Youth movement in full swing for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh

Photo: Scott Wilson scored a goal in his third-straight game on Sunday in a 4-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres. (Courtesy of Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Photo: Scott Wilson’s goal in a 4-3 win against Buffalo on Sunday, Feb. 21 was his third in as many games. (Courtesy of Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

10. (8) Bryan Rust, W, 6.0 B
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010

Rust, like many of the Penguins prospects, is still discovering his identity as a player in the NHL. He has the requisite speed, but the production hasn’t yet materialized. Rust was among the first Penguins forwards to be recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season. He has played in a scoring role at the AHL level, but has been limited to the third or fourth line in Pittsburgh. In 21 NHL games, Rust has 2 goals through 21 games. He has 3 goals and 3 assists through 16 games in the minors.

9. (5) Scott Wilson, W, 6.0 B
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011

Wilson has shown to be a capable player, but it remains to be seen what kind of upside he has. He’s been a high-scoring player at every level he has played at, and he’s still among the goal-scoring leaders in the AHL, with 22 through 34 games. But the production simply is not there for Wilson in the NHL. He is an effective player down low, cycles the puck well, and generally makes smart decisions, but he’s had trouble converting his opportunities. He’s been shooting the puck a lot more recently, and scored his first NHL goal on February 18th versus the Detroit Red Wings, so the production could still come around for Wilson.

8. (11) Conor Sheary, LW, 6.0 B
Signed as a free agent, July 2nd, 2015

Assigned to the AHL out of training camp, Sheary started the season with a bang, managing 25 points through his first 24 games. He received his first NHL recall in mid-December and managed a goal and an assist in his second game. He was returned to the AHL in early January, where he managed 11 points in six games before once again getting recalled to the NHL to start the month of February. On the season he has 36 points through 30 AHL games and four points through 22 NHL games.

It remains to be seen whether Sheary can maintain position in Pittsburgh. He’s good at cycling the puck down low and plays well beyond his 5-foot-8, 175-pound frame, but the points which came so easily in the minors have been much more difficult to come by in the pros.

7. (14) Dominik Simon, W/C, 7.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 137th overall, 2015

The Penguins might have unearthed a late-round diamond in the rough when they picked Simon late in the 2015 NHL Draft. The Czech forward signed an entry-level contract prior to the start of the 2015-16 season and has been productive for the Penguins AHL affiliate.

Simon managed 19 points in his first 18 games, and while his production has cooled since then, he remains one of the primary sources of offense for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It’s tough to say what kind of player he will develop into at this point, but his high hockey IQ and penchant for shooting the puck suggest he could develop into a solid, offensive forward.

6. (7) Teddy Blueger, C/LW, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012

Now in his senior season with Minnesota State, Blueger could be joining the Penguins organization as early as this spring. A two-way forward by trade, Blueger has been very solid in his final year at the college level and has 28 points through 32 games—tying his previous career-high points total from last season. The 21-year-old forward does not project to be an offensive dynamo in the pros, but he has enough skill where he should be able to contribute somewhere in the middle of the lineup. He is also a versatile player who can play multiple positions and both special teams.

5. (4) Oskar Sundqvist, C, 6.5 B
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2012

Sundqvist made his rookie debut in February and based off early returns, he looks like a solid NHL player. The big Swede is not going to develop into a prolific scorer at the highest level, but he’s big and moves extremely well for his size. He’s also very smart and conscientious and will do things such as make sure the puck is out of danger before making a line change.

Sundqvist has struggled to produce offensively in the NHL at this point and has zero points through seven games. He experienced a fair amount of success in the AHL earlier in the season, where he managed 5 goals and 11 assists through 39 games.

4. (9) Tristan Jarry, G, 7.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2013

Jarry has been impressive in his rookie AHL season. Coming off a stellar junior career, Jarry has been the backup to Matt Murray for much of the year, and has performed well in his time. He currently has a 11-3-2 record, a 2.04 goals against average, and a .929 save percentage.

With Matt Murray the presumed NHL backup for 2016-17, the Penguins can afford to let Jarry develop at his own pace in the AHL. He has already proven his ability to start at the AHL level, so it will be a matter of him sustaining that pace and performance over a busier schedule.

3. (2) Daniel Sprong, RW, 7.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2015

Although he made the NHL out of training camp, Sprong gradually fell out of favor with Penguins former head coach Mike Johnston, and he was returned to his junior team, the Charlottetown Islanders, shortly after Johnston was fired in mid-December. Despite showing flashes of skill during his stay in the NHL, Sprong managed to appear in only 18 games and was routinely a healthy scratch. At one point, he was a scratch for eight games in a row. And when he did get in the lineup, he rarely saw more than 10 minutes of ice time. The primary knock on Sprong during his time in the NHL was his defensive play. And while that is something he will need to address, it is a common problem for young, offensive forwards.

Sprong has bounced back offensively since his return to the QMJHL. He managed 6 goals in his first four games and is producing at almost a point and a half per game clip. Expect Sprong to compete for a spot on the Penguins 2016-17 NHL roster.

2. (3) Matt Murray, G, 7.5 B
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2012

The young, athletic goaltender has established himself as a bona fide NHL prospect in less than two seasons in the pros. The bar was set high for Murray, following a record-setting rookie season in the AHL, and to this point he’s delivered.

Recalled to the NHL in mid-December because of a concussion to veteran starter Marc-Andre Fleury, Murray established his NHL credentials right away, making four starts and finishing with a 2-1-1 record, a 1.72 goals against average, and a .938 save percentage. He was dominant at times and did his part to keep the Penguins competitive in all four of his starts.

Murray continues to dominate since his return to the AHL. He has not posted the gaudy numbers he did last season, but he is also playing behind a much less talented team than last year, especially given the recent bevy of prospects the Penguins have recalled. Through 29 games, Murray has a 19-8-1 record, a 2.04 goals against average, and a .932 save percentage.

1. (1) Derrick Pouliot, D, 8.0 B
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2012

Pouliot is a mobile, offensive defenseman who’s in his second year of professional hockey. There was an assumption heading into the 2015-16 season that Pouliot would make the Penguins NHL roster out of camp. That was not the case, as the blueliner played 37 AHL games before being recalled in late January.

With great vision and skill on both sides of the puck, Pouliot has the tools to be a prolific defenseman in the NHL. He’s already shown his potential in flashes but has a long way to go in his development.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh

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