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Pensburgh 2016 Top 25 Under 25: #7-4

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Starting to get to the cream of the crop...And the cream always rises to the top. Today's portion of the countdown of the top 25 players under 25 years old includes some big time names for the future.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We're almost getting to the top countdown of the top 25 players under the age of 25 in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, and now it's really going to get interesting. Catch up with the earlier parts of the series if you need

And now on to the listing!

#7 (9) Bryan Rust RW, 24 years old, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Another player appearing in his final T25U25 list, Rust completes a long journey and ends up all the way at #7. Rust completed a magical 3 game stretch from G6 of the ECF vs Tampa to G1 of the SCF against San Jose, scoring 4 total goals in 3 Penguins wins. The kicker was obviously Game 7, where Rust provided the only 2 goals the Pens scored in a Talbot-ian effort to etch his name in franchise lore.

Read more: Bryan Rust 2015-16 season recap

Rust lands a #7 mainly for reliability. With an excellent motor, very good speed and drive to the net, Rust should excel in a bottom-6 NHL role for years to come as a reliable player. The next step for him to increase value might be adding some penalty killing capabilities, which shouldn't be a very difficult ask, just a matter of when or if he's tabbed for such a role.

#6 (10) Conor Sheary, W, 24 years old, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Right now, in summer 2016, it's difficult at least for me to remember that 2015-16 was the first time that Sheary ever played in the NHL. That seems easy to forget with the season he had, ending with playing on the Penguins first line with Sidney Crosby, and scoring an overtime Stanley Cup Final goal in Game 2 against the Sharks.

Sheary started 2015-16 back in the AHL and absolutely dominated scoring 36 points in 30 games (a rate better than eventual AHL scoring champion Chris Bourque) before Sheary's call up to the NHL.

Read more: Conor Sheary 2015-16 season in review

Sheary comes in at #6 in his final list, since he still seems more "boom or bust" right now. In a mostly 4th line role, he didn't produce very much in the regular season (see those 3 regular season assists in 44 NHL reg season games), but he also did show in the playoffs some competency and production playing with Crosby. Can he keep that up? Will he become a full-time NHL top-6 option? If you think so, you could easily vote him higher for this ranking.

However with Sheary's frame and skill-set he doesn't seem like a big-time NHL contributor without being a scorer and could fall in the mold of talented but over-matched smaller players (the aforementioned Bourque, Brian Gibbons, Zach Boychuk, and on and on) and be more of a AAAA type guy that dominates the AHL/Europe but doesn't find a niche in the NHL.

That said, Sheary dazzled when given his chance to shine, and he's going to have more time to continue to prove he belongs. It will be fun to watch him keep going in what should be his first full NHL season. Sheary's been on a major upswing in his career ever since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and he might have further still to go.

Conor Sheary's day with the Cup

#5 (2) Derrick Pouliot, D, 22 years old, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)/ Pittsburgh (NHL)

For years the top of the T25U25 was a question of Derrick vs. Olli, and it might yet return to that next season, but for now Pouliot finds himself at a bit of a cross-roads in his career and with his status in the Pens organization heading now into his 3rd professional season. As we opined just last week:

Pouliot certainly is in an interesting point of his development, entering the final season of his entry level contract. We've seen first-hand that it sometimes takes defensemen a little longer to make strides to NHL level and player development isn't always a straight or steady line of growth. It took Brian Dumoulin 3 years as a pro to put it all together, until this past season (his 4th) he continued to grow and progress into an increasingly solid player.

On one hand, if the Penguins don't like Pouliot's growth in the past couple years (or worse, if they don't believe in his attitude and mindset as the nuclear DK theory goes), they might as well trade him soon as recoup something for the asset while he still has value.

On the other hand, Pouliot is still very young at 22 and has some encouraging underlying possession metrics when he has been in the NHL lineup. Patience in a talented player might be rewarded if and when he is able to put it together at the NHL level like Dumoulin has in the past 16 months. It also seems difficult to believe that a good skating, puck-moving defenseman like Pouliot wouldn't be a fit in Sullivan's system that is configured around those exact attributes for defensemen.

Training camp will be interesting, Pouliot needs to demonstrate a strong defensive game (a knock on him since his draft day) and some overall improvement to cement his status. Best case, he should be playing a bunch of NHL games, since the Pens usually aren't the healthiest team in the league. Worst case, the team sours on a perceived lack of improvement and looks to trade him during this season.

Hopefully though patience will prevail and cooler heads will remember why he ranks so high in lists like these and Pouliot for his part will start turning his immense promise into results on the ice.

#4 (7) Daniel Sprong, W, 19 years old, Charlottetown (QMJHL), Wilkes-Barre (AHL), Pittsburgh (NHL)

Of all the surprises in a roller-coaster 2015-16 season, the season, one of the wildest individual journeys was for Sprong. A strong training camp got him into NHL regular season games at age 18, the first draft+1 player to play in Pittsburgh since Jordan Staal back in 2006-07. Sprong would be returned to juniors, where he ripped the league up, then back to the AHL for the playoffs once his Q season was over (scoring an impressive 5 goals, 2 assists in 10 games there) and then to Pittsburgh as a practice player.

Unfortunately, during the spring Sprong suffered a significant shoulder injury, requiring surgery. (That's a lot of S's). He'll be out of action for several months of the 2016-17 season, and unfortunately is still ineligible to play in the AHL regular season, he must be in the NHL or returned back to the Q for one more year. Many do not expect him to be in the big club's plans this season, but after Sprong rehabs he should gear up again for another AHL playoff run after his junior season ends, and probably make a serious run for a full-time NHL job in 2017-18.

Sprong rockets up to #4 for his unique status as the Penguins sole purely skilled winger with realistic top-6 potential. Lately the argument for Guentzel is a good one, but most would agree Sprong's pedigree and puck-skills and shot make him one of a kind for Pittsburgh's organization right now.

With major turnover likely coming after the 2016-17 season, Pittsburgh keeping their Stanley Cup window open depends highly on the development of players like Sprong (and Guentzel, and Sheary). If those guys can provide relatively cheap, productive options for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the team could be a relevant title contender for many seasons to come.

***

The list will resume later on this week, so far we've got:

Rank Name
25 Joe Masonius
24 Niclas Almari
23 Ryan Jones
22 Connor Hall
21 Josh Archibald
20 Kaspar Bjornqvist
19 Anthony Angello
18 Jean-Sebastien Dea
17 Teddy Blueger
16 Dominik Simon
15 Ethan Prow
14 Tristan Jarry
13 Tom Kuhnhackl
12 Oskar Sundqvist
11 Lukas Bengtsson
10 Filip Gustavsson
9 Scott Wilson
8 Jake Guentzel
7 Bryan Rust
6 Conor Sheary
5 Derrick Pouliot
4 Daniel Sprong
3
2
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