The Penguins' prospect pool has been pretty shallow in recent years.
That's not much of a surprise. That's the price to be paid for winning back-to-back Stanley Cups -- the Penguins had to mortgage some of the future in order to stay in win-now mode.
Entering the 2019-20 season, the pool is looking much deeper, and the pro teams are poised to have exciting seasons. Here's a preview of the Penguins' system this season. I'll include links to features on players mentioned, so you can take deeper looks at the prospects.
This is the most confident I've felt about a Wilkes-Barre team entering the season in the years I've been following the team. The organization has seemingly managed to upgrade all facets of the team entering this season, both on the ice and behind the bench.
The area that stands out the most to me is the forward depth this season. They didn't lose much over the offseason. Pat McGrath, whose main role on the team was that of a fighter, signed with Utah of the ECHL. Jarrett Burton was a veteran and a reliable bottom-six presence, but wasn't a prospect at age 28. He signed with Rochester of the AHL. Jimmy Hayes wasn't much of a contributor last season and doesn't exactly add much in the speed department. He's on a tryout with Iowa in the AHL. Linus Olund, who primarily played in a fourth-line role and seemed to have trouble adjusting to the North American game, is on loan to his former Swedish club. That's it. Those are the only losses among the regulars.
Some of the additions at forward, though, are notable. College prospects Kasper Bjorkqvist and Jake Lucchini are playing in their first full professional seasons. Jordy Bellerive is going pro. Oula Palve is a solid pickup out of the top Finnish men's league, and Andrew Agozzino joins the team with 21 games of NHL experience, 11 of which came with Colorado last season.
Here were the forward lines used in Tuesday's training camp practice, as reported by Tyler Piccotti of The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre:
Adam Johnson - Andrew Agozzino - Sam Lafferty
Thomas Di Pauli - Oula Palve - Ryan Haggerty
Kasper Bjorkqvist - Joseph Blandisi - Anthony Angello
Sam Miletic - Jordy Bellerive - Jake Lucchini
Jamie Devane - Chase Berger - Joseph Cramarossa
That's depth. And that's without Justin Almeida, who is still rehabbing from his shoulder surgery. I can't even imagine where he fits into those first four lines, because nobody deserves to come out of the lineup.
On defense, the biggest loss is last season's leading scorer Ethan Prow, who signed with the Panthers and will be playing for Springfield of the AHL after clearing waivers. Pierre-Olivier Joseph and John Marino (who is starting the season in Pittsburgh and may not even play in Wilkes-Barre) are two offseason acquisitions who have much higher upsides. Niclas Almari is moving to North America. Veteran David Warsofsky, in his third stint with the team, is an upgrade over departing veteran defenseman Chris Summers.
Here are the pairings the team used in their final preseason game:
Pierre-Olivier Joseph - David Warsofsky
Niclas Almari - Kevin Czuczman
Jon Lizotte - Steve Oleksy
That's without Zach Trotman, who is recovering from sports hernia surgery and will likely be assigned to Wilkes-Barre once healthy.
The team is currently carrying three goaltenders -- Veterans Casey DeSmith and Dustin Tokarski, and rookie Emil Larmi. It's not clear if DeSmith will remain on the roster. Regardless, any of the potential tandem options will most likely be an upgrade over last season. That's not a knock on Tristan Jarry. Wilkes-Barre didn't have a real tandem last season with backup Anthony Peters struggling and zero depth beyond him. This year, there is a glut of goaltenders. It's a good problem to have.
One of the biggest changes is behind the bench, with Mike Vellucci taking over for Clark Donatelli. I didn't have a problem with Donatelli when he was here, and I thought he was good at the development part of his job. Vellucci, though, has over two decades of experience developing prospects, and is a proven winner at this level coming off of a championship season. Vellucci was also named an assistant general manager in Pittsburgh, as well as the head general manager of Wilkes-Barre, a clear sign of the organization's confidence in him.
Next men up: Johnson or Lafferty should be the first forwards to come up during the season. Later in the year, it wouldn't be surprising to see Bjorkqvist make his NHL debut either. Given the number of extra defensemen already on Pittsburgh's roster, including Marino, a lot would have to happen for Pittsburgh to need another defenseman from Wilkes-Barre this season.
