Many prospects starting to make impact in NHL for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Sergei Plotnikov scored his first NHL point on Oct. 17th against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when he assisted on Olli Maata’s first goal of the 2015-16 season. (Courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Sergei Plotnikov scored his first NHL point on Oct. 17th against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when he assisted on Olli Maata’s first goal of the 2015-16 season. (Courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

 

Due to a series of graduations, trades, and lackluster player development over the past few years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a relatively depleted pool of prospects. There are several players with high-end potential, most notably 2015 second-round pick Daniel Sprong, who opened the 2015-16 season on the Penguins NHL roster. Otherwise, the Penguins system is predominantly made up of players who project as either depth guys in the NHL or career minor-leaguers.

The Penguins prospect system is almost entirely made up of players at the minor pro and collegiate ranks, with only a small handful playing at the major junior level.

Left Wing

The Penguins have several players with NHL potential at the left wing position, led by Sergei Plotnikov, a Russian winger who was signed as a free agent in the 2015 off season. Plotnikov has been impressive in the NHL thus far, skating several games alongside Evgeni Malkin before settling into the left wing spot alongside third line center Nick Bonino. He will likely never be a highly productive offensive player, but has the ability and determination to be a reliable secondary offensive threat.

Behind Plotkinov are Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, and Dominik Uher, three forwards who appear to be on the cusp of playing regular NHL minutes, albeit likely in a depth role of sorts. Wilson, a two-way forward, is the most polished of the group, and could probably play in the NHL right now if needed. Sheary is likely the most skilled however, while Uher should develop into a fourth-line forward capable of chipping in occasional offense. All three have begun the season with the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

Also at the pro level is Tom Kuhnhackl, who the Penguins hope can finally find his way offensively in the pros. Kuhnhackl has had difficulty with injuries and inconsistency over the past several seasons and has dropped down the depth chart as a result. Kuhnhackl unfortunately was injured in training camp.

Rounding out the left wing position are Troy Josephs and Frederik Tiffels. Both play at the collegiate level, Josephs for Clarkson and Tiffels for Western Michigan. Both play with a lot of speed. Tiffels is probably the more skilled of the two, having posted 20 goals over his past two seasons in the NCAA. Josephs meanwhile is a physical player who is strong on the forecheck and uses his speed to deliver hard body checks.

Center

The Penguins have several promising prospects down the middle, led by AHL forward Oskar Sundqvist, who is playing his first pro year in North America following several solid seasons in Sweden. Sundqvist is a tall, rangy center who plays an enthusiastic game on the forecheck. He has some skill too, and while he projects to be a third or fourth line player, he should be able to contribute some offense on a relatively consistent basis.

Behind Sundqvist on the depth chart are Teddy Blueger and Jake Guentzel, two highly skilled collegiate forwards who could sign professional deals once their respective college seasons are finished. In his junior season with Nebraska-Omaha, Guentzel is coming off two very productive seasons at the collegiate level and should be among the top scorers in the NCAA. He is also among the more skilled players in the Penguins system and projects to be a top-nine forward. Blueger on the other hand is a two-way forward with good puck skills and enough offensive talent to at least be an occasional contributor on the scoresheet.

The Penguins have two centers at the pro level behind Sundqvist; Dominik Simon and Jean-Sebastien Dea. Both are smallish forwards with a penchant for shooting the puck. Dea enters his second season of pro hockey while Simon begins his first in North America, following a relatively productive career in the Czech pro league. The Penguins are depending on both to provide offensive for their AHL affiliate, and the organization would like nothing more than one or both to develop into NHL forwards. Simon appears to have the greater amount of offensive potential of the two, but will need some time to adapt to the North American style of game. Dea meanwhile needs to develop greater consistency in his offensive game, as well as learn to be more responsible in his own end.

Further down the depth chart, collegiate forwards Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello, as well as junior A forward Nikita Pavlychev. All are considered long-term projects at this point in their development and are not likely to sniff the pro game for at least two or three more years.

Lafferty is entering his sophomore season with Brown. A big two-way forward with good straight-line speed, Lafferty does not have a great deal of offensive upside, but could serve in a depth role for the Penguins down the road.

Angello and Pavlychev are two of the biggest players in the Penguins system, with Angello standing at 6-foot-4 and Pavlychev at 6-foot-7. Both are probably three to five years away from playing at the professional level, but they bring something sorely lacking in the Penguins system—size. Angello has to improve his skating, especially his first step, in order to compete at the NHL level. Pavlychev meanwhile needs to fill out his massive but lanky frame. Angello is entering his freshman season for Cornell while Pavlychev is returning to the USHL for another year before joining Penn State in 2016-17.

Right Wing

What little high-end potential the Penguins do have at forward resides on the right side of the ice, with Sprong leading the pack. A second-round pick from 2015, Sprong has shown in limited NHL ice time that he has the potential to be a top-nine forward at the highest level of hockey. The Dutch-born Sprong spent the past two seasons in the QMJHL, and while he may return to juniors this year, he currently provides their NHL roster with something they cannot replace in the system, high-end skill.

Also slotting in at right wing at the pro level is Josh Archibald, Anton Zlobin, Bryan Rust, Tyler Biggs, and Matia Marcantuoni.

Rust is the most NHL ready of the group, now playing in his second pro season. The 23-year-old forward possesses high-end speed and has a knack for shooting the puck frequently and from everywhere on the ice. He does not have the type of offensive upside that will make him a consistent threat on the scoresheet, but he has been a positive possession player early on this season.

