details they’re doing so I can bring that into my game,” Dea said.
There’s no questioning that Dea has some serious offensive ability. In his final two seasons in the QMJHL, Dea totaled 94 goals in 133 regular season games while adding 23 more in 25 postseason contests. This season with the AHL Penguins, he’s tied for second on the team in scoring with 13 points (6G, 7A) in 18 games. His 13 points are also tied for seventh-most in the AHL among first-year players.
“The next step for him is just a little bit more competitiveness at and on the puck,” Hynes said, adding “learning at how to – at his size and with his skill set (speed and hockey sense) – where he can win some more one-on-one battles.”
Two more forward prospects out of college for the Penguins – Scott Wilson (UMass-Lowell) and Conor Sheary (UMass-Amherst) – have enjoyed early season success and a prominent role in the lineup.
Wilson has been a top-line winger for the AHL Penguins this season, and has been flying somewhat under the radar for the Pens this year. His 12 points (3G, 9A) in 21 games are also tied for third on the team and sixth in the league in rookie scoring. Coming off three years in the Hockey East conference has paid off so far for Wilson, who plays a consistent and reliable two-way game with some offensive scoring touch implemented into his style of play.
Though on an AHL-only contract, Sheary impressed the Penguins last spring right after captaining the UMass Minutemen. Sheary caught fire in the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs, tallying 11 points (6G, 5A) in 15 playoff games, and really looked like an undrafted gem. An injury at the beginning of 2014-15 has slowed him down a bit, but he’s tallied five goals in 13 games so far this season – his first full season at the pro level.
An injury in the last drill of the last practice of the final day before the start of the regular season caused rookie Josh Archibald to miss the first 11 games of the season before making his 2014-15 regular season debut on November 7th.
“It’s obviously a pretty devastating injury,” Archibald said of his shoulder injury that caused him to miss the start of the season. “You don’t want that to happen to anybody let alone yourself. It was tough for me but to be around here and be around all these guys made it a lot easier. I had a great training staff that took care of me so that was great, but it was great to finally get back in the swing of things.”
Archibald is coming off a successful season with the University of Omaha-Nebraska in 2013-14 – one where he tallied 29 goals and was a Hobey Baker finalist playing alongside another Penguins prospect in Jake Guentzel.
“We had a great line,” Archibald said of his time at UNO last year. “We had great chemistry and I think coach realized the chemistry we had together. The biggest thing on playing with Guentzel was the chemistry. The guy is a great player. He can find you anywhere on the ice whether it’s back door or open in the slot. He’s got eyes in the back of his head pretty much.”
Now in the AHL with the Penguins, Archibald looks to translate that collegiate success at the pro level. Coach Hynes had a detailed scouting report on Archibald when I asked the Penguins coach about him.
“His speed has to be a real factor. He’s a real quick player, fast player so that needs to be an impact in the game,” Hynes said on Archibald. “He’s a guy that has the ability to score goals so it’s not necessary that he’s scoring all the time, but he needs to be an offensive threat. And then the third thing for him is he’s supposed to be a high-compete player, where’s he’s winning a lot of 50-50 puck battles and really just a difficult player to play against.
“Those three things look like they are coming around and we talked to him quite a bit about it and that’s his identity. Now it’s just bringing those on a consistent basis.”
Archibald has four points (2G, 2A) in 11 games with the AHL Penguins this season. It will be interesting to see how Archibald transitions to the pro game, especially after coming off an injury to start his first full year of pro hockey.
Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey