And we’re off with the 2017 edition of the top 25 players in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization under the age of 25. Whether they’re 2-time Stanley Cup champions, or recent draftees, we rank ‘em all here. A basic rule of thumb (though not a hard-set rule) in this battle of potential vs. current ability to determine slotting would be which young player would you rather NOT be included in a hypothetical trade. That sort of helps set a value for now and the future, but as always, prospect judgement is a subjective thing. And, clearly the difference between say #4 and #5 could be WAY more than the difference between #13 and #23.
With all that in mind, we’re off to the first five profiles!
#25 Ryan Jones, defenseman, 21 years old, University of Nebraska-Omaha, 4th round pick 2016
Jones took a big step up last season, his first in the NCAA. And in his first game he scored a goal, which would be his only of his freshman campaign. He added on five more assists on the season in 35 total games. Here’s how the youngster describes himself, from a recent article from nwitimes.com:
“When I compare myself, I've always said (the Blackhawks' Brent) Seabrook. I'm more of a stay at hone defenseman, a shutdown guy who can step up into the play if need be."
At 6’2, 190 the left-handed defenseman is known for his physicality and toughness and does seem to be in that type of mold of a Seabrook-type player, though obviously he has a long way to go to get to that point.
And it sounded like Jones had an eye-opening experience at this summer’s prospect development camp in Pittsburgh:
"I had a great time," he said. "It's exciting to be a part of history. I went in kind of shy. I didn't know what to expect. The key for me was to introduce myself to as many people as I could. Fitness, strength and nutrition are key components in a successful hockey player. The little things, how to be better on and off the ice, still go a long way. That's what separates average players from great players."
The experience made Jones think about making it to the NHL, but he's doing his best to keep his skates grounded in the present.
"It paints a clearer picture of what you want to actually accomplish in life," he said. "Every time I think about it, I get butterflies in my stomach. At the same time, I keep myself humble. Right now, I'm not looking too far into the future. If the day comes, it comes. I'm just excited for the upcoming year. The mindset is to put the hard work in and get better every day. You have to earn everything you get. It's not going to be given to you just because you were drafted."
Jones does have a long way to go, and will be in his sophomore season in 2017-18 in Omaha. He’s a long-term type of prospect and hopefully will develop into a legitimate prospect in the next 2-3 years to come.
#24 Thomas DiPauli, winger, 23 years old, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
The Penguins are a team notorious for bad luck with injuries and weird ailments, so in that regard DiPauli fit right in during his first year with the organization. After signing with Pittsburgh last summer as a free agent, DiPauli had a bit of hype and buzz about him, but unfortunately that was cut short almost immediately by a back injury and surgery that really derailed his season. When he was able to return, a thumb injury also got in the way.
In all, DiPauli scored just 2 goals, with no assists in 21 AHL games in a painful rookie campaign better off forgotten.
But what isn’t forgotten is why DiPauli was a sought after free agent for Pittsburgh to sign. New Pens assistant coach Mark Recchi noticed in his old role of player development from this article with the Tribune-Review after development camp where DiPauli acquitted himself well.
“He's a good skater. He competes really, really hard. He has some good hockey sense,” Penguins director of player development Mark Recchi said.
DiPauli also recognizes some similarities with his former Notre Dame teammate, and current Pens teammate Bryan Rust.
When it was suggested to DiPauli that his game is similar to Rust's, he agreed.
“We are both tenacious on the puck. We both go hard on the forecheck. Both pretty fast forwards,” he said. “I like to actually compare myself to him, good role model. Just the skating ability and protecting the puck in the corners.”
DiPauli (5-foot-11, 188 pounds) patiently is waiting for a chance to play in the NHL.
“That's my goal,” he said. “Last year, I got sent down at the end of training camp. Now, having a year under my belt and making some adjustments over the last year, I feel confident. A lot of guys aren't going to pick me to make the team, but I kind of like being the underdog and proving people wrong. That's what I love about life in general.”
As an older prospect, DiPauli really has a “show me” type of season in front of him in 2017-18, the final season of his entry level deal too. Hopefully with full health, he can do his thing and turn some heads.
#23 Frederik Tiffels, winger, 22 years old, AHL next season, 6th round pick in 2015
Signed a couple weeks after this year’s Stanley Cup victory, Tiffels will look to fill the mold of the next wave of youngsters to support the Penguins core one day. Ironically enough, our SBN College Hockey blog has been comparing Tiffels as a player to a current Penguin, who wasn’t even on the team when the comparisons started:
The best comparison to Tiffels would be New York Rangers forward Carl Hagelin. Both players are smaller, but have elite speed that they use to put pressure on the opposing defense and create offense, and play a responsible two-way game. Hagelin and Tiffels even had very similar statistics in their first NCAA season.
As a follow on a couple of months ago they noted:
Tiffels offensive production in the NCAA didn’t quite improve the way Hagelin’s did, so the chances of him becoming Hagelin 2.0 for the Penguins aren’t as high, but it gives some idea to the style of play Tiffels will bring, and how he will be productive in the Penguins system.
Tiffels turned pro after finishing his junior season at Western Michigan, and he starred for Team Germany in this spring’s World Championships, scoring 2 goals and helping zee Germans advance to the quarterfinals.
Tiffels went undrafted two years before the Penguins nabbed him late in 2015 (a path they’ve followed a couple of times lately under Jim Rutherford) so it will be interesting to see if he can develop as a professional and possibly follow in the footsteps of Hagelin or countryman Tom Kuhnhackl to develop into an NHL player.
#22 Nikita Pavlychev, center, 20 years old, Penn State, 7th round draft pick in 2015
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m the last on the Pavlychev band wagon. At 6’7 and 220 pounds, it’s obvious and impossible to ignore why he stands out, but I never gave him the benefit of the doubt and questioned his skating and how he would do are in the NCAA. After a solid freshman season at PSU, Pavlychev’s starting to win me over.
As Penn State coach Guy Gadowski said:
"The first thing you notice about Nikita is his size, but he is also very smart at both ends of the rink, is a tough competitor, and possesses very good hands for a big body."
The hands (6g+7a in a freshman year) were there and the feet seemed to be too. Many raved about his edge and competitiveness as well. In a perfect world, Pavlychev could be the next Brian Boyle type - a huge figure down the middle of the ice that can control a bottom-six line and chip in with some goals.
At this rate, if his improvement and development continues, he just might look like he’s on that path.
#21 Jeff Taylor, defenseman, 23 years old, AHL, 7th round pick in 2014
Taylor scored 9 goals in his senior season at Union College (matching his total for his first 3 years combined) and tacked on 24 assists too to show why he’s developed into a fine offensive-minded defenseman at the NCAA level. Now Taylor moves on to the professional ranks, signing a 2-year contract with Pittsburgh and jumping in 6 games last year in the AHL as an ATO preview.
As Union Athletics recapped it:
A 2016-17 All-ECAC Hockey Second Team selection, Taylor led the league's defensemen with seven goals, five power-play goals, 17 power-play points and six multi-point games, while finishing tied for first with 22 points and two game-winning goals. He also ranked second among ECAC Hockey blueliners with a +11 rating.
Given that the Penguins have almost zero prospect defensemen in the “power play quarterback” mold, Taylor adds some skill there. Not that there’s any need with Kris Letang and Justin Schultz each under contract for at least the next three seasons, but every team loves defenseman depth and Taylor will get the chance to show what he’s got in his first full professional season.
The list rolls on next week!