Archibald and Marcantuoni are speedy wingers who could potentially crack the NHL roster as a depth player one day, but both of them need to get stronger and develop into more reliable all-around players at the AHL level first. The opposite could be said for Biggs, who is big and strong, but needs to get faster, especially in his first step, in order to be an NHL regular. All three will ply their trade as depth players in the AHL for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season.

Now in the third and final season of his entry-level contract, Zlobin needs to get comfortable playing hockey after two separate shoulder surgeries over the past two seasons. He has begun the 2015-16 season for the Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers. Zlobin possesses an incredible release and has the potential to be a solid goal scorer in the pros, but has unfortunately not been able to stay healthy.

Blaine Byron, now in his junior season with the University of Maine, possesses high hockey sense and has shown a lot of skill at the college level. He is not quite fast or slick enough to pull off a lot of the stuff he does in the NCAA, but his skills with the stick and puck should translate fairly well to the NHL level, assuming of course that he can get stronger.

At the bottom of the right wing depth chart is Jaden Lindo. Selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, Lindo possesses unique size for the Penguins system, standing at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds. Having recovered from a knee injury in 2014, Lindo is off to a strong start in his fourth season in the OHL. How he performs over the 2015-16 season will largely determine whether or not he signs an entry-level contract, but Lindo possesses the size and heavy style of game that the Penguins lack in their system.

Defense

At one point the Penguins had a defensive prospect pool so deep, that it was the envy of the league. Between 2009 and 2012 then-GM Ray Shero used six of their eight picks in the first two rounds of the draft to select defensemen. He then traded for another former second-round pick, Brian Dumoulin, at the 2012 Draft, adding a seventh high-end defensive prospect to the pool. Now, a little more than three seasons later, only three of those defensemen—Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, and Dumoulin—remain in the system, with Maatta graduating two seasons ago.

Dumoulin, now a regular in the Penguins lineup, should graduate at some point during the 2015-16 NHL season. He has grown increasingly comfortable in a third-pairing role for the Penguins and while he has yet to do much offensively, that part of the game could come as he grows more comfortable. Regardless, Dumoulin has the size, strength, and skating ability to be an NHL regular.

Pouliot had a rough training camp in 2015 and was assigned to the AHL to start the 2015-16 season. A dynamic puck-moving defenseman, Pouliot projects to one day be a top-four defenseman for the Penguins, but has had difficulty with his defensive zone assignments. It seems like only a matter of time before he is once again promoted to the NHL however, as the Penguins have few defensemen with his high-end skating and puck-moving abilities.

Another young defensemen playing for the Penguins at the NHL level is Adam Clendening. Acquired in the trade that sent Brandon Sutter to the Vancouver Canucks, Clendening is a former second-round pick from 2011, and he has established he is a viable NHL defenseman in short order. An offensive defenseman in college and at the AHL level, Clendening appears better suited as more of a two-way defenseman at the NHL level.

Further down the pro depth chart are physical defensemen Reid McNeill and Harrison Ruopp. McNeill has firmly entrenched himself as a regular in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins lineup, and is on a developmental trajectory that could allow him to see the NHL in the not too distant future. Ruopp has had a great deal more difficulty establishing himself in the lineup, and now in the final year of his entry-level contract, his long-term prospects with the Penguins organization are hazy.

The Penguins also have a handful of potential depth defensemen playing in the college ranks right now, led by Union defenseman Jeff Taylor.

An entertaining player to watch, Taylor loves to show off his creativity and freelance with the puck. He posted great numbers for Union college last year, managing four goals and 27 assists in 34 games. Defensively, his game needs a lot of work, but Taylor’s ability to move the puck and create offense are something that is currently lacking in the Penguins system. He’s now in his junior season with Union and will likely finish out his college eligibility.

Ryan Segalla is another collegiate defenseman who has some NHL potential. Also in his junior season, there seems to be an outside chance Segalla signs with the Penguins at the end of the 2015-16 season. His simple, physical style combined with his strong legs and good skating ability should allow him to transition to the pro game relatively smoothly. He does not possess a great deal in the way of offensive ability, but possesses good hockey sense and anticipates the play well.

Last but not least is Dane Birks, a freshman with Michigan Tech. Selected in the 2013 draft, Birks played two seasons with the Merritt Centennials of the BCHL. A puck-moving defenseman by trade, Birks is a long-term prospect at this point in his career. He has decent size, but must get stronger and develop into a more reliable presence in his own end first.

Goaltending

The Penguins have arguably one of the top young goaltending prospects in pro hockey in Matt Murray. The tall, athletic young goaltender took the AHL by storm last season, managing 12 shutouts as a rookie and setting a handful of records in the process. He is firmly entrenched as the AHL starter and should be pushing for a backup job behind NHL starter Marc-Andre Fleury in the next couple years. Murray could see time in the NHL even sooner if Fleury were to go down with injury, though the Penguins veteran netminder has been historically very durable.

Right behind Murray on the depth chart is Tristan Jarry. Not as proven a commodity at the AHL level, Jarry still possesses a lot of promise and should push Murray for starts right off the bat. Jarry also possesses good size for a goaltender, and is probably the better puck-mover of the two, but he lacks the raw athleticism and long limbs of Murray. Both goalies should continue to get better with time.

At the NCAA level, goaltender Sean Maguire is returning to the ice after missing an entire season of hockey due to concussion symptoms. For the 22-year-old junior, the most important thing is he gets starts, stays healthy and gains confidence. The athletic Maguire has plenty of ability, but must be able to stay in the lineup in order to capitalize on it. He started his NCAA career fairly strong, posting a 13-8 record, and there is reason to believe that if he can stay healthy, he can once again reach that level.

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