CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Penguins' goalie situation in the minors is still very much up in the air.
Right now there are five goaltenders signed to NHL contracts -- Matt Murray, Casey DeSmith, Tristan Jarry, Emil Larmi, and Alex D'Orio. Two veteran goalies on minor-league deals -- Dustin Tokarski in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Jordan Ruby in Wheeling -- will round out the goaltending depth chart.
One question that needs to be answered is about Jarry's future. He requires waivers this season, so the Penguins risk losing him for nothing if they try to re-assign him to Wilkes-Barre. And even if he does make it to Wilkes-Barre, he'd be sharing the net with not only a capable veteran in Tokarski, but also one of the young prospects in Larmi or D'Orio, making their North American professional debuts this season.
Regardless of what happens with Jarry, it's unlikely that both Larmi and D'Orio will both start the season in Wilkes-Barre. Both need regular playing time to continue to develop. So, one of the two will likely start in Wheeling.
The two have very different backgrounds. Larmi already has four years of pro experience under his belt in Finland, including three years in the top Finnish men's league and a championship season in his final year there. D'Orio is coming out of the QMJHL, and spent nearly half of his junior career backstopping for a young, rebuilding team, sometimes facing upward of 50 shots in a single night.
When it comes to deciding who will play where this season, the decision will be affected by their performances in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, and their play in training camp. The past doesn't matter anymore.
"That's what camp's all about," Mike Vellucci said following the prospects' practice in Cranberry on Thursday. "They're going to have to earn their spot. Both of them are new to the organization, and so they have to come in and earn their spot. One of the things is I didn't have any idea of what they're about. I wanted to come in with a clean slate for them, for myself. I didn't listen to anybody else when they told me what they thought about the goalies, the defensemen, or the forwards. I just wanted to come in here and have my own conclusion. They're going to get an opportunity to decide where to go."
Thursday's practice was Vellucci's first look at both goaltenders, and both made a good first impression.
"The two goalies, we had a lot of shots on them today," he said. "They were tired. But I thought they both looked composed in there. We did the first drill and played the puck to get them better at it, I think it's an important part of it. Both of them I thought looked really good."
Larmi started in the first game of the tournament, stopping 27 of 31 shots in a 4-3 loss to the Sabres. D'Orio will get his first start of the tournament on Saturday afternoon against the Devils.
This is D'Orio's third Prospects Challenge appearance, after initially being signed as an undrafted free agent after a standout performance in the 2017 tournament, appearing in all three games and posting a 2-0-1 record. The Penguins opted to send nearly all amateur players to the 2018 tournament, and very few minor-league players, and as a result lost all three games. When I spoke to D'Orio before the tournament, he was looking forward to going back to Buffalo and coming back with a different result this time.
"I think the team's ready to have a good tournament," D'Orio told me. "We don't want to do like we did last year, we're going there to win everything."
With D'Orio getting his first start of the tournament against the Devils, it means that he'll likely be seeing a lot of Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's draft.
"He's going to be fun to play against," D'Orio said of the challenge. "I know he has high expectations, he's a great player. It'll be fun to see how it goes."
When I asked D'Orio what he personally was looking to take away from this tournament and the upcoming training camp, he said that his biggest focus was just learning how to be a pro.
"It's going to be a big learning year for me," he said. "I don't know where I'm going to play, if it's going to be in Wilkes-Barre or Wheeling, but I'm going to enjoy every moment and I'll see what the pros are doing on and off the ice. I'll try to learn from that to be a better goalie and a better person, too."
Most players aren't as nonchalant about the possibility of ending up in the ECHL, but that's because it's a different situation for goaltenders than it is for forwards and defensemen. Wheeling has developed over 60 future NHL players -- the most of any ECHL team -- and many of them have been goaltenders. Notable former Wheeling goaltenders include Tomas Vokoun, Mike Condon, Andy Chiodo, Dany Sabourin, and Stanley Cup champions Scott Darling and Casey DeSmith.
Whether it be Wheeling or Wilkes-Barre, D'Orio is just looking forward to getting his professional career started.
"It's not something I'm worried about," he said of where he could play this season. “I know for goalies it's not the same thing as other players. Just in this organization with Casey DeSmith, he started in the East Coast, and look at where he is right now. I just want to go play hockey."
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