Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan are both warbling from the same younger, faster, harder-to-play-against songbook. As they try to return the Pens to the status of true Cup contenders and forget their past two early playoff eliminations, we investigate their prospect pool and what role it might play in the coming season.
In last month’s 31-in-31 roundup of all waddling things, we reviewed everything (including the NHL draft) that happened from the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs until July 23, when Pittsburgh was spotlighted. This new overview includes the team’s scant transactions since then (so far “highlighted” by the acquisition from Edmonton of minor-league defenseman John Marino for a sixth-round pick) plus an analysis of baby Penguins in the system and how they stack up against each other.
Still in win-Stanley-now mode with one of the best one-two center tandems on the planet, the Pens have limited opportunities for prospects to crack a largely veteran roster. Some youngsters are leaving junior, collegiate and overseas situations for their minor-pro entrances.
Versatile forward Teddy Blueger has a good shot at becoming Pittsburgh’s fourth line center after Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad. The 6-0, 185-pound Latvian led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 39 points in only 45 AHL games, adding 10 points in 28 NHL outings with just 11:03 of average ice time. Armed with a two-year, one-way contract to prove himself, he is valued for a strong work ethic, high level of commitment and hockey sense as well as for his ability to play on the wing in addition to the middle.
Perhaps the most NHL-ready prospect in the system, Kasper Björkqvist will begin his pro career slowly after surgery on a shoulder injured late in his third season with Providence College. Ending the NCAA schedule with 30 points in 42 appearances, the 22-year-old Finnish winger already has a man’s build at 6-1, 198, coupled with a never-quit attitude. His offensive ceiling is not as high as that of other prospects, but there is little doubt he will play in the NHL one day, perhaps even late during the coming campaign.
Acquired in the Phil Kessel deal with Arizona, 20-year-old Pierre-Olivier Joseph is poised to leave the QMJHL and make his pro debut, likely with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. The 23rd overall pick from 2017 used a broad skill set to develop offensive and defensive chops with the Charlottetown Islanders. To succeed in the pros, he must add strength and stamina to a 6-2, 161-pound frame as well as addressing his habit of hurting his team with bad penalties. He still has all three years of his entry-level contract.
Dynamic rearguard Calen Addison is listed on the pre-season Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster. His short-term future will be decided at Pittsburgh’s main training camp, although he has virtually no hope of immediately cracking the NHL roster, which is packed with NHL-level defenders. Drafted as a power-play weapon, the 5-10, 181-pound defenseman blew through WHL defenders like a hurricane with back-to-back 11-goal, 54-assist campaigns for Lethbridge. He helped his cause with two assists in three AHL opportunities during a late-season amateur tryout. After signing a three-year entry-level deal he has nothing left to prove in junior except an interest in defense.
Center Jordy Bellerive is another baby Penguin making the huge jump from junior to pro against battle-hardened men. Not tall at 5-11, but solid at 194 pounds, the 20-year-old is expected to spend the campaign with Wilkes-Barre-Scranton. An intriguing combination of strong puck skills and fierce competitiveness, he totaled 79