July 31-in-31: Pittsburgh Penguins

by Mark Allan on July 23, 2017

 

The Penguins didn’t wait for the 2017 entry draft to start remaking the organization’s personnel.

Expansion draft

When the Vegas Golden Knights claimed Marc-Andre Fleury, it was the end of an era in Pittsburgh in which Flower (as he was affectionately known to teammates) helped the Pens to three Stanley Cups. The first-overall selection in the 2003 draft and winningest netminder in team history played 13 seasons in Steeltown, second only to Mario Lemieux among NHLers.

The day before the main draft, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford inked unexpectedly useful (plus-9 in a career-high 34 league games) depth defender Chad Ruhwedel to a two-year extension at an average annual value of $650,000. Rutherford also signed potential bottom-six checking center and PK specialist Frederik Tiffels to a two-year, entry-level deal.

That means Pittsburgh has signed three of its four selections from the 2015 draft, including RW Daniel Sprong (46th overall) and C Dominik Simon (137th overall). Seventh-round pick Nikita Pavlychev will be a sophomore at Penn State.

Pittsburgh also signed G Filip Gustavsson to a three-year, entry-level contract, which begins in the 2018-19 campaign after the 55th overall pick in 2016 plays another season in his native Sweden.

2017 NHL entry draft

Then came June 23 and Round One. Surprisingly, Pittsburgh swapped its 31st-overall pick and improving Swedish center Oskar Sundqvist to the Blues for their second-round pick and RW Ryan Reaves, a 30-year-old vet who is best known for using his 6-1, 225-pound frame to punish opponents. The only logical deduction is that the Penguins do not plan to let Sidney Crosby keep enduring the abuse he took in the playoffs.

So, who did Pittsburgh draft to augment its prospect pool?

 

Zachary Lauzon highlights:

 

D Zachary Lauzon, 2nd round, 51st overall: After St. Louis used the final pick of the first round that it got from the Penguins to take Russian winger Klim Kostin, Pittsburgh selected the 6-0, 187-pound blueliner near the end of the second round. In his first full QMJHL campaign, Lauzon played for the Memorial Cup, following that by earning the Kevin Lowe Award as the best defensive defenseman in the league. An effective puck-mover, Lauzon is known as a tremendous skater with great vision, although his offensive ceiling might not be high.

D Clayton Phillips, 3rd round (93rd overall): The 5-10, 180-pounder has been playing for Fargo in the USHL, from where Jake Guentzel’s father Mike scouted him to play for the Gophers at the U of Minnesota, where Mike is an associate coach. Another puck-mover, Phillips is a mobile skater with superior vision.

LW Jan Drozg, 5th round (152nd overall): At 6-0 and 174 pounds, the young Slovenian shone for his country in the B Division at the U-18 and U-20 WJCs, helping Slovenia win a U-18 title by earning best-forward and top-player-on-team honors with a tournament-high eight assists, 13 points and 83.3 per cent faceoff percentage. A late-blooming offensive forward, Drozg is coming to Shawinigan of the QMJHL after playing junior for Leksands in Sweden.

C Linus Ölund, 5th round (155th overall): The 5-11, 185-pounder projects as a bottom-six pro forward after filling that role for Brynas in the Swedish Hockey League, registering eight goals, 15 points and plus-9 in 39 regular-season games in the country’s best hockey league. He impressed the Penguins with 10 points in 20 playoff outings.

D Antti Palojarvi, 6th round (186th overall): Not overly large at 6-1 and 176 pounds, the young Finn is yet another modern puck-moving blueliner. He split the Finnish season between minor-league clubs in northern Finland and also skated with the national team. A long-term prospect.

D William Reilly, 7th round (217th overall): The biggest player taken by Pittsburgh in the 2017 draft is 6-1 and 197 pounds. He totaled 68 PIMs in 35 games in his freshman campaign for the RPI Engineers of the ECAC. He has some offensive game, though, highlighted by his shot and ability to operate a power play from the back end.

Two-thirds of the 12 players taken by Pittsburgh in the past two drafts are defensemen.

Free agency

Since the first day of wide-open free agency July 1, when it signed veterans Matt Hunwick (D) and backup goalie Antti Niemi, Pittsburgh re-signed D Justin Schultz (who cashed in on a personal-best 51 points) and versatile character forward Garrett Wilson. FA defensemen Chris Summers, Jarred Tinordi, Zach Trotman and Kevin Czuczman as well as F Greg McKegg signed two-way contracts and are AHL-bound. Ditto for veteran muscleman Tom Sestito as well as G Casey DeSmith and D Frank Corrado, both prospects who also re-signed. Another Pittsburgh FA signing out of the NCAA (Minnesota-Duluth), F Adam Johnson has some potential as a point producer.

