Plenty of Options For Penguins At Forward

Friday, July 24, 2015
Has Conor Sheary proven he's ready for the NHL?
The Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of depth at the forward position, and that was before they signed 2015-5th round pick Dominik Simon to an entry-level contract and re-signed Beau Bennett to a one-year deal. The addition of Bennett, as well as Sergei Plotnikov back on July 1st, gives the Penguins 10 forwards at the NHL level with three open spots up for grabs heading into training camp this fall.

There are plenty of guys that will be fighting for an NHL spot come September and competition is always a good thing, but who will make the cut and start the year on Pittsburgh's opening night roster?

After the jump, a look at the in-house options the Penguins have up front to fill out their fourth line.

O'Neill Brings Much Needed Offense to Pens' Blue Line Core

Monday, July 6, 2015
Will O'Neill was a fan-favorite in St. John's. Photo credit: Colin Peddle.
Several new faces will be in Wilkes-Barre when the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins take to the ice for the 2015-16 season, particularly on the blue line - a position that was well-known as a place of depth in the organization in recent years.

Heading into the start of free agency on July 1st, the AHL Penguins defensive depth was much in question. Gone are Taylor Chorney (Washington Capitals) and Scott Harrington (traded to Toronto in Phil Kessel trade). Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot have perhaps played their final games with the WBS Penguins and will be looking to make the NHL club in Pittsburgh out of training camp this fall.

The Penguins wasted no time, adding several depth defensemen on July 1st to replace those who won't be with the organization this upcoming season. They added some offense with the addition of former Providence Bruins defenseman David Warsofsky and some physical play with the addition of Steve Oleksey. Perhaps the most intriguing addition on defense came on day two of free agency.

Megna's Marked Improvement Made Rangers Step Up On Day One

Thursday, July 2, 2015
Jayson Megna led the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with 26 goals in 63 games during the regular season. Photo credit: Amy's WBS Picture Page.
Former Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Jayson Megna didn't remain an unrestricted free agent for long, and after signing a one-year, one-way contract with the New York Rangers on the opening day of free agent signing period he's poised to compete for another crack at the NHL.

"I think it's an extremely exciting opportunity for me," Megna said about his initial talks with the Rangers. "My agent and I set parameters for what we wanted in an organization, opportunity wise as well as with contract negotiations," he added. 

"New York [Rangers] was the team that stepped up and gave us exactly what we were looking for."

Megna will have a former Penguins teammate likely battling alongside him come training camp this fall, but the familiarity might work in their favor to vault both into the NHL next season.

"I think it's going to be great being back with Gibby," Megna said of Brian Gibbons also signing with the Rangers on July 1st. "We had some really good chemistry my second year."

Penguins Re-Sign Conor Sheary

Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Conor Sheary has earned his first NHL contract.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-signed forward Conor Sheary to a two-year entry level contract.

Sheary joined the AHL Penguins in the spring of 2014 following his senior season at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and made an immediate impact in the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs - tallying 11 points (6G-5A) in 15 postseason contests and quickly making a name for himself as a small but skilled winger capable of producing offense in a highly-competitive environment of pro hockey.

Sheary followed up a successful postseason with a solid rookie campaign last year, leading the AHL Penguins in scoring during both the regular season (58GP, 20G-25A) and the 2015 postseason (8GP, 5G-7A). It was only a matter of time as to when he'd sign his first NHL contract and for Sheary - an undersized and undrafted product from Massachusetts - the hard work paid off and he received a well deserved NHL deal in free agency.

Back in late July of 2014, after speaking with Sheary at the Penguins' annual development camp, I got the sense that he was determined to have a breakout season and draw the attention of NHL teams for that 1st contract. Here's my chat with him at Development Camp about wanting to make a good first impression. Looking back, he certainly did.

The AHL Penguins Need A Third Goaltender

With Jeff Zatkoff likely moving back to NHL-backup position, Matt Murray (pictured above) and incoming rookie Tristan Jarry need some competition at the AHL level.
The Pittsburgh Penguins look to be set between the pipes for the 2015-16 season with Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff in the NHL, but at the AHL level the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins need a third goaltender - be it on an NHL two-way deal or an AHL contract - to bring about a goalie competition with returning 2nd year pro Matt Murray and incoming rookie Tristan Jarry.

While a veteran mentor to the relatively inexperienced Murray and Jarry is ideal, getting a third body into the mix to provide some competition is never a bad idea - especially one that wouldn't be hard to send to the ECHL if Jarry does indeed prove he's ready for the AHL next fall.

Enter Michael Houser, a Youngstown, Ohio native entering his fourth year of pro hockey, who wasn't tendered a qualifying offer from the Florida Panthers and hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.

The 22-year-old and former 46-game winner with the London Knights (OHL) went undrafted before being signed to an entry level contract by Florida. He began his pro career in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones in 2012-13, before splitting time between the ECHL and AHL in 2013-14. In his first full season in the AHL last year with the San Antonio Rampage, Houser went 19-9-4 with a 2.83 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage including finishing the regular season with a 13-1-2 record in his last 18 appearances.

I caught up with Jameson Olive, formerly of Fox Sports Florida and creator of Olive Hockey, for some insights into why Houser wasn't brought back. The way he describes Houser makes him a perfect fit for what the AHL Penguins need:
Houser was a capable AHL backup in San Antonio last season and was thrust into a starting role after Dan Ellis' emergency recall to Florida. 
He was streaky, but ran more hot that cold down the stretch. That being said, the Panthers don't believe he projected to be more than an AHL starter at best and made the decision to let him walk and see if Sam Brittain can show them more. 
The organization has several mid-level goaltending prospects, but is searching for an heir to Roberto Luongo.
Houser provides a low-risk depth signing for the Penguins to bolster their goaltending depth now that Eric Hartzell has moved on to unrestricted free agency after Pittsburgh declined to tender him a qualifying offer.