Solid group of NCAA prospects coming through the pipeline for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Jake Guentzel joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins immediately after his season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha ended. (Courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire )

Photo: Jake Guentzel joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins immediately after his season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha ended. (Courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire )

 

 

The Pittsburgh Penguins have long stood by the practice of drafting NCAA-bound players in the later rounds of the NHL draft, regardless if it was under former GM Ray Shero or current GM Jim Rutherford. The rationale was simple, NHL teams own the rights to collegiate prospects for four years, while they only own the rights to major junior players for two years. This not only allows smaller or less talented players to develop at a slower pace but also gives the organization two more years to evaluate the player before making a financial commitment to them.

The approach has paid off recently for the Penguins, who have received contributions from several collegiate-trained prospects, namely forwards Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, and Bryan Rust. There appear to be several more forwards on the way, headlined by 2012 second round pick Teddy Blueger, and 2013 third round pick Jake Guentzel.

By contrast, the Penguins do not have any prospects playing in Europe right now. They have occasionally drafted talent out of Europe, most recently picking Dominik Simon in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, but these players have all since signed NHL contracts and are playing in North America.

NCAA

Jake Guentzel, C/W, University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC)
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2013

Omaha-Nebraska has struggled this season, but it has not been for lack of contributions from Guentzel. The 21-year-old forward has 19 goals and 27 assists through 35 games this season, and his 46 points not only leads UNO by a wide margin but ranks tenth in the nation. Guentzel is on the ice in most situations for UNO and has contributed offensively both on the powerplay and penalty kill.

When the Penguins selected Guentzel in 2013, he was undersized at 5’9” and 157 pounds, but he has since added almost 20 pounds in weight and an inch in height. He plays a game that is suited for the Penguins, as he has good speed which he uses to create offense off the rush and a high hockey IQ. Guentzel recently signed an entry-level contract and amateur try-out deal with the Penguins. His contract is set to begin in the 2016-17 season. The amateur contract will allow him to play for the Penguins AHL team this spring.

Teddy Blueger, C/W, Minnesota State University (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012

Selected in the 2012 NHL Draft for his puck skills and hockey IQ, Blueger has developed considerably over the past four seasons with Minnesota State. Standing at 6’ and 185 pounds, Blueger is a bit undersized for the NHL, but he has a stout frame and is strong on the puck. He currently led Minnesota State with 24 assists and 35 points, and contributed in all situations. He managed only 11 goals through 40 games this year, but seven of them were game-winners. Aside from offensive production, Blueger is a solid two-way player who is very good in the faceoff dot.

The Penguins signed Blueger to a two-year, entry-level contract recently, which will begin in the 2016-17 season. He also signed an amateur try-out contract and is expected to play out the season with the Penguins AHL affiliate.

Blaine Byron, C/W, University of Maine (Hockey East)
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2013

Byron has been through a tough junior season with Maine, where he finished with 8 goals and 16 assists through 38 games. Although falling short of his 27 points from last season, the 21-year-old still figured into over 30 percent of Maine’s 76 goals and was one of the few players they could consistently rely on to provide offense.

Byron will likely return to Maine for his senior season. Developmentally, he has a long way to go before he can contribute at the NHL level, but he has shown flashes of potential over the past few seasons in college. Given his hockey IQ and overall puck skills, he appears well suited to play a two-way role at the pro level.

Troy Josephs, W, Clarkson University (ECAC)
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2013

Josephs is hard to miss when on the ice, as he is typically the guy delivering crushing body checks in the corners and along the boards. Josephs 2015-16 season had several setbacks, as he struggled to score early on in the season, managing only one goal through his first 13 games. He also suffered an undisclosed injury towards the end of the season, and missed six games as a result. He finished his junior year with 5 goals and 7 assists through 28 games.

Despite his offensive struggles, Josephs played fairly solid two-way hockey, especially during the second half of the year, was solid on the forecheck, and took a lot of key faceoffs for Clarkson.

As with several of the Penguins collegiate prospects, there is a possibility they will make him a pro offer, if only because of a general lack of forward depth in their minor league system, especially with the recent promotions of Rust, Sheary, and Wilson.

Frederik Tiffels, W, Western Michigan University (NCHC)
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2015

Tiffels is an intriguing prospect for the Penguins. The German-born forward has been solid through two seasons in the NCAA and possesses a combination of speed and size that could make him an effective forward at the professional level. He’s solidly built at 6’1”, 200 pounds, and plays a fairly simple, straight-line style of game. He has decent skill level too, managing 7 goals and 10 assists through 36 games for a Western Michigan team that struggled to score goals and win games.

