The Pittsburgh Penguins improved their NHL roster a fair amount in the 2015 offseason, but it was at the expense of their future. Once possessing one of the deepest groups of defensive prospects in the league, trades and graduations have left the coffers empty. It will only get worse too, as several of the Penguins’ top prospects are set to graduate during the 2015-16 season.
There are numerous prospects who can compete at the NHL level right now, but none outside of defenseman Derrick Pouliot project to be impact players in the immediate future. Others, such as forward Daniel Sprong and goaltender Matt Murray, have the potential to be very good NHL players but need more time to develop.
The Penguins system has numerous weaknesses, namely an overall lack of talent at forward and defense. The problem was exasperated when the organization sent Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Phil Kessel. There are many new faces in the fall top 20, including several picks from the 2015 Draft.
20. (NR) Fred Tiffels, LW, 6.0 C
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2015
The German-born Tiffels made a name for himself in his freshman season at Western Michigan, where he managed 11 goals and 10 assists through 32 games. Tiffels plays a game that appears conducive to the pro game. He is an excellent skater who likes to shoot the puck.
Tiffels will return to Western Michigan for his sophomore season, where he’ll be expected to take on a more prominent offensive role. He is very raw at this point, so while he has good size and skating, he needs to improve his two-way play and become a more reliable, all situation type of player.
19. (12) Dominik Uher, C/W, 6.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2011
Heading into his fourth season of professional hockey, Uher must prove he is ready to take the next step in his career. He had a fairly productive 2014-15 season in the AHL where he managed 13 goals and 13 assists while playing a mostly third or fourth line role. Uher also made his NHL debut last season and appeared in two games.
The Czech forward does not have the offensive ability to be an impactful player in the pros, but he is smart, strong, and willing to pay the physical price to make a play. He is also good at chatting up opponents and drawing penalties. Uher is one of several Penguins prospects who are eligible for waivers in 2015-16.
18. (NR) Jeff Taylor, D, 6.0 C
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2014
Taylor is coming off a breakout season with Union College, where he managed four goals and 27 assists in 34 games. Taylor is a bit of rover with the puck, and he will need to work on his defensive game to succeed in the pros. His skating is fairly good, and he is a good playmaker, but he will need to play a simpler, more defensively sound game to succeed in the pros. Expect Taylor to take on a prominent role for Union in 2015-16.
17. (13) Blaine Byron, C/W, 7.0 D
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2013
Heading into his junior season at Maine, Byron has been fairly productive in the NCAA, managing 43 points in 71 games, but he should see a considerable boost in his production this season. Aside from physically maturing, Byron seemed to really find his stride last season and should take on a more prominent offensive role.
Byron is a skilled playmaker with very good vision. He needs to develop his two-way game and get stronger, which is common for players his age, but he possesses good offensive potential.
16. (NR) Dominik Simon, C, 7.0 D
Drafted 5th round, 137th overall, 2015
Drafted as an overage player out of the Czech Republic, Simon is coming off a strong season with HC Plzen, where he managed 18 goals and 12 assists through 52 games. His stock went up considerably at the 2015 World Championships, where the host Czech Republic made a splash by defeating Finland in the quarterfinals. Simon finished fourth on the Czech team with six points and did not look out of place competing against and alongside NHL players.
The Penguins signed Simon to an entry-level deal in July and it appears as though he will begin his North American hockey career this fall, likely with their AHL affiliate. He plays a style of game that should work in the NHL, namely because he shoots regularly and from all angles. He will need to get stronger and grow accustomed to the North American style of game first.
15. (11) Josh Archibald, LW/RW, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011
Another forward entering his second season of professional hockey, Archibald was a very productive player in the NCAA but is still adapting to the pro game. Standing at 5’10 and under 180 pounds, Archibald lacks ideal size for the NHL, but he is strong and has a knack for avoiding a lot of body checks. He is not a particularly talented playmaker, and seems to do his best work battling for pucks in the corners and creating space in front of the net.
The 2015-16 season will be a good measure of the type of player Archibald will develop into at the professional level. He managed only 13 points in 45 AHL games last year, but he’s been productive enough at lower levels to suggest there is more offense to come. It remains to be seen what kind of player he develops into in the NHL, but his skating and forechecking style suggest he could at least serve in a depth capacity.
14. (8) Jean-Sebastien Dea, C/W, 6.5 C
Signed as a free agent, September 17th, 2013
A natural goal-scorer with a nose for the net, Dea is coming off a solid rookie pro season in the AHL. He has to learn to be a more effective two-way player at the pro level, because while he’s skilled, his offensive ability isn’t great enough to be a highly productive NHL forward.
Dea is strong on his skates, with good edging and pivoting. He is not the fastest skater, but his speed is by no means a hindrance either. Dea added a fair amount of strength over the past year, but he will still have to get stronger in order to compete at the NHL level. He will need another year or two in the minors before he is ready to contribute in an NHL capacity.
13. (NR) Conor Sheary, C/W, 6.5 C
Signed as a free agent, July 1st, 2015
Signed to an entry-level contract this past summer, Sheary has been in the Penguins system since spring of 2014 and played on an AHL deal over the prior season and a half. He is a quality playmaker who posted a team-high 45 points for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Sheary stands at only 5’9, but he possesses a wide base and a strong lower body, which allows him to maneuver in traffic and play against bigger players. He is a skilled forward with a nose for the net, but does not project to be a highly productive offensive player in the NHL. Instead, he should become a depth player who can put up points and maybe chip in on the second powerplay unit. Penguins management seems fairly high on Sheary, so if he has another strong season in the AHL, it would not be out of the question for him to see a call-up in the near future.
12. (12) Jake Guentzel, C/W, 7.5 D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2013
Guentzel is one of the more skilled forwards in the Penguins prospect pool. He is a strong skater with good vision, anticipation, and a soft set of hands. The main knock on Guentzel is size. While he’s added a fair amount of strength and mass since he was drafted in 2013, he still lacks ideal weight for the NHL.
In 2014-15, Guentzel was among the top scorers in the nation prior to sustaining an upper body injury and should be once again in 2015-16. He still managed with 14 goals and 25 assists in 36 games last year. Given the overall lack of skilled forwards in the Penguins system, there is an off-chance Guentzel signs with the Penguins at the conclusion of his junior season.
11. (6) Tristan Jarry, G, 7.5 D
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2013
The 2015-16 season will be a new challenge for Jarry, as he enters the professional ranks following an up and down junior career in the WHL. Jarry is coming off a tepid 2014-15 season that saw him post a 23-26-3-3 record, a .907 save percentage, and a 2.74 goals against average. His junior team, the Edmonton Oil Kings, were in a rebuild, so he received little support defensively, but the 2014-15 season was nonetheless a disappointment following a 2013-14 season where he was among the league leaders in most categories and won a Memorial Cup.
The 20-year-old goaltender will likely start the 2015-16 season in the AHL, where he’ll backup Matt Murray. Like Murray, Jarry is very athletic and possesses a lot of NHL upside.