For the first time in franchise history, the Pittsburgh Penguins used all four of their picks to select European-born forwards at the 2015 NHL Draft. It was also the first time it selected all forwards since 1978, when the draft was still referred to as the “NHL Amateur Draft.”
“That’s just the way the draft tumbled,” said Penguins Co-Director of Amateur Scouting Randy Sexton. “A little bit of a United Nations approach today I guess. But I think it’s good to have that mix in the organization. Most importantly we’re happy with the kids that we got, we don’t really care where they’re from.”
The Penguins added four players with high potential for their respective draft slots, albeit ones who are of the high risk/reward variety. They went to non-traditional markets for some of the talent too; drafting a Dutch forward in the second round, an overage Czech in the fifth round, and an overage German who spent last season with Western Michigan in the sixth round. In the seventh round, they selected a 6’7 Russian who played bantam in Wilkes-Barre and is committed to play college hockey for Penn State in 2016-17.
None of these forwards will make an immediate impact for the Penguins, but a couple—Daniel Sprong in particular—have the type of offensive potential that Pittsburgh has sorely lacked in their system.
Daniel Sprong, RW, Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)
2nd Round, 46th Overall
Height: 6-0, Weight: 180 lbs
Hailing from the Netherlands, Sprong could eventually join Ed Kea as only the second Dutch player to play in the NHL. The immensely skilled winger came to North America to play hockey at an early age, playing for the Wilkes-Barre Knights at the bantam level before eventually joining the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL, where he has spent the last two seasons.
Sprong went into the draft touted as a potential late first-round pick, but he tumbled down to the 46th spot where the Penguins were happy to select him.
“We were delighted to get him,” said Sexton. “The two famous lines from every draft are, ‘We couldn’t believe he was still there’ and ‘we had him a lot higher on our list.’ Both were true today for Sprong.”
Sprong tries to model his skating and offensive style after two NHL stars: former Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane. He cites his shot and vision as his two greatest assets, though he is happy to do whatever the Penguins ask of him in order to make the team.
“I can play any role up front. If they want me to be more of a passer or scorer, I can do anything,” Sprong said. “I’d like to be a double threat when I get the puck, to either shoot or pass. My defensive game and my game without the puck [are things] Pittsburgh told me I had to work on and something I know I have to work on as well. I’m busy with it right now…and hopefully I can get that fixed as soon as possible.”
The Dutch forward will need some development time in juniors, and maybe even at the minor league level, before he is able to contribute in the NHL. However, he addresses major deficiencies in the Penguins system and instantly becomes one of the more promising forward prospects in their pipeline.
“He certainly is a young man that can score goals,” Sexton added. “[He] needs to work on the defensive side of his game, like most young players, but he’s got a wonderful attitude, strong work ethic, and we think he’s a guy that can fill either a second or third line role with us down the road.”
Sprong met with the media at the 2015 NHL Draft after his selection by the Penguins, with some of his comments being included in this Hockey’s Future video.
Dominik Simon, C/W, HC Plzen (Czech)
5th round, 137th overall
Height: 5-11, Weight: 176 lbs
When it was finally time to pick again, the Penguins swung for the fences with their selection of Dominik Simon. A 20-year-old forward who recently wrapped up his second full season playing at the Czech pro level, Simon opened up a lot of eyes recently at the World Championships, where he managed one goal and five assists through 10 games. The Penguins were among those teams that noticed.
“Simon is a late bloomer really,” Sexton commented when asked about the type of player the Penguins were getting in Simon. “He was a guy that played at the World Championships this year so our pro guys and our amateur guys got a chance to see him. Played a couple of games with Jagr and played well, looked comfortable. Outscored and outperformed many NHL players that were there. So we’re excited about him. We don’t know a lot about him, we’ve been tracking him, but what we’ve seen lately we’re pretty happy about.”
Being that he is 20, Simon is eligible to play for the Penguins minor-league affiliate, should the team choose that developmental route. Though Sexton cautioned it was too early to speculate on and the Penguins would discuss their long-term plan with Simon’s agent.
Regardless of where he plays in 2015-16, the Penguins appear to have selected a prospect with some offensive potential. He managed 18 goals in the 52 games last season in the Czech league, though he is considered to be more of a threat because of his puck skills and two-way game than his ability to finish plays. The Penguins will take a patient approach with Simon, however there has to be hope he will be ready to make a meaningful contribution sooner than later.
Frederik Tiffels, LW, Western Michigan University (NCHC)
6th Round, 167th Overall
Height: 6-1, Weight 201 lbs
The Penguins went European and overage again with their sixth round pick Frederik Tiffels. A native of Germany, Tiffels appeared on a lot of team’s radars following a strong performance at the 2014 World Junior Championships, where he managed five points in seven games on a severely overmatched German team. He was once again solid in the 2015 WJC, and after a solid freshman season with Western Michigan, the Penguins felt he had the potential to be an NHL contributor.
“Tiffels is a left-winger. He played both wings at World Juniors for Germany, but he’s a left winger,” Sexton said when asked to provide a scouting report for Tiffels. “He’s got good skills, he’s a thickly built young man. He’s got good size. His speed is slightly above average. He plays for Andy Murray at Western Michigan so you know he knows how to play both sides of the puck—which were demonstrated. We think we got a little bit of a sleeper there. We’re pretty excited about him.”
Tiffels has good size, speed, and was one of the better freshman scorers in the NCAA. He needs to work on his first step and get stronger overall, but he also needs to work on the details of his game. If his development continues in the right direction, he could eventually fill a bottom-six role for the Penguins.
Nikita Pavlychev, C, Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL)
7th Round, 205th Overall
Height: 6’7, Weight: 205 lbs
A former bantam teammate of Sprong, Pavlychev is an extraordinarily large player, at 6’7. He has a pterodactyl-type wingspan and has pretty decent vision on the ice. The Penguins have scouted Pavlychev extensively and will continue to do so now that he is among their draft prospects. Aside from seeing him at various points during his two bantam seasons in Wilkes-Barre, giant Russian is currently coached by Dave Allison, who has ties to the Penguins front office.
“Dave Allison, a former colleague of ours, raves about the quality of the person. He’s big, he’s got good skill. He’s got some real bite to his game. His skating needs work, but he’s going to Des Moines and then he’s going to Penn State,” Sexton said in his scouting report of Pavlychev. “Guy Gadowski and his coaching staff at Penn State run a wonderful program. He’ll be right in our backyard to keep an eye on him. A longer-term prospect, someone we certainly have high hopes for.”
Pavlychev is a huge Penguins fan, in particular a fan of Evgeni Malkin. It will be several years before the Penguins know what they have in the big Russian forward, but he certainly brings size to a prospect pool which was lacking in big bodies.
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @ianaltenbaugh