New direction leads Pittsburgh Penguins minor-league prospects to win column

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Matt Murray posted stellar numbers (2-1-1, 1.72 GAA, .938 SP) during his four-game call-up to Pittsburgh in December. (Courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Matt Murray posted stellar numbers (2-1-1, 1.72 GAA, .938 SP) during his four-game call-up to Pittsburgh in December. (Courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

It has been a season of upheaval for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, as they had three head coaches in less than six months. Longtime head coach John Hynes left to become head coach of the New Jersey Devils and Mike Sullivan took over the reins. The Penguins then fired their NHL bench boss Mike Johnston, prompting the organization to promote Sullivan to take over as head coach at the NHL level. Assistant coach Jay Leach has since taken over the head coaching duties for the Penguins AHL affiliate.

Sullivan made a strong impact in his short time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, leading the team to an 18-5 record before his promotion. Leach has filled in admirably thus far, and the Penguins currently sit 20-5 in the AHL and are among the league leaders in goals scored and fewest goals allowed.

AHL

Matt Murray, G, 21

Murray has picked up where he left off, following a record-breaking 2014-15 rookie season. He came out of the gate red hot, winning eight of his first 10 games, and has been a consistent force in net all year—allowing three goals or more only four times. Murray currently possesses a 1.79 goals-against average, four shutouts, .940 save percentage, and a 13-4 record–all of which rank among tops in the league.

Because of a recent concussion to Marc-Andre Fleury, Murray was recalled to the NHL, where he got into four games before being returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Tristan Jarry, G, 20

Jarry has been impressive in his rookie AHL season, managing an 8-1 record, 2 shutouts, and a .940 save percentage. A tall, athletic netminder who is capable of taking over games, Jarry has a way to go in his development still but early signs are extremely promising. He is similar to Murray in size and athleticism.

Dominik Simon, C, 21

Rookie forward Dominik Simon has made an immediate impact on the Penguins AHL roster, scoring 11 goals and 15 assists through his first 26 AHL games—which ranks second among AHL rookies in points. A sniper by trade, Simon has an excellent shot which he is willing to unleash on net from anywhere and everywhere on ice. He is also very determined on the forecheck and possesses the offensive ability to both create and finish opportunities in the offensive zone. He has spent a lot of time on the right wing with Kevin Porter at center, but Simon is capable of playing all three forward positions.

Simon still has to work out many other facets of his game, but his development has been so rapid thus far, it would not be surprising for him to skate in some NHL games before the 2015-16 season is over.

Oskar Sundqvist, C, 21

Sundqvist has been solid in his rookie AHL season, managing five goals and eight assists through his first 32 games. Sundqvist has mostly centered the team’s third line, with Dominik Uher and veteran Tom Kostopoulos as his wingers. Sundqvist should see a call up to the NHL at some point during the 2015-16 season.

Jean-Sebastien Dea, C, 21

Dea is having an extremely solid second season in the AHL, with nine goals and nine assists through the first 32 games of the season. He’s doing so while playing mostly fourth line minutes, and by extension a fairly regular rotation of wingers. Dea has good offensive abilities, which is why the Penguins signed him to an NHL contract in the first place, but he needed to become a more complete two-way player, as his offensive ability alone was not going to get him a regular job in the NHL. While the young forward is probably not ready for the NHL yet, his development is on an upward trajectory.

Bryan Rust, RW, 23

Rust was among the first Penguins forwards to be recalled to the NHL, and while he was played sparingly, he looked the part of an NHL depth forward. Rust injured his hand or wrist in a late October game against the Nashville Predators and was on injured reserve for around a month. He was returned to the AHL squad in early December and has bounced around the lineup, playing on the first line, fourth line, and everywhere in between. He has three goals and three assists through 15 AHL games this season and zero points through five NHL games.

Josh Archibald, RW, 23

Archibald is experiencing an underwhelming second season in the AHL thus far, managing only five points through 27 games. He has played predominantly on the fourth line, centered by Dea, but has been a healthy scratch recently. A big-time scorer in at the NCAA level, Archibald was never expected to be an offensively prolific player in the pros, but his lack of production to this point has been a little disconcerting. He has been very physical despite his lack of offensive production.

Tyler Biggs, RW, 22

Biggs has been nursing an injury for much of the 2015-16 season and has appeared in only five AHL games as a result. The hulking power forward has one goal and one assists on the season, and even on the occasions he has been healthy, he has had difficulty getting into the lineup. In the final season of his entry-level contract, Biggs has to make some sort of positive impression this season for the Penguins to re-sign him. That cannot be done while on injured reserve or from the press box.

Scott Wilson, LW, 23

Wilson started the 2015-16 with a bang, managing six goals and five assists in his first seven games. He has cooled down since then, but still has 15 goals and nine assists through his first 25 games. A versatile, two-way winger, Wilson has played in the Penguins top-six, often alongside veteran center Kael Mouillierat. Wilson has been the Penguins top goal-scorer this season and has done a lot of his damage on the powerplay, where he has five goals. He was recalled to the NHL on Dec. 19.

Wilson is a versatile enough of a player to play anywhere in the lineup, and appears to have enough offensive potential to make an impact at the highest level.

Conor Sheary, LW, 23

Sheary has shown incredible growth over the past year. Signed to an entry-level contract after spending the 2014-15 season on a minor-league deal, Sheary opened this season with a goal and five assists through his first eight games. He then exploded offensively in November, managing two goals and 11 assists through 10 games. He has six goals and 19 assists through 24 AHL games, while skating on one of the Penguins top two scoring lines.

Standing at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Sheary is not a physically intimidating forward, but he is fast, strong, and plays with a great deal of determination. He is also an extremely talented playmaker and among the AHL assist leaders.

Sheary was recently recalled to the NHL and has seen some time skating alongside Sidney Crosby. It remains to be seen how long he will hold that roster spot, but Sheary should get ample opportunity give the recent retirement of forward Pascal Dupuis and injury to Beau Bennett. He scored his first NHL goal on December 18th against the Boston Bruins.

Tom Kuhnhackl, LW, 23

Kuhnhackl has battled injuries throughout much of his tenure as a Penguins prospect and the story appears to be no different for the 2015-16 season. After starting the season injured, the German sniper eventually made his way into the AHL lineup in late October. He managed to appear in nine games before sustaining another injury in mid-November, causing him to miss three weeks. Kuhnhackl has since returned to the lineup, where he has mostly skated on the fourth line. He has seven goals and eight assists through 22 AHL games.

Dominik Uher, LW, 22

Uher has been solid in his fourth season of AHL hockey. His offensive numbers are down from last season, as he has only a goal and five assists through 32 games, compared to the 13 goals and 13 assists he managed through 72 games last season, but he has continued to be an effective player on the forecheck. Uher has played mostly on the third line, alongside center Sundqvist, and has also been one of the Penguins preferred penalty killers. Uher does not possess immense upside, but his game is solid enough for him to play in a fourth line role at the NHL level.

Derrick Pouliot, D, 22

It seemed like a lock for Pouliot to start the 2015-16 season in the NHL, but the young defenseman was assigned to the minors following a weak training camp, and has played there all season. The Penguins seem intent on having Pouliot log huge minutes at the AHL level and develop into more of a leader of the team, a role he would not be able to develop at the NHL level. Playing alongside a variety of defensemen, including veteran Steve Oleksy and Clark Seymour, Pouliot has managed to post five goals and 13 assists through 31 AHL games. An offensive defenseman with elite puck-moving ability, Pouliot has played in all situations for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, but has looked particularly strong on the powerplay.

Pouliot should eventually be called up to the NHL this season. His puck-moving ability is something the Penguins lack on the back-end, and it would also be a benefit to their streaky powerplay.

Reid McNeill, D, 23

The physical, stay-at-home defenseman has been solid in his fourth season of professional hockey, mostly playing third-line minutes. McNeill plays a simple, physical game, and can probably fill in as a depth forward in case injury were to ravage the Penguins defense. Through 23 games, McNeill has three assists and 21 penalty minutes.

ECHL

Anton Zlobin, RW, 22

The Russian sniper made the Wheeling Nailers’ opening day roster, and appeared in two ECHL games before sustaining an injury. He appeared in several more games before once again going down with an injury. He has played well since returning, registering four goals and eight assists through a total of 16 ECHL games.

Harrison Ruopp, D, 22

Ruopp started the 2015-16 season in the ECHL but has since been recalled to the AHL because of injuries. A big, physical defenseman, Ruopp plays a rough and tumble style of game, but has had difficulty finding a regular spot in the lineup. He is one-dimensional in his play, and there are several players ahead of him on the depth chart, so he will need to make every effort to set himself apart with what limited opportunities he is provided.

Matia Marcantuoni, RW, 21

Marcantuoni has experienced his fair share of struggles early into the 2015-16 season. The speedy winger started the season on the AHL roster and played five games before being sustaining an injury in practice, which put him out of the lineup for a couple weeks. He was eventually re-assigned to the ECHL, but was injured a second time and placed on injured reserve. He has three points through five AHL games and five points through seven ECHL games.

Top Performing Non-AHL/ECHL Prospects

Several NCAA prospects are having high profile seasons for the Penguins, namely forward Jake Guentzel, who leads the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks with 10 goals and 14 assists through 16 games. Guentzel has been a dynamic force for the Mavericks, as he is seemingly a threat to make a play for the team every time he touches the ice. He has six multi-point games, including a two goal, three assist game against Ohio State in late November. His 24 points rank him 6th in the nation in points. It remains to be seen whether or not the Penguins will try to sign him to an NHL deal at the end of his college season, but he would bring much needed offensive depth to their professional system.

The Penguins recently returned forward Daniel Sprong to the QMJHL. The 18-year-old rookie was struggling to get into games, appearing in 18 of 31 possible games with the Penguins, and when he was in the lineup, he averaged under nine minutes per game.

By contrast, Sergei Plotkinov has worked his way into the regular forward rotation at the NHL level and has seen some time flanking star center Evgeni Malkin. Plotkinov has been a dominant possession player, and has been very effective on the forecheck, but the offense has continued to elude him, as he has only two assists and 31 shots on net through 30 games.

Prospect of the Month: Teddy Blueger

Teddy Blueger - Pittsburgh PenguinsCenter Teddy Blueger has also been solid in his senior season with Minnesota State. The two-way center currently has five goals and 12 assists through 20 games, and is currently riding a five-game, 10-point scoring streak, which began on November 28th. The Latvian-born center has been especially timely in his offensive this season, with four of his five goals being game-winners. In his final year of NCAA hockey, Blueger should sign with the Penguins as soon as his season has finished.

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