August 31-in-31: Pittsburgh Penguins

Mark Allan

2017-08-23

 

The good news for the Pittsburgh Penguins?

They still have elite core players including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Matt Murray who helped them win two straight Stanley Cups.

The bad news for the NHL’s latest Lords of the Rings?

Since hoisting the 2018 Cup, they’ve lost experienced players (and in most cases multiple champions) Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr.

While the loss of so much experience and the current lack of an obvious third-line center will likely prevent the Boys of Steeltown from becoming the first to seize three consecutive Cups since the Islanders way back in the 1980s, it’s good news for some prospects.

Choosing to primarily promote from within, mostly due to salary-cap pressure, the Pens are offering chances to their younger players to pick up the slack and become significant contributors.

The off-season acquisitions of G Antti Niemi (backup to Murray if it’s decided Tristan Jarry needs more AHL seasoning), fourth-line RW Ryan Reaves (occasional bodyguard for Sidney Crosby), C/LW Greg McKegg (cool name) and D Matt Hunwick (no comment) are depth players and spare parts. The free-agent signing of LW/C Adam Johnson adds a prospect.

Still technically a prospect after just half an NHL regular season, speedy sniper Jake Guentzel is a lock to be a top-six winger with Crosby or Malkin after his incendiary 13-goal playoff outburst. Using him to replace Bonino as the third-line middleman would severely weaken top-six, five-on-five scoring.

 

Jake Guentzel was a sniping Penguin in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs:

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While primarily a versatile winger, Scott Wilson has played in the middle, is defensively responsible and is a good bet to break camp as the new Bonino after GM Jim Rutherford surprisingly dealt promising Swedish prospect Oskar Sundqvist for the hulking Reaves. The cap-strapped Rutherford is also believed to be playing a waiting game, wishing to sign a veteran bottom-six center to a lowball contract, likely after the new season is underway.

Long story short: Depending how coach Mike Sullivan decides to deploy his forwards (and he’s not hesitated to move them around the past two seasons), there could be a top-six winger opening. Besides the third-line C vacancy, there’s also an opening for a fourth-liner in the middle. That will likely be veteran AHLer Carter Rowney unless he’s thrust into the middle of the third line.

Since the much-injured Kris Letang is recovering from a serious neck injury that ended his season after Feb. 21, and is not expected to be ready for the 2017-18 opening puck drop, this would be a great time for Derrick Pouliot to finally prove the Penguins didn’t waste an eighth-overall pick on him five years ago.

Risers

Guentzel is a no-brainer after his high-profile Stanley Cup outburst, so let’s skip to three other less-obvious prospects.

Daniel Sprong

The Flying Dutchman (nicknames don’t get more obvious than this) overcame a too-early NHL promotion and a devastating shoulder injury that required surgery to rebound as one of the brightest young stars in the Penguin Galaxy.

 

Can Daniel Sprong score goals? If you're in doubt, watch this:

 

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Earning a spot on the big-league roster by being perhaps the best player as an 18-year-old at his first NHL training camp, Sprong was sparsely used and returned to junior after scoring twice in 18 games. The sniping speed demon racked up 46 points in 33 QMJHL games and compiled a remarkable 59 points in 31 junior outings after returning from surgery. If the dynamic RW, now 20, doesn’t make Pittsburgh’s opening-day roster, he’ll make a splash in his AHL debut. Sprong will be a high-scoring top-six NHLer sooner rather than later.

Tristan Jarry

After a disappointi