The Pittsburgh Penguins have gone to great lengths to improve their forwards under the guidance of GM Jim Rutherford. But it has not been without great cost. The team has traded a substantial amount of assets over the past year and lacks much in the way of high-end depth. However, there are several players pushing for roles in the NHL, as well as a couple promising players down the pipeline.
The majority of the Penguins talent is concentrated in the pros and at the college level. Defenseman Derrick Pouliot and forwards Scott Wilson and Conor Sheary all have some degree of promise as NHL players, with Pouliot possessing star potential. Forwards Jake Guentzel and Teddy Blueger lead a deep group of collegiate forwards, many of whom have good offensive potential.
Top Pro Prospect
Derrick Pouliot, D, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
There is little question as to whether or not Pouliot is the top prospect in the organization. Not only is he the readiest to make an impact in the NHL, but he possesses oodles of upside and could develop into an impact player as soon as the 2015-16 season.
Pouliot is an offensive defenseman by trade, but plays a responsible defensive game. He is also probably one of the most naturally talented athletes in the Penguins system, possessing good strength and the type of endurance that will allow him to regularly play over 20 minutes a game.
Scott Wilson, W, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
It is only a matter of time before Scott Wilson earns a chance to contribute on the Penguins NHL roster. Wilson managed to get into three playoff games for the Penguins and received high praises from head coach Mike Johnston, who loved Wilson’s combination of physicality and skill.
A two-way player with decent hands, Wilson has an ideal style of game for the Penguins bottom six. He is not overly big, but plays physical and delivers very hard body checks. He proved to be offensively proficient in the AHL, managing 19 goals and 22 assists, and he appears to have enough offensive skill to contribute to the scoresheet on more than an occasional basis.
Wilson will compete with forwards Oskar Sundqvist and Bryan Rust for one of the final NHL roster spots in training camp. Even if he is returned to the minors, he will be among the first to be recalled if or when injury strikes the Penguins NHL lineup.
Anton Zlobin, RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Finally healthy after back-to-back surgeries on the same shoulder, Anton Zlobin will look to get his professional career on the right track this season. Owning supple, soft hands and an accurate wrist shot, Zlobin will try to bring some offense to the Penguins AHL affiliate. He is in the third and final year of his entry-level NHL contract and even though the Penguins are not overly deep at forward, Zlobin will nonetheless have to prove he is worthy of a new deal.
Conor Sheary, W, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Sheary had something of a breakout season last year already, managing 20 goals and 25 assists in 58 AHL regular season games. But the best appears to have yet to come. The diminutive forward, who stands around 5-foot-9, managed 23 points in his final 21 regular season games and added another 12 points in 8 playoff matches. With a year of experience under his belt, and the potential to play a regular top line role, Sheary could end up being one of the top scorers in the AHL this season, that is assuming of course he isn’t called up to the NHL at some point.
Top Junior Prospect
Daniel Sprong, RW, Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)
The Penguins consider themselves fortunate to have had Sprong fall in their laps at 46th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. Coming off a 39 goal, 49 assist season in the QMJHL, Sprong possesses the type of offensive pedigree the Penguins have lacked in their prospect pool. He has a very good shot, great skating ability, and the ability to control the pace of the game.
Sprong’s defensive game needs substantial work. He does not need to develop into a dynamic two-way force, but right now his defensive game is a liability and probably the greatest single thing holding him back from playing in the NHL.
Jaden Lindo, RW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Lindo heads into the 2015-16 season fully healthy after missing the start of the 2014-15 season because of a knee injury. It’s a good thing Lindo is healthy too, as he remains unsigned by the Penguins and needs to have a productive season in the OHL in order to earn an NHL contract. He possesses great size, good strength, and a high-motor style of game, but the offense has yet to come on a consistent basis for him. He is not a particularly dynamic player, but a small uptick in his production should be expected, if only because he is a year older, stronger, and fully healthy.
Top Amateur Prospect
Jake Guentzel, C/W, University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC)
An immensely talented playmaking forward, Guentzel is among the most skilled players in the Penguins system. He managed over a point-per-game last year, with 39 points in 36 games, and even greater offensive production is expected of him this year. Guentzel is one of the few forwards in the Penguins system that projects as a top six contributor. He is especially proficient creating offense through give-and-goes on the rush, and has the ability to create time and space for his linemates.
Frederik Tiffels, W, Western Michigan University (NCHC)
The German-born Tiffels rejoins the Western Michigan Broncos for his sophomore year. After posting 11 goals and 10 assists as a freshman, Tiffels will look to take on a more prominent role under head coach Andy Murray. A sixth round pick in 2015, Tiffels has the skating ability and projectable frame to suggest the NHL is a possibility in his future. He needs to get stronger and become an all-around better player, but his speed is something that cannot be taught. Several of the top offensive players for Western Michigan have gone pro this past offseason, so Tiffels will be in line to earn increased duties in even strength situations as well as on the powerplay.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Teddy Blueger, C/W, Minnesota State University (WCHA)
Blueger heads into his senior season at Minnesota State as an alternative captain and one of the team’s offensive catalysts. A two-way forward by trade, it seems highly likely Blueger will sign a contract with the Penguins upon completing his senior year of college. He plays a style of game that should fit at the pro level, as he is responsible at both ends of the ice and tries to always make the safe, smart play with the puck.
Sean Maguire, G, Boston University (Hockey East)
It was a rough go for Maguire, who suffered a head injury in 2014 and missed the entire 2014-15 season as a medical redshirt. The 2015-16 season is one of promise for the 22-year-old goalie however. Now that former Boston University starter Matt O’Connor (OTT) has gone pro, the starting job is up for grabs, with Maguire a likely candidate to seize the role. He was extremely effective in his freshman season with BU and quite effective in his sophomore season prior to his injury. Though he was not able to play any games last season, Maguire was healthy for much of the 2015 calendar year and worked out with the team a fair amount, so while he will need to shake off some rust, he will be in good game shape.
Top European Prospect
Dominik Simon, LW, HC Plzen (Czech)
Signed to an NHL entry-level contract, Simon might be playing in North America for a Penguins professional affiliate sooner than later, but for the purposes of this article, he is considered a European prospect.
A skilled forward with a nose for the net, Simon spent the past three seasons in the Czech pro leagues where he managed 26 goals and 17 assists in 116 games. He had a breakout season in 2014-15, managing 18 goals and 12 assists in 52 games, and after a strong showing at the 2015 World Championships, the Penguins were sold on his talents.
Simon will need some time to adjust to the North American game, but he possesses an intriguing package of skills, namely a keen ability to shoot the puck. He shoots the puck often too, and from pretty much everywhere in the offensive zone. Inked to an NHL contract back in July, Simon will push for a job on the Penguins AHL roster in training camp.