Expect Tiffels to probably play at least one more season with the Broncos before signing a professional deal.

Ryan Segalla, D, University of Connecticut (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2013

Segalla had a bit of a down year in 2015-16, but he remains a promising defensive prospect for the Penguins. He is exceptionally physical, so much so that he will occasionally go overboard, as evidenced by his spearing penalty and subsequent suspension this past November. Through 21 games, he managed 2 assists.

The Penguins will at least explore signing Segalla to a professional contract this off-season. Their minor-league system is barren of defensive prospects and he could immediately compete for a regular top-six role on defense next season.

Dane Birks, D, Michigan Tech University (WCHA)
6th round, 164th overall, 2013

Birks was solid, if unspectacular in his first season with Michigan Tech, following an academic red-shirt season in 2014-15. Through 31 games, Birks managed 3 assists and 16 penalty minutes. He has good size at 6’3”, 190 pounds, and while he does not possess game-breaking speed or skill, he has a skill-set that could allow him to develop into a competent defenseman in the pros.

Jeff Taylor, D, Union College (ECAC)
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2014

The junior at Union College had a down season by any measure, as he managed only 2 goals and 10 assists through 36 games, after managing 31 points in 34 games the year prior. A puck-moving defenseman by trade, Taylor played more of a traditional defensive role this season, which at least contributed to his lack of offense from the blue line.

It is likely that Taylor will return to Union for his senior season, but there is an outside chance the Penguins will try to sign him, given their lack of system-wide defensive depth. Regardless, he needs a lot of work before he can be a viable NHL contributor. His defensive game in particular remains a work in progress.

Sam Lafferty, C, Brown University (ECAC)
Drafted 4th round, 113th overall, 2014

It was a difficult season for Lafferty, who recently wrapped up his sophomore year with Brown. He posted 4 goals and 6 assists through 31 games, and Brown as a team struggled to not only score goals, but prevent them too. The team ranked 41 out of 60 in offense, 52 out of 60 in defense, and finished with a 5-19-7 record.

Right now Lafferty is a difficult player to project. He plays a pro-style of game, meaning he is solid on the forecheck, fairly physical, and plays a simple game at both ends of the ice. Expect him to return to Brown for at least one more season, if not play out his remaining college eligibility.

Anthony Angello, C, Cornell University (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 145th overall, 2014

The Penguins may have unearthed a diamond in the rough when they selected Angello in the 2014 NHL Draft. He has quickly developed into an effective power forward at the college level and has shown more offensive potential than maybe initially thought. In his freshman season with Cornell, he led the team in goals with 11, and was second on the team in points and assists with 13. He was offensively consistent too, with the coldest stretch of the season being a four-game pointless streak in mid-January. He has also won two ECAC Rookie of the Week awards, one in January for a three-point effort against Merrimack, and one in March for a three-game effort against RPI.

Angello seems to be on the path to an NHL career, barring any unforeseen circumstances. His skating has already improved some since he was drafted, and should only get better. He also has great size at 6’5″, 205 pounds, and appears comfortable playing a physical brand of hockey. He has expressed interest in playing out his college eligibility in the past, but Angello could possibly be lured out after his sophomore season if he continues to develop at his current pace.

Sean Maguire, G, Boston University (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th round, 113th overall, 2012

Maguire returned to BU after missing the entire 2014-15 season due to post-concussion syndrome. He has once again had difficulty staying healthy, having missed time at during the season to various injuries, including a broken finger in February, but has been solid when in net for BU. Through 24 starts he has a 2.27 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage, and a 13-9-1 record.

The native of Powell River, British Columbia has one more season of college eligibility, as he missed the entire 2014-15 season, and it seems likely Maguire will play out that senior season before considering his pro options. The Penguins have two very talented goaltenders in their pipeline already with Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, but the organization could always use a third, especially since Murray has been promoted to backup Penguins veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.

Prospect of the Month: Bryan Rust

Bryan Rust - Pittsburgh PenguinsBryan Rust has been a force for the Penguins over the past 16 games, managing 2 goals and 6 assists, often while playing hard minutes against opposing team’s top lines. He is among the fastest players on an extremely fast Penguins team and uses his speed to get behind defensemen and create odd-man rushes and breakaways. Rust has also been a very effective possession player, and even when he is not putting up points, he does a good job of keeping the puck in the offensive zone and generating shots.

Rust has spent the bulk of the season playing on a shutdown line with veteran center Matt Cullen and fellow rookie Tom Kuhnhackl. The trio combined for 10 goals since February 20th, three of which came against the Washington Capitals on March 20th. His emergence has been important for the Penguins, as they have not been able to ice a healthy group of forwards all season.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh