Pittsburgh Penguins prospect depth tested early and often through first half of season

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: After failing to breach the 10-game milestone for consecutive seasons, Brian Dumoulin is with Pittsburgh to stay. (Courtesy of Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: After failing to breach the 10-game milestone for consecutive seasons, Brian Dumoulin is with Pittsburgh to stay. (Courtesy of Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)



The Pittsburgh Penguins may not be going through the injury problems they have endured in previous seasons, but they have nonetheless had to test their depth fairly often. The early retirement of Pascal Dupuis and injuries to veterans such as Nick Bonino and Marc-Andre Fleury opened spots on the roster and provided an opportunity for multiple rookies to make their NHL debuts.

To this point, the results have been a mixed bag. Goaltending prospect Matt Murray, who was called up when Fleury was injured in December, performed admirably. None of the forwards however have seemed to be able to contribute much, if anything, offensively.

In general, lack of offense has been a major issue for the Penguins in 2015-16, an issue all the more shocking considering the Penguins started the season with four players who scored 25 goals or more last season, not to mention two former Art Ross Trophy winners. The team has picked up their offensive pace since promoting Mike Sullivan to head coach, but they still rank in the bottom 10 in goals scored. The Penguins have struggled to get offense from almost all of the players in their lineup, but especially from their bottom six, where contributions have ranged from infrequent to non-existent.

Sergei Plotnikov, W, 25

Plotnikov is one of two prospects, the other being Brian Dumoulin, who have been on the NHL roster for the stretch of the 2015-16 season. A speedy, physical forward, Plotnikov has been strong on the forecheck and has done a good job of keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Offensively, he has been snake-bit. So much, he has managed only two assists through his first 32 NHL games and has averaged only one shot on net per game.

The Russian winger has struggled to adapt to the North American style of game. He tends to go east-west with the puck, instead of driving to the net, and his production has been greatly limited as a result.

Bryan Rust, RW, 23

Rust was one of the first prospects to be recalled to the NHL and the story of his season may have been different had he not been injured late in October. Rust has since returned to the Penguins lineup, and while his offensive game has yet to materialize, he has made enough plays to earn a spot in the lineup, at least for the time being. Through 13 games, he has 2 goals and 20 shots on net. The speedy forward has played in strictly even strength situations, though he will probably get some time on the penalty kill at some point.

Scott Wilson, W, 23

The former seventh-round pick has managed to get into four NHL games through the first half of the 2015-16 season. A tenacious, two-way forward, Wilson has found a great deal of offense at the AHL and NCAA levels, but it has not yet translated to the NHL. Through five games, he has one assist and two shots on net. He also dropped the gloves once.

Wilson will probably never be a major offensive contributor, although his physicality and tenacious style are welcome additions to any roster.

Conor Sheary, W, 23

Making his NHL debut on December 16th, Sheary has made more of an offensive contribution than any of the other Penguins forward prospects thus far, with two goals, one assist and 25 shots on goal through 16 games. Sheary has also been an impactful player on the possession front for the Penguins—when he’s on the ice, over 58 percent of all shots on net are directed towards the opposition.

It is hard to tell what kind of player Sheary will develop into, but he seems like a sure bet to be an NHL regular in the near future. He has played with a variety of linemates, ranging from a brief audition alongside Sidney Crosby, to the fourth line centered by Matt Cullen. His offensive skills and quickness are evident, and even if he does not become a major contributor on the scoresheet, he does enough other things on the ice to warrant a regular roster spot.

Tom Kuhnackl, W, 23

Kuhnhackl made his NHL debut on January 9th, and while he has not scored any goals, he has gotten the puck on net with relative frequency and has done a good job on the forecheck. He has spent the bulk of his time on a line with center Eric Fehr and Rust, and has averaged about 11 minutes a game, which has almost entirely been in even strength situations.

Brian Dumoulin, D, 23

Dumoulin has been a dependable defenseman for the Penguins from the start of the 2015-16 season and remains so under new head coach Mike Sullivan. Routinely paired with veteran Ben Lovejoy, Dumoulin has been used as a shutdown defenseman by the Penguins, and while he has acquitted himself at times, he has also often looked overextended and in over his head.

A big, mobile defenseman, Dumoulin should remain a big part of the Penguins defensive core for this season, and for the future. He has shown the ability to play in all situations for the Penguins and should eventually develop into a solid number-four defenseman for the organization. Through 48 NHL games, he has 10 assists and 59 shots on net.

Matt Murray, G, 21

When Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion in December, Murray was recalled and in four short games, he showed the world why the Penguins regard him so highly as a prospect. Murray was dominant during his brief stay in the NHL, allowing only 7 goals on 112 shots faced, and posting a 1.72 goals against average. He moves from post-to-post quickly and possesses exceptional flexibility and athleticism. Murray is a far more talented goaltender than veteran backup Jeff Zatkoff, but the Penguins seem reluctant to bring him up to the NHL on a regular basis, opting instead to give him more starts at the AHL level.

Prospect of the Month: Jake Guentzel

Jake Guentzel - Pittsburgh PenguinsThe Penguins have several players who performed admirably over the past month, but none are having the type of breakout season forward Jake Guentzel is enjoying. Now in his junior season with Nebraska-Omaha, Guentzel has been among the top scorers in the nation all year, and one of the main reasons the Mavericks are ranked 16th in the nation in offense. In 21 games, Guentzel has managed 11 goals and 21 assists.

He has been especially productive since the month of December rolled around, and has 5 goals and 11 assists in his last 10 games. The Minnesota native has contributed offensively in all situations, and has three shorthanded goals and one powerplay tally to show for his efforts.

Although he has one more season of college elgibility, it would not be surprising if the Penguins tried to sign him to a contract at the end of the 2015-16 college season. While he does not project as a major game-breaker at the NHL level, his skill and playmaking ability will be a welcome addition to a team that does not have much in the way of forward depth.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh