It was suggested recently that I take a look at the current crop of Pittsburgh Penguins prospects and other minor league veterans to attempt to estimate if and when they are likely to be ready for the NHL. Of course there are certain factors that make this difficult to determine.
First off, some prospects come in as a rookie and immediately make the NHL team straight out of the draft, or right out of college in the case of NCAA players. Some finish out their Major Junior career before moving up to the NHL. Some players spend years bouncing around in the ECHL/AHL, serving as occasional call-ups before earning a spot on the NHL roster. There is no real way to determine when one player will move up early while another takes years.
But that brings us to point #2. One of the biggest factors that determines if a player will be able to make it on the NHL roster is whether or not there is an opening on the NHL roster. Of course, when there is an opening it is going to be filled by the best available option, but even the best players are going to have to beat out the established NHL veterans if they want to move up. So with that in mind, lets look at positional needs and which of the prospects are likely to move up to fill the holes.
The Penguins long-term starting goaltender situation is pretty much a given. Marc-Andre Fleury is still under contract up through the 2014-15 season, and Ray Shero has listed Fleury amongst the core players he plans to lock up to keep with the team for their entire careers. At 28, he is just hitting his peak and entering his prime years, so he should be able to remain as our NHL starter for another 7-10 years. However, our backup goalie, Tomas Vokoun, is only under contract for 1 more season. At 36 years old he is already on the downswing of his career, so there is a strong possibility that we will have an opening for a new backup goaltender for the 2014-15 season. Of course they could always bring Vokoun back for another year at that point, but there are a number of viable (younger) options waiting in the wings.
Jeff Zatkoff is the only other goaltender that will still be under contract next season. He is currently the starting goaltender in WBS, and cemented his role as #2 NHL backup when he was called up during Fleury's injury. Zatkoff began as an LA Kings draft pick, moving up through 3 years in the NCAA then to the ECHL for a year before finding a permanent home in the AHL and signing as a free agent with the Pens this summer. He hasn't accumulated a lot of hardware in his career, a handful of Goaltender of the Month awards, and sharing the Harry Holmes Award (AHL best goaltending duo) this year. This year he set a professional career high 1.93 GAA and .920 Save %. He was the 3rd best GAA in the AHL this year, #1 amongst goalies with 25+ games played. Assuming he can come even close to that level next season, he is a shoe-in to get a contract extension and move up to be Fleury's backup in 2014-15.
Brad Thiessen is due for a new contract this summer. He has had quite a wild career, starting in college where he was a a Hobey Baker finalist and walked away with New England Hockey MVP and Hockey East Player of the Year Awards. He was then picked up by the Pens as an undrafted college free agent and began his pro career as a backup to John Curry in WBS. The following season when he took over as starter he posted his career best numbers, 1.94 GAA and .922 Save % in the regular season and 1.67 GAA and .940 Save % in the playoffs. During this spectacular season he walked away with Baz Bastein Trophy (AHL's best goaltender) and his first of 2 Harry Holmes Awards (sharing with Curry in 10-11 and with Zatkoff in 12-13), as well as making the AHL 1st All-Star team. However, he struggled last year, barely earning a 1 year extension and this year lost his starting position. His future with the team is uncertain, but if he does return his long term appears to be as the AHL starter (after Zatkoff moves up).
Eric Hartzell is the newest addition to the team, signing a 1 year entry level deal for the remainder of the 2013 season. He was an undrafted college free agent, finishing the year as a Hobey Baker finalist and picking up the ECAC Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year awards. So far he fairly closely mirrors Brad Thiessen's career, although ever so slightly less accomplished. He finished with a better GAA and Save % than Thiessen did his final year, but then again there is quite a difference between the Ivy League schools in the ECAC faced by Hartzell's QU than there is with Thiessen's Northeastern in the ECAC. Despite the general consensus amongst fan bloggers that Hartzell projects as Fleury's possible replacement, his future with the team is uncertain. First, as I've mentioned a few times, Hartzell's accomplishments seem impressive, but Thiessen was even better coming out of college, and 4 years later is working as an AHL backup. Second, if the Pens had intended to definitely keep Hartzell for next year, they would have signed him to the standard 2-year Entry Level contract for players of his age, starting with next season. It is quite possible that his 2 month long Entry Level deal was a favor by the Pens, allowing him to pick up a little bit of money to finish out the season and allow him to negotiate next year without the restrictions of an entry lvel contract, whether with the Pens or elsewhere. He will be an RFA, so the Pens could very well tender him and match any offers if they plan to keep him. If he returns, his role depends on whether or not Thiessen returns. If Thiessen is back, Hartzell will likely be sent to Wheeling for the year, although he will be given the chance to battle Thiessen for a spot (as Thiessen will battle to regain his starting position from Zatkoff). If Thiessen does not return, Hartzell will become Zatkoff's backup and possibly become AHL starter, depending on how he translates his game to the AHL, and whether or not they acquire any better options.
Matt Murray was one of the Penguins additions from the 2012 Draft. At just under 19 years old, he is ineligible to play in the AHL next year, so unless he shows up to training camp and shuts out Crosby and Malkin to beat out Vokoun, he will be returning to the OHL next season. He put up career high numbers this season, which is rather disappointing, because those are 3.67 GAA and .894 Save %. He is currently unsigned, and unless he has a breakout season next year he is likely to remain so. Its not to say he won't grow into a quality goaltender, he is only 18 and most NHL goalies don't hit their peak until 27-28. The problem being that there is usually a significant drop in performance from juniors to minors and then again to the NHL, so at the moment his numbers are troubling. I thought the same thing when they drafted him though. However, if he does get signed he is extremely unlikely to make the NHL roster, considering the quality options ahead of him, unless he plans to stick around the minors until Fleury retires, at which point he will be at his prime. Though at the AHL level, in 2 years ago when he is old enough to play in the AHL it will be the season that Zatkoff is likely to move up to become our NHL backup. So if we retain Thiessen and Hartzell, Murray would be relegated to Wheeling. If we lose one or the other, Murray would likely be the AHL backup. If we lose both, we'd need to add somebody, because at the moment I'm not sure Murray will ever make the AHL let alone as a starter.
Sean Maguire was the other goalie acquired during the 2012 Draft. Maguire just finished up his Freshman season with Boston University, where he actually managed to become the starter. Well, I suppose it's more of a co-starter, as he had 21 games to the other goalie's 19. But as a rookie, playing for one of the better schools in one of the tougher NCAA conferences, he managed to finish the season with a 2.54 GAA and .926 Save %. However, considering that he is a college prospect, and that the Pens don't need to add any goaltending in the near future, he is unlikely to join the team until after he graduates. He could drop out early, depending on how he performs next year and the team's goaltending needs, but at the moment we will assume he will not join the team until 2016-17. Considering his age and how well he did as a freshman in a tough group, if anybody currently in the system is being groomed to replace Fleury in 7-10 years it will be Maguire. Of course a lot can happen in that time, new draft picks, new free agents, or an unexpected surge in our current players. As with the other unsigned/pending free agents, his future with the team is uncertain, but as he is still in college they don't need to decide whether or not to sign him until after he graduates, whereas the others are more immediate decisions during a time with fewer openings. If he joins the team early he is likely to spend a number of years in the AHL, as I'm still convince Fleury is the long term NHL starter with Zatkoff joining him in a couple years as his backup. His positioning in the AHL will depend on who, if any, of the remaining Thiessen/Hartzell/Murray are on the AHL roster.
Alex Pechurskiy is technically still a Penguins prospect, although he seems content to remain in Russia, and considering his performance in North America and the transition from European hockey, he would be unlikely to make the team even if they decided to sign him. So expect him to remain with the Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL, or their lower tier VHL/MHL clubs.
Scott Darling is also a long shot option, not for the NHL roster, but for the AHL team. He is currently an ECHL contracted goaltender playing on an AHL Try-Out contract. He was an undrafted college free agent that spent a few years bouncing around the American semi-pro leagues (Southern Professional Hockey League and Central Hockey League), before joining the Wheeling Nailers for his first full season playing as Co-Starter (32 games to his teammate's 31 games). He had a 2.80 GAA and .907 Save %, as well as a shutout in his sole game with AHL Hamilton Bulldogs. He was added to WBS as a late season Black Ace, so he is with the team to practice and gain experience, not to play. However, next year if they need an AHL backup (if Thiessen and Hartzell are not back), the Baby Pens could sign him to an AHL deal. Or the Pens could sign him and assign him to Wheeling if they don't need an AHL backup next year, and have him available for 2014-15 when they may need another G with Zatkoff likely moving up the the NHL.