Along with a mid-season coaching change, several key prospects helped turn the Penguins NHL squad from a lethargic, disinterested group into a speedy, skilled group that won 14 of their final 16 regular season games and entered the NHL playoffs with a ton of momentum.
Further down the pipeline, players like Daniel Sprong and Jake Guentzel suggest the future should continue to be bright, as both have excelled at their respective competition levels and have recently joined the pro ranks.
Hardest Worker: Conor Sheary, W, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
The effort is evident on every shift Conor Sheary plays. Not the biggest or strongest guy in the Penguins prospect pool, Sheary has nonetheless managed to carve out a role in the NHL. The undrafted forward plays mostly in a checking line role with the Penguins, but he also sees time on the second unit powerplay and has demonstrated on many occasions an ability to create offense in open ice.
Hardest Shot: Daniel Sprong, W, Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)
Sprong is a gifted forward with the ability to put the puck in the net like no other prospect in the Penguins system. He possesses a lethal wrist shot and exceptional release. He is also able to disguise his shot and seems to be equally adept at scoring from both sides of the ice. He has rarefied abilities with the puck, which could be on display in the NHL as soon as next season.
Best Defensive Prospect: Derrick Pouliot, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
Pouliot’s development has not been as quick as some of the other Penguins defensive prospects, but he is still the top defensive prospect in the system by a wide margin. He is a strong skater who can move the puck up ice quickly and run the powerplay with aplomb. He is particularly adept at transitioning the puck through the neutral zone, which makes him a good fit for the Penguins.
Fastest Skater: Bryan Rust, RW, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
The Penguins prospect pool is chock full of quality skaters, but few, if any, can match the game-breaking speed of Rust. The second-year pro has the ability to push the pace with his skating, and is a player head coach Mike Sullivan trusts to deploy in any situation, including both special teams. A versatile forward with a bit of offensive ability, Rust has spent much of the season on a shutdown line with veteran center Matt Cullen, though he recently made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut on a line with Evgeni Malkin. The Michigan native recently signed a two-year contract extension and should be a staple on the Penguins bottom-six for years to come.
Prospect of the Year: Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
Any question of Murray’s pedigree as a player was squashed following his 2-1-1 record in December, while in for relief of injured veteran Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray was then recalled in late February and declared Fleury’s backup. He’d appear in several more games before the veteran netminder once again went down with his second concussion in late March. Murray recently made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut, where he posted a win against the Rangers after turning aside 16 of 17 shots.
In 13 regular season appearances, Murray managed a 9-2-1 record, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. He firmly established himself as the Penguins backup goaltender behind Marc-Andre Fleury as well as a potential starter in the NHL.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Tom Kuhnhackl, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
Kuhnhackl came out of nowhere in 2015-16 to be one of the Penguins most effective depth players at the NHL level. He is a particularly strong penalty killer and has found great chemistry alongside veteran center Matt Cullen. The German-born forward has also shown a fair amount of offensive ability, and while he will probably never develop into a top-six forward in the NHL, he can still carve out a role as an excellent depth player.
Most Improved Prospect: Tom Kuhnhackl, LW
When Kuhnhackl went pro in 2012, it was immediately evident he needed to work on his defensive game, which to that point was non-existent. On top of that, he had to deal with a variety of injuries over the past two seasons, played several stretches in the ECHL, and in general had difficulty establishing himself as an AHL regular. In 2015-16, Kuhnhackl seemed to put it all together. He not only established himself as an AHL regular right away, but has managed to secure a regular spot in the NHL lineup.
Overachiever: Conor Sheary, W
An undrafted free agent who had to play on a minor league deal before even getting a shot in the NHL, let alone a regular spot in the lineup. Sheary has built his career on overachieving and will have to continue to if he wants to remain in the NHL. He has the skating ability and the skill to play a top nine role in the NHL, but he is not particularly big at 5’9”, 175 pounds, and he has to prove he can hold up to the rigors of the NHL game. He has met and surpassed expectations up to this point however, so there is every reason to think he can at least sustain his current level of play, if not eventually find another one.
Underachiever: Anton Zlobin, RW, Wheeling Nailers (ECHL)
Zlobin has proven on several occasions that he has the skill to be a difference-maker at the AHL level, but after missing most of the 2014-15 season to injury, he has had difficulty earning a spot in the AHL this season, and has spent the bulk of 2015-16 in the ECHL. The hope is that the Russian forward will follow a similar path as Kuhnhackl, and figure things out in his fourth season. Zlobin has 10 goals and 13 assists through 41 ECHL games and 3 goals and 2 assists through 12 AHL games this season.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Jake Guentzel, C/W, University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC)/Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Guentzel has the skills to be a top-six forward in the NHL but lacks the size and strength to meet that potential, at least for the time being. Durability is also a concern, as Guentzel has never played more than 60 games in one season. Nonetheless, the Penguins have shown a great deal of patience with many of their prospects, and it has paid off thus far, with players such as Kuhnhackl, Rust, and Sheary all finding roles at the NHL level. So there is reason to believe that with patience and a lot of hard work, Guentzel will meet his potential.
Prospect of the Month: Tom Kuhnhackl
Things seemed to come together for Tom Kuhnhackl in a March 20th game against the Washington Capitals, where he managed the game-winning goal and two assists in just over 11 minutes of ice time. Since then, Kuhnhackl has been one of the Penguins most productive forwards over the past month. In the 14 games he has played since March 20th to April 20th, Kuhnhackl has managed 4 goals and 7 assists, which includes a goal and an assist in three playoff games. He has also been a major threat on the penalty kill, both offensively and defensively, and has two short-handed goals to show for his efforts.
The rookie was rewarded with a two-year contract extension on March 14th, meaning he will remain a Penguin through the 2017-18 season.
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh