With their first pick of the 2016 entry draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Swedish goalie Filip Gustavsson.
The Stanley Cup champs followed their remarkable season with an understated draft, holding six picks through seven rounds and not making their first selection until near the end of the second round.
After another late second-rounder, the Penguins drafted a player in each of the next four rounds, finishing with a goalie, a right winger, then four straight defensemen. The final four picks reflect the recent losses of Simon Depres, Joe Morrow, Robert Bortuzzo, Philip Samuelsson and Scott Harrington that depleted an impressive stockpile of defense prospects. With the graduation of Brian Dumoulin to be a steadying influence on Pittsburgh’s second pairing, only the super skilled if defensively challenged Derrick Pouliot remains as an imminently helpful blueline prospect in the organization.
Here is a summary of Pittsburgh’s 2016 entry draft:
Filip Gustavsson, 55th overall – G
In spite of strength in net now and into the future, the Pens selected a Swedish goaltender with a pick originally belonging to Anaheim that came in a trade via Vancouver that also brought Nick Bonino. Probably taking a player they calculated was the best one available, the Penguins landed the top-ranked European goalie (by NHL Central Scouting) and No. 3 netminder overall (by International Scouting Services). Hockey is in his blood – his father was a Second Division defenseman for Skellefteå. A product of the Luleå system, the northernmost franchise in the Swedish Hockey League, Gustavsson proved himself with its under-20 squad and in brief callups with the senior team (.910 GAA against men in six games). Internationally, he carried a low-scoring team into the championship game of the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Tournament, had the best save percentage in the 2015 U-17 world tournament and was named best goalie in the 2016 U-18 world championship.
Gustavsson is undersized by the standard of today’s gargantuan NHL goalies, but at 6-2 is certainly not a dwarf. Mentally strong, Gustavsson remains poised and is used to handling a high volume of shots with the butterfly technique and good reflexes, including a quick glove. He restricts rebounds well for a young goalie. His powerful legs propel him well from side to side and help him to handle low shots, although he sometimes over-commits when going post to post. Perhaps his biggest challenge will be learning not to stay so deep in his net, which helps him against cross-crease passes but offers shooters too much of the net to aim for, especially considering Gustavsson’s average size.
A long-term project, Gustavsson could nonetheless eventually evolve into a franchise netminder. When will he cross the Atlantic? When drafting, do not expect any short-term returns.
Kasper Björkqvist, 61st overall – RW
Considering it was his draft year, the Finn with the Swedish surname picked a good time to have a breakthrough season. He was named the best forward and overall player of the Finnish U20 league. He scored 28 goals for Blues U20 and finished second in points with 66. Björkqvist was an important penalty killer on the championship Finnish team at the world junior tournament in Helsinki, showing plenty of character and a high compete level.
With their own second-round pick, the Penguins acquired a dependable two-way player who wins puck battles at the junior level and does not take shifts off. He's a strong skater with a powerful stride that allows him to drive to the net with authority. His offensive skill set features a quick wrist shot and good hands in tight. He will play for Providence College this season. Björkqvist plays a North American style of game and should have no trouble adapting to the smaller ice.
Björkqvist should provide fantasy value in shot-blocking, PIMs and hitting, and he has the offensive skills to put up points, although his pro upside is murky. He isn’t expected to turn pro for several years, so factor this into your draft rankings.
Connor Hall, 77th overall – D
With their third selection (obtained from New Jersey for underachieving winger Beau Bennett), the Pens engaged in some long-range projection by choosing a player with little more than half an OHL season under his belt. That followed a stint in the little-known Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, a 27-team Junior B circuit in Canada with Junior A aspirations. Hall, described by Kitchener Rangers’ coach and former Pittsburgh blueliner Jay McKee as a "throwback player," had two goals and seven assists in 39 major junior games last season following eight pointless OHL forays the previous season. According to McKee, the 6-2, 192-pounder has “a real edge to his game.” That’s borne out by his 49-regular-season PIMs, although he finished plus-7. Intriguingly, Hall stepped up his play in nine post-season games, posting a goal and four assists to go with 19 PIMs and a plus-5 rating.
Hall might have some latent offensive ability, but you cannot project him for much more than penalty minutes and perhaps plus-minus. He’s still relatively unproven at the OHL level, and requires more monitoring before you spend a draft pick on him.
Ryan Jones, 121st overall – D
Like their 77th overall selection the round before, the Penguins’ fourth-rounder is a defensive defenseman short on puck skill but long on grit and physicality. Jones, 20, totaled three goals and 27 assists in 60 games last season for Lincoln of the USHL, adding 121 penalty minutes. Taking a large step forward, he more than doubled his point total from the previous season with Lincoln, when he again played 60 games, displaying durability.
The 6-3, 201-pound intimidator is scheduled to play for Nebraska-Omaha of the NCAA next season. You don’t have to use a draft pick on Jones just because Pittsburgh did. He’s got a long road to the NHL. If he ever makes it, it won’t be for his laser shots and nifty passing, although NHL teams usually find a place for at least one crease-clearer on their rosters.
Niclas Almari, 151st overall – D
With the last pick in the fifth round, Pittsburgh selected a mobile defenseman with strong footwork who received a good amount of ice time with Jokerit U20, although his offensive production was modest. After totalling two goals and three assists in five U18 Junior B games, he was pointless in 12 Junior A appearances with the U20 Blues, then registered two goals and five assists in 27 Junior A games with U20 Jokerit. A plus-10 rating was his best stat.
Confident offensively, Almari demonstrates good poise and vision. He improved defensively during the past season and became a more assertive puckhandler. Almari has a strong stick but, at 6-1 and just 168 pounds, he will need to add more muscle to compete at the men's level this season with HPK.
Almari’s game is trending the right way, but he’s a long-term project with no guarantee he will cross the Atlantic let alone make it to the NHL.
Joseph Masonius, 181st overall – D
The New Jersey native posted impressive offensive numbers in his freshman season with the University of Connecticut, leading the team’s blueliners in scoring with 21 points, including six goals. He was third on the team with 42 blocked shots. Masonius tied for 13th among Hockey East defensemen in scoring, which included two-thirds of his points coming on the power play. One caveat: He finished the season with an untidy minus-18 rating, completing the picture of a young, one-dimensional player who needs to be effective without the puck when he’s not blocking shots.
At 19, Masonius has decent size at 6-0 and 181 pounds. He clearly has an offensive mindset, and puts up the numbers to back it up. He also clearly has a lot to learn about the defensive side of hockey, and seventh-rounders are always longshots to reach the NHL. Watch and wait.
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Four of six players taken by the Penguins in the 2016 entry draft were among 35 attendees at Pittsburgh’s annual prospect development camp June 29 to July 2 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa. Goalie Filip Gustavsson as well as defensemen Connor Hall, Niclas Almari and Joseph Masonius were among the 18 forwards, 13 defensemen and four goalies at the camp. The full list is here.
Center Jake Guentzel as well as blueliners Ethan Prow and Lukas Bengtsson were standouts.
Blueliner Ethan Prow was one of the standouts at the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2016 prospect development camp:
Guentzel, a dynamic offensive force who can also play wing, turned heads with 14 points in 10 AHL playoff games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after turning pro following three seasons at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. An intelligent player who likes an up-tempo game, Guentzel is undersized but is expected to make a strong bid to start the 2016-17 season in Pittsburgh.
Latvian native Teddy Blueger was another forward who had a good camp.
Prow and Bengtsson, signed by Pittsburgh as free agents in the spring, are righthand-shooting, puck-moving defensemen who play intelligently. Prow was a long-list Hobey Baker candidate after leading St. Cloud State to a league championship. Bengtsson was part of a championship Frolunda squad in the Swedish Hockey League.
Gustavsson displayed quick reflexes at camp, serving notice that he will contend for playing time some day with Tristan Jarry and Sean Maguire, other promising young netminders in the organization.
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Signings, signings, everywhere a signing
Pittsburgh’s Jim Rutherford, the NHL GM of the Year, has kept signing players in the off-season after inking a succession of free agents during a productive spring that helped him to earn a three-year contract extension. Those signings included Guentzel, LW Scott Wilson, RW Bryan Rust, winger Tom Kühnhackl, blueliners Prow and Bengtsson, and goalie Maguire.
Since the Penguins held their Stanley Cup victory parade, Rutherford has signed forwards Garrett Wilson and Tom Sestito as well as defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, defenseman Cameron Gaunce, blueliner David Warsofsky, Stuart Percy and Steve Oleksy.
All signed team-friendly, one-year, two-way contracts to flesh out the organization’s depth in the short-term. All of the most recent additions are expected to begin the 2016-17 season in the minors.
With all the players he has on the roster, Rutherford has to grapple with a different kind of problem. As of this writing, the Penguins are almost $2.3 million over the cap ceiling. Something, or someone, has to give.
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I'll be back with another 30 in 30 next month. In the meantime, check out my current Prospect Ramblings, a team-by-team analysis of where each of the 30 rosters is at this point in the off-season free-agency and roster rebuilding.
– Mark Allan