Penguins Prospect Report - September

Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Jake Guentzel is primed for success this season. Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey
Penguins Continue To Churn Out NHL Talent

Written by: Ian Altenbaugh, Twitter

Having a steady supply of prospects is important for success in the modern NHL, and there is no better example than the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins received major contributions from their young players during their run to the Stanley Cup, the most notable probably coming from rookie goaltender Matt Murray, but there were other young players who made a name for themselves too.

The Penguins have an emerging crop of prospects who appear ready to contribute to the organization in 2016-17 too. Jake Guentzel will begin his first full season of professional hockey, as well Teddy Blueger, Ethan Prow and others. The Penguins also have more to look forward to from 2015 draft picks Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon, both of whom appear to have some high-end offensive skill.

Pittsburgh has a fair number of prospects in the pipeline too, many of whom are mid or late-round draft picks currently playing their trade at the NCAA level. There are also a number of players in Europe, notably 2016 second-round pick Filip Gustavsson.

After the jump, a breakdown of the Penguins prospect system, with a couple prospects highlighted at each level of play.

Pro Level Prospects

The Penguins have adopted an approach similar to the Detroit Red Wings when it comes to developing their prospects. They have their prospects play in the minors for at least one season, if not two or three seasons, before giving them a realistic opportunity to even earn a spot on the NHL roster.

The approach paid off in 2015-16, as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins provided a steady supply of talent to an injury ravaged NHL roster. Many of the prospects not only filled in admirably for injured teammates, but earned regular spots in the lineup. Forwards Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Conor Sheary, as well as goaltender Matt Murray were all called up at various points last season and are expected to be regular members of the Penguins 2016-17 roster.

While the Penguins don’t expect nor really need that type of contribution to their 2016-17 roster, they have a lot of young, NHL caliber depth in their system, led by skilled winger Scott Wilson, who will begin the season on the NHL roster.

Forward Scott Wilson - Pittsburgh Penguins
2015-16 AHL Stats: 34GP, 22 goals, 14 assists

Wilson sustained a foot injury mid-way through the 2015-16 season and consequentially missed out on the Penguins Stanley Cup run. He is healthy for the 2016-17 season however and should be a regular contributor in the Penguins bottom-six, and possibly an occasional linemate of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Head coach Mike Sullivan showed a lot of trust in Wilson during his 24 games in the NHL, and even saw time playing the point on the powerplay. Wilson managed 5 goals and 1 assist in his time in the NHL.

The 24-year-old was dominant at the AHL level last season, managing 22 goals in 32 games. It’s unrealistic to expect that type of production from Wilson at the NHL level, but he could be a 15 goal contributor for the Penguins this season, especially if he finds chemistry with Malkin or Crosby.

Even though he’s signed to an NHL contract, Wilson might have to earn his way into the lineup to start the 2016-17 season, as the Penguins are returning every forward from their 2016 Stanley Cup playoff roster.

Jake Guentzel, C/W, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2015-16 AHL Stats: 11 games, 2 goals, 4 assists

A third-round pick from 2013, Guentzel joined the Penguins AHL affiliate last spring and made an immediate impact, posting 2 goals and 4 assists through 11 regular season games, not to mention 5 goals and 9 assists through 10 playoff games.

A fast, skilled player, Guentzel spent the previous three years playing for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where finished as the sixth all-time scorer in school history with 119 points in 108 games. Guentzel also plays a style of game the Penguins like. He is an explosive skater who likes to have the puck on his stick and is equally adept at scoring and making plays. He’s a smaller player at around 5’10 and 165 pounds, but he’s not afraid to go into the corners to make a play and seems to do a good job of avoiding checks.

Guentzel will likely play the bulk of the 2016-17 season in the AHL, but don’t be surprised if he makes an appearance in the NHL this season, especially if he produces at a similar rate as he did last year. He can play both center and wing, and while his immediate future appears to be on wing, don’t rule out the Penguins giving him a some looks down the middle.

CHL Prospects

The Penguins organization has not drafted much out of the Canadian major junior leagues. The Penguins have drafted only four players from the CHL over the past four years, and there are two currently playing in the CHL, Connor Hall and possibly Daniel Sprong.

Defenseman Connor Hall - Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
2015-16 OHL Stats: 39 games, two goals, seven assists

Hall was the first of four defensemen selected by the Penguins in the 2016 NHL Draft. Considered to be very raw, Hall possesses nice size at 6’2, 190 pounds but he currently lacks the footspeed to play in the Penguins NHL system. His physical style also does not seem to mesh with the Penguins current style of play. Hall will be given plenty of time to develop however, and he could eventually develop into a capable NHL defenseman who can play second or third-pairing minutes.  

Forward Daniel Sprong - Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)
2015-16 AHL Playoffs Stats: 10 games, five goals, two assists

Patience is going to be required of the 2015 second-round pick. Sprong underwent shoulder surgery this past June and is not expected to return to action until early 2017. A fast player with a quick and accurate wrist shot, Sprong is one of the few true goal-scoring prospects in the Penguins system, and he showed flashes of that potential during an 18 game stint in the NHL last year. He will likely be returned to his junior team, the Charlottetown Islanders, and then to the Penguins AHL squad when his junior season is over.

The Dutch-born forward has the potential to be an important player on the Penguins for years to come. The organization will probably undergo a lot of roster turnover next off-season, and Sprong will be one of several prospects, along with Guentzel and Wilson, expected to step up and fill any voids left in the lineup.

NCAA Prospects

The Penguins have tapped the NCAA frequently over the years with a great deal of success, not only in the draft, but in the college free agent market. The Penguins 2016-17 roster is projected to have 11 players who played in the college ranks, with more in the AHL waiting in the wings.

The organization favors drafting college-bound prospects, especially with their later picks, because it offers the team an additional two years of development time before having to make a decision as to whether or not a player is worth signing to a professional contract. It also allows for smaller players to play a shorter schedule, which can benefit them developmentally, as there’s less travel and normally a little more time spent practicing.

The Penguins currently have a big batch of NCAA prospects, highlighted by Kasper Bjorkqvist, a Finnish prospect headed to Providence College for the 2016-17 season.

Forward Kasper Bjorkqvist - Providence Friars
2015-16 SM-Liga Jr Stats: 45 games, 28 goals, 38 assists

This was a bit of a surprise pick by the Penguins in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft. Bjorkqvist does not appear to have any major strengths to his game other than solid two-way ability and a penchant for getting a lot of points around the goal crease.

It’s hard to project Bjorkqvist at this point as he played in the Finnish junior leagues to maintain his college eligibility and had inflated numbers as a result. He performed well for the 2016 Finnish World Junior Champion team, but played more of a defensive role.

There is something to like about Bjorkqvist though. He’s a bit reminiscent of Patrick Hornqvist, for more reasons than just the ‘Qvist. He is built like a younger version of Hornqvist and plays a similarly determined game around the net. That all being said, it’s a lot to expect of Bjorkqvist to develop into a regular 25-goal scorer in the NHL, but he could eventually develop into a two-way player who can play on the penalty kill and chip in 10-15 goals a season, similar to Tom Kuhnhackl or Bryan Rust.

Forward Anthony Angello - Cornell Big Red
2015-16 NCAA Stats: 34 games, 11 goals, 13 assists

The hulking 20-year-old forward begins his second season with Cornell shortly and it will be interesting to see what he does as an encore. As a freshman, Angello led Cornell in goals with 11, and while that doesn’t seem like a lot, Cornell has seemingly always been known as a low-scoring team, especially in recent years.

Standing at 6’5 and over 200 pounds, and known as much for his toughness as his skill, Angello does not quite fit the current mold of the what the Penguins seem to look for in their players. A team can always find a use for a big, skilled forward however, especially if Angello continues to improve his footspeed.

European Prospects

The Penguins have not frequently gone to Europe for talent, or in the rare cases they have, the player was NCAA or CHL bound, like current Penguins prospects Teddy Blueger or Kasper Bjorkqvist. That’s changed a bit under GM Jim Rutherford, but the Penguins still seem to prefer college-bound prospects more than all others.

There are two prospects currently playing in Europe, Filip Gustavsson and Niclas Almari. Former AHL forward and draft pick Dominik Uher is currently playing for Sparta Praha in the Czech league, and while the Penguins still own his draft rights, he does not appear to be in their long-term plans.

Filip Gustavsson, G, Lulea HF (SHL)
2016-17 Stats: 1 Game, 2.08 GAA, 918 save percentage

The top rated European goaltender in the 2016 NHL Draft, Gustavsson will be allowed to develop at his own pace for the Penguins, as they not only have Cup winning rookie Matt Murray, but prospects Tristan Jarry and Sean Maguire as well. The Swedish goaltender raised a lot of eyebrows over the 2015-16 season with his steady play in the SHL, Sweden’s top pro league. He’s expected to spend the majority of this season in the Swedish pro league, with maybe a trip to the 2017 WJC’s in December and January.

Gustavsson is signed through the 2017-18 season with Lulea HF and really there is no rush on his development. The Penguins appear to have a talented player in Gustavsson, one who is already technically sound in his game and possesses good size and athleticism. He needs to not fall back into the net so much, and he needs to be more consistent, but those are things that should come with experience and good coaching.

Niclas Almari, D, HPK Hameenlinna (Liiga)
2016-17 Stats: 1 assist in 6 games

Almari is a fairly mobile defenseman who has a good stick, but so far has not produced much in the way of offense in the Finnish junior leagues. He does not have a particularly high upside or looks to make any sort of immediate impact with the Penguins, but he could eventually develop into a solid defenseman in North America.

Edited by: Tony Androckitis 


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