With the depth in Wilkes-Barre's lineup, some good players are being pushed down to the Nailers. Players who likely would have had a spot on last year's roster are starting the season off in Wheeling.
Among the forwards, 24-year-old Yushiroh Hirano and 20-year-old Renars Krastenbergs, the No. 2 and No. 3 scorers from last season's team, return for their sophomore professional seasons. Nick Saracino, 27, who put up 37 points in 27 games before signing an AHL deal with the Binghamton Devils, is back. So is 26-year-old Cam Brown, who scored 37 points in 35 games before being recalled to Wilkes-Barre. The most exciting new addition here is 20-year-old Jan Drozg, who will finally have a chance to play on a competitive team after carrying his Shawinigan Cataractes on his back in the QMJHL the past two years.
On defense, the main loss is former captain Danny Fick, who signed overseas in England. Notable returnees include 23-year-old Blake Siebenaler, who spent the majority of the past three seasons in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters and looked strong in seven games with the Nailers last season before suffering a season-ending injury. Aaron Titcomb, 26, was one of Wheeling's top defensemen last season and returns for his second professional season. Macoy Erkamps, 24, who split last season between Brampton of the ECHL and Wilkes-Barre, is starting the season in Wheeling.
The only goaltender right now under an ECHL contract is 28-year-old Jordan Ruby, who joined the team last year after being signed out of the SPHL and put up a 2.87 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 27 games to finish the season. He'll share the net with rookie Alex D'Orio. This is the biggest area being upgraded for the Nailers, as goaltending has been a weakness for several years now.
Next men up: Should Wilkes-Barre need to recall a forward, Drozg will surely be next in line. Krastenbergs and Hirano could make for some difficult future decisions. On defense, Erkamps or Siebenaler would be the guys to get a shot.
The Penguins have three players returning to college for their senior seasons -- forward Nikita Pavlychev, a 2015 seventh-round pick, at Penn State, defenseman Ryan Jones, a 2016 fourth-round pick, at Nebraska Omaha, and defenseman Will Reilly, a 2017 seventh-round pick, at RPI.
The Penguins have two players entering their freshman seasons. Forward Judd Caulfield, a 2019 fifth-round pick, will be attending North Dakota. Forward Liam Gorman, a 2018 sixth-round pick, will be attending Princeton.
The two to follow in this group, in my opinion, are the two Penn State kids, Pavlychev and Phillips. Pavlychev made major strides last season, setting career highs in goals (14) and assists (15) in 39 games, more than doubling the single-season point totals of either of his first two NCAA seasons. Phillips is poised to take on a larger role at Penn State than he did in Minnesota.
The Penguins only have three prospects in juniors this season, where regular seasons are already underway. They are 2019 first-round pick, forward Samuel Poulin, playing for the Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL, 2019 third-round pick, forward Nathan Legare, playing for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the QMJHL, and 2018 second-round pick, defenseman Calen Addison, playing for the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL.
This will be Addison's final year of junior hockey, given that he's 19 years old. Poulin and Legare are both 18 years old, and have two years before they are eligible to play in the AHL.
All three of these guys are players to watch, and I'd now rank all three among the top five prospects in the entire organization.
The Penguins have a few prospects scattered across Europe this season, where regular seasons are already underway.
The most intriguing of the group is forward Filip Hallander, a 2018 second-round pick, who is playing for Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League this season. He fractured his leg in his second game of the season and is out until at least after Christmas.
Forward Linus Olund, a 2017 fifth-round pick, is playing for Brynas of the SHL after requesting to return to Sweden this season following a bumpy first year in Wilkes-Barre.
Forward Valtteri Puustinen, a 2019 seventh-round pick, is playing for HPK of the top Finnish men's league, Liiga. Another 2019 seventh-round pick, defenseman Santeri Airola, is playing for SaiPa in Liiga. Defenseman Antti Palojarvi, a 2017 sixth-round pick, is playing for Lukko in Liiga.
Other than following Hallander's progress once he returns from his injury, the guy to follow in this group is Puustinen, who has two goals and five assists through the first seven games of the regular season.
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