Suddenly productive winger Conor Sheary and rock-solid D-man Brian Dumoulin filed for salary arbitration. Both are must-signs for Rutherford. D Derrick Pouliot, RW Josh Archibald and C Jean-Sebastien Dea are other RFAs who have not yet signed.

 

With talent like this, how could Derrick Pouliot go wrong? You'd be surprised.

 

 

Approaching a salary-cap iceberg, the USS Penguin sailed away from UFAs Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley. Third-line center Bonino disembarked in Nashville, four-time Cup champion LW Kunitz signed with Tampa Bay and Daley joined Detroit when Rutherford couldn’t hang on to everyone. Fourth-line C Matt Cullen is a 40-year-old UFA who will likely retire.

These four departures create opportunities for the next wave of prospects except Rutherford is expected to sign a veteran FA to be his third-line center.

Summer development camp

Forty players were invited to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa., for the annual event at the beginning of July, including all six players selected in the 2017 draft. The roster featured 24 forwards, 12 defensemen and four goaltenders.

Twenty-one invitees were drafted by Pittsburgh, while forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Thomas Di Pauli were signed as college free agents. Ten of the 12 defensemen were Pittsburgh draft picks. 

  • A knee injury prevented Gustavsson, 19, from participating in on-ice sessions. He hopes to become the No. 1 netminder this season for Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League. A journey to North America is expected for the following campaign.
  • Sprong has all the skating and shooting talent he needs to make it in the NHL. At the development camp, he said he’s improving his play without the puck. The Flying Dutchman, who made the NHL roster as a rookie before being scratched often for deficient defense, was a combined minus-50 in his first three seasons with Charlottetown of the QMJHL. In his fourth season, cut in half by recovery from shoulder surgery, he was an astounding plus-29.
  • Aston-Reese, a promising 22-year-old forward, was on full display at the camp. The 2016-17 NCAA goals leader for Northeastern (also tied for most points) quickly noticed players are bigger, stronger and faster the closer you get to the NHL. He excels at going to dirty areas.
  • Since promoted to an assistant coach with Pittsburgh, new NHL Hall of Famer Mark Recchi was the director of player development during the camp. He thought Aston-Reese, F Sam Lafferty, C Anthony Angello and Johnson were standouts in a camp-closing three-on-three scrimmage.

Top-10 prospects

The Penguins’ prospect pool is shallower than when they won the past two Stanley Cups. Many of the best, including Murray, forwards Sheary, Brian Rust and Scott Wilson as well as Dumoulin, have graduated to the big club. Sundqvist was traded. Jake Guentzel is a graduate in all but name. The remaining pool, while not lacking promise, is not as deep as it’s been the past two years when an injection of swift, confident youngsters helped to propel the Waddling Ones to two consecutive Cups.

  1. LW/C Jake Guentzel: The Stanley Cup goal-scoring phenom is still considered a prospect only because he’s played just half of an NHL schedule.
  2. RW Daniel Sprong: Once he proves he can play better without the puck, he’ll definitely be a top-six NHL sniper, perhaps after a brief AHL test flight.
  3. G Tristan Jarry: Erasing the memory of a sub-par pro debut, Jarry shone in his follow-up, making the AHL all-star game. He’ll start his third pro season in the AHL, but is close to being NHL-ready.
  4. D Derrick Pouliot: He has all the tools to be a dominant NHL offensive blueliner, but frustrates the organization by not learning the other side of the game. Still just 23, he’s on his last contract with the Penguins if he doesn’t.
  5. G Filip Gustavsson: Pittsburgh’s top pick (55th overall) in 2016 will play another season in the Swedish Hockey League before coming to North America, where his future is bright.
  6. C Dominik Simon: With two solid AHL campaigns behind him, the shifty Czech hopes his smarts and silky hands will overcome average skating en route to the big time.
  7. RW Zach Aston-Reese: The 2017 Hobey Baker Award shortlister might never turn out to be more than a top-10 AHL scorer or a bottom-six NHLer. Don’t bet yet against him becoming an NHL top-sixer.
  8. D Jeff Taylor: Although drafted in 2014’s seventh round, the 23-year-old made his AHL debut after helping Union College reach the NCAA tournament with career highs of nine goals and 33 points, making the All-ECAC Second Team.
  9. LW Adam Johnson: Johnson’s explosive skating, big shot and versatility will serve him well as a pro, although he might want to bump his weight up. A potential top-six forward.
  10. C Teddy Blueger: Slowed by a lower-body injury in training camp, he posted respectable numbers in his first “full-time” pro campaign. The playmaking Latvian must make the most of the final season in his ELC.

Next up: Keep watching for our evaluations of the top prospects in the rest of the league.

Mark Allan