With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their mid-thirties, the question is how long will the team remain in a win-now state before they concede to a rebuild?
Being a perennial Stanley Cup contender has come at the expense of multiple first-round picks and prospects traded away to insulate the core and maintain that Cup contender status. Having only one first-round pick in the past seven NHL drafts has severely depleted the Penguins prospect pool talent and depth.
With a lack of draft capital, the Penguins have had some success with later-round draft selections and have looked to free agency to supplement recruitment with varying success. Casey DeSmith, Juuso Riikola, Cam Lee, Josh Maniscalco, Radim Zohorna, Drew O’Connor, and Zach Aston-Reese were all signed as undrafted free agents.
The teams average age is 28.73 and both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are poised to become unrestricted free agents at the conclusion of this season. The team is in a playoff position heading into the trade deadline with difficult decisions to make. Are they sellers and get a head start on a rebuild, or are they buyers and sell off another first-round pick to take one final shot at a title?
- Samuel Poulin, LW/RW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Drafted: 2019 round one, 21st overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh’s top prospect with a bullet is their only first-round selection in the past seven NHL Drafts. The 21st overall selection was dominant in junior in the QMJHL. He brings NHL ready size, has leadership character, is reliable defensively, and is a creative offensive player.
There was some thought that he was too good for the QMJHL last year and that he could play in the NHL as a 19-year-old. Ultimately, he was assigned to Sherbrooke and after five games he was traded to Val-d’Or where he flourished with 25 points in 19 regular-season games. He followed that up with another 19 points in 15 playoff games. In his first season as a pro, the Penguins have not rushed their top prospect into the NHL allowing him to adjust in the AHL where he has been effective with 19 points in 38 games.
Poulin used his size and strength to his advantage in junior to create offense but may not have NHL top-six offensive upside, but will be a versatile and useful NHL player as soon as next season.
- Pierre-Olivier Joseph, D – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Drafted: 2017 round one, 23rd overall by Arizona Coyotes
A principal asset in return from the Phil Kessel trade, Joseph is close to being NHL ready. This is the third pro season for Joseph in the Penguins system. His rookie season was a good transition year and he managed to produce 17 points in 52 games in the AHL. Joseph made his NHL debut in his second season playing in 16 NHL games and posting five points. His offensive production has matured in his third season in the AHL with 22 points through 34 games.
Joseph plays a well-balanced game. He is a very poised and smart player, lacks dominant size but can play a physical game. His skating is an asset, especially his agility and mobility. Joseph can log big minutes and play on both special teams. His waiver exemption will expire after this season and with Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman both on expiring contracts, the door for Joseph to become a full-time NHL player should begin next season.
- Calle Clang, G – Rogle BK (SHL)
Drafted: 2020 round three, 77th overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
After the Penguins selected him in the 2020 NHL Draft, Clang had a monster season in the Allsvenskan winning the Best Junior Award. He finished the season with a debut game in the SHL with Rogle where he posted a shutout.
This season he is full-time in the SHL as a 19-year-old and continues to develop backing up 25-year-old Christoffer Rifalk. Clang is a positionally sound and athletic goalie. He will need several seasons of development in the SHL and AHL before he contends as a future NHL starter.
- Joel Blomqvist, G – Karpat (Liiga)
Drafted: 2020 round two, 52nd overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins first selection in the 2020 draft was Finnish goalie Joel Blomqvist, selected 25 spots before Clang in a draft that shored up a position of weakness within the organization. Like Clang, Blomqvist is playing in his first full season as a pro goalie. Backing up 34-year-old Stanislav Galimov in the Liiga on Karpat, the Finnish goalie has impressive numbers with a 1.28 GAA and a 4-2-1 record.
Blomqvist is a technically sound goalie that relies on tracking the puck and being in a position to block shots rather than rely on athleticism and reflexes to react to make saves. Blomqvist will need more development time in the Liiga and some AHL adjustment time before competing for the starting position in the NHL. With Clang and Blomqvist in the system, the Penguins have two potential starting goalies on the horizon and the potential with both is promising with a little edge between them at this time.
- Drew O’Connor, LW – Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
Drafted: Free agent signed in 2020
A late-blooming player was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Dartmouth in the NCAA. In two seasons he posted 59 points in 65 career games. His pro debut began in Norway due to the pandemic where he had 10 points in seven games. Once things resumed in North America, he managed to play 20 AHL games and 10 NHL games and was about a point per game player in the AHL as a rookie. In his second year of his ELC, he is a regular NHL player that brings a physical game without taking penalties.
O’Connor plays a forechecking puck pursuit game, drives the play towards the goal, is defensively reliable, and can provide some secondary scoring from a bottom-six role. His upside may not be as high as some of the Penguins prospects, but he is an NHL-ready now.
- Valtteri Puustinen, RW/LW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Drafted: 2019 round seven, 203rd overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
With only one draft pick inside the top 50 in the past six years, the Penguins will need to get lucky on some late-round selections. Puustinen looks to be that guy. Passed over in two previous drafts before the Penguins selected him in 2019, he has since exploded and is rocketing up the depth chart.
Following his draft as a 20-year-old in his second season in Liiga with HPK he racked up 40 points, a 27-point increase from the previous campaign. Puustinen also won the Gold with Finland at the WJC and won the Liiga Championship with HPK. Puustinen followed that up with another 40-points season including a WC Silver Medal with Finland. Puustinen has since signed with Pittsburgh and in his debut season as a rookie in the AHL he has 28 points in 41 games to lead the team in goals and points.
Puustinen is an undersized sniper that excels on the power play. His offensive production carried over to the AHL, can it translate to a top-six role in the NHL?
- Tristan Broz, C/W – University of Minnesota (NCAA)
Drafted: 2020 round two, 58th overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
Broz had a big development season in his draft year playing in the USHL with Fargo. His 51-point season moved him up the draft rankings as the season wore on during the pandemic.
As a freshman with the Golden Gophers, he has seen limited ice time on a roster that boasts 14 NHL drafted prospects including Blake McLaughlin (ANA), Matthew Knies (TOR), and Chaz Lucius (WPG), and has only scored six points in 26 games. Once the roster turns over as many of those drafted players could turn pro after this season his role will increase as will his production.
Broz is a versatile, two-way player who skates well but is quicker than fast. He is a slim 6-0 and will use his time in the NCAA in the gym to add bulk and improve his speed, two areas of concern at this time. Broz will require several seasons of development in college and the AHL but could develop into a valuable middle-six forward.
- Radim Zohorna, LW – Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
Drafted: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020
Another one of the Penguins free agent signing gems. The big Czech winger came out of nowhere when he signed a one-year contract with the Penguins for the 2020 season. It was a short debut in North America but impressive as he played 12 games in the AHL scoring 11 points and scored another four points in his eight-game NHL debut. His performance earned him a follow-up two-year contract. His play has come back to earth somewhat as he has two points in eight NHL games and 10 in 23 AHL games.
Zohorna is a big power winger, he does not use his size as aggressively as he could as he seldom takes a penalty. The big man has some skating concerns and needs to improve his defensive zone play to stick in the NHL. He has some offensive upside, but not enough to be a top-six winger. His versatility and if he improves his skating and defensive play could make him a valuable bottom-six option.
- Filip Hallander, LW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Drafted: 2018 round two, 58th overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
Hallander was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Kasperi Kapanen trade, then reacquired a year later in the Jared McCann pre-expansion trade. Hallander never played a game for the Leafs as he has been developing in the SHL with Timra.
Hallander represented Sweden at the 2019 WJC and was named to the 2020 roster as well but missed the tournament due to injury. He also represented his home country at the 2021 WC scoring one point in five games. His rookie season in the AHL sees him adjusting to the smaller rinks in North America and has 13 points in 35 games to date.
A fast skating forward, with a high compete level and good two-way game. He scores most of his goals close to the net and is developing into a solid net-front presence. Has yet to make his NHL debut but being involved in trades for Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen show where NHL teams see his potential.
- Lukas Svejkovsky, C/RW – Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Drafted: 2020 round four, 108th overall by Pittsburgh Penguins
The American/Czechnia is in his fourth season in the WHL and on his third team in that time. His offensive production has seen a steady increase over his career, and he is a shoot first sniper. His lack of physicality is a liability as he is easily pushed to the outside at the junior level. He will need to gain strength and speed to play at the pro level and his shooter mentality makes him a better candidate to play on the wing.
Josh Maniscalco: Former standout from Arizona State signed as a free agent is developing in the ECHL posting 32 points in 37 games. The 22-year-old was limited to just eight games as a rookie in the AHL last year, but he is playing his way back in the “Coast”
Jordy Bellerive: Prolific junior scorer is struggling to find the same level of offense in the pro game but is becoming a valuable physical player and agitator.
John Gruden: Acquired from Ottawa in the Matt Murray trade, his stock is falling as his production continues to trend in the wrong direction.
Cam Lee: Another NCAA free agent signing, Lee is an offensive defenseman developing in the AHL. He brings a physical game as well as an offensive side.
Nathan Legare: A 2019 third-round pick scored well in junior. Has size and plays a physical game. As a rookie in the AHL, his transition has been slow with 12 points in 36 games