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What we learned from the Penguins Prospect Challenge

Reviewing the performances of the Penguins prospects now that the challenge up in Buffalo is over

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Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The brief “prospect challenge” in Buffalo has concluded. The Penguins dropped a 3-2 OT game to Boston on Friday and then defeated New Jersey 6-2 on Saturday and yesterday took down the host Sabres team 5-3 for the best performance in the tournament. Not really a meaningful honor but a win is a win.

What did we learn? Let’s take a look, it’s mostly things that were already known before this weekend, important not to get too high or too low based on performances in September against other prospects, after all.

#1 Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese are very good

Both of the key Pens players were standout players as advertised, and as they should have been against the weakest competition you’ll find with players still wearing NHL jerseys.

From the PG:

Daniel Sprong’s shot is every bit as nasty as it was at the beginning of the 2015-16 season … and probably better.

“’Spronger’s’ shot is unbelievable,” Penguins associate general manager Bill Guerin said.

Focusing solely on Sprong, and specifically on his ability to fire the puck … wow. Quick release. A ton of velocity. Pinpoint placement.

Sprong produced a goal, an assist and 14 shots on goal in three games, but his most memorable moment might’ve been a puck he fired off the crossbar in overtime of a 3-2 loss last Friday.

“I’m glad to see him shooting,” coach Clark Donatelli said. “That’s what he does. He’s a dynamic player. He’s a game-changer. He definitely has a great shot.”

One of our own Pensburgh commenters Jake, a prospect guru, was also impressed:

Sprong, Blueger, and Aston-Reese are as advertised, and I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of them are in Pittsburgh before the year ends. They were head and shoulders better than anyone on either side of the ice, and Blueger might actually have a future as an NHL center. Don’t be surprised if he makes noise in camp, or outright wins the 3C spot on a trial basis.

#2 Speaking of, it was a good weekend for Teddy Blueger


With a bottom-six center job open, expect Blueger to get a long look at camp. Also expect him to play NHL games this season.

Blueger served as captain during this tournament, and it sounds like the decision was an easy one.

“Teddy’s a serious guy,” Donatelli said. “He’s a leader on and off the ice. He works tremendously hard. He’s dedicated. He’s a really good pro, and he’s made some great strides. Guys like him. He leads by example. He’s detailed in his game. He works tremendously hard on and off the ice.”

It’s no secret that as of right now the Pens need a center. As a former 2nd round pick who went through 4 years of college and one season last year of AHL play, the 23-year old has had plenty of development time since being drafted in 2012. From a tools-based perspective it seems he has about all the ingredients and now is a great opportunity.

Speaking of opportunity, it made me think of something Justin Bourne (AHL hockey player turned blogger turned Toronto Marlies video coach turned Athletic writer) recently wrote about. Being immersed in the AHL he saw plenty of players in the past few years. It’s behind a paywall so I won’t give too much away, but here’s a snippet:

The AHL is a strange, misunderstood beast. It is not, despite what some may think, simply comprised of the best players who are not in the NHL. Instead it’s a hodgepodge of recently drafted players, veterans on their downswing and prospects turned projects making a final push. The talent variance between players on the same team can be striking.

Still, your average fourth line NHL player wouldn’t be tearing up the league — that’s been proven time and again. Conversely, first line AHL players can generally slot in on a decent NHL line without looking out of place.

When discussing where a player fits into the pro hockey picture, the biggest misconception is the belief that the hockey gods have bestowed NHL talent to some, and only AHL talent to others (that's likely borne out of the belief that the NHL and AHL are miles apart). It's column A and column B.

For example, it's been said: Seth Griffith in an NHL-calibre player. Well, he is and he isn't. It's a fluid situation.

Hockey talent isn't neatly split into two columns: one NHL and one AHL. Instead it's more like two sides of a folded piece of paper that's being cut down the middle by a toddler — it veers in unpredictable ways. It's the same in deciding who gets a shot in the NHL and who doesn't. Around the fringes, an awful lot comes down to chance.

Guys like Blueger and J-S Dea who have been “AHL players” in perception have an excellent chance if GM Jim Rutherford can’t pull the trigger on a trade prior to the start of the regular season. They’ll probably never have a better one in their careers to make an NHL roster right out the gate.

That is the storyline to watch as Pittsburgh’s NHL camp opens up this week. Who can make the most of a great chance? As of now, it seems like Blueger has a lot of attention and positive momentum. All of that isn’t worth a hill of beans once the big boys all get into camp and he’s got to compete against NHL caliber defenseman like Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang who are going to eat up his time and space and use stick-on-puck to take away chances he’s probably used to getting through. Let’s see the battle and how he can respond.

#3 Jordy Bellerive was the surprise player

Playing on an amateur tryout as an undrafted 18-year old, Bellerive brought positive attention to himself by scoring 4 goals and 3 assists in the three games, and from the 4th line no less.


The Penguins could use one of their 50 allotted contracts — they have 46 on their books at the moment, according to — on Bellerive, similar to what they did with Jean-Sebastien Dea a couple of years ago.

“We’re talking about different things,” Guerin said with a smile when asked whether Bellerive might’ve done enough to earn a contract. “We’re talking about different options.”


Bellerive might have potential, but he’s shown enough lapses to make me think he’s just as likely to be fools’ gold. If he goes back into the draft and has another solid year I wouldn’t be opposed taking him inthe later rounds, but Pittsburgh is already at 46 contracts with holes to fill, prospects to sign, and trades to make. He’s not worth it right now.

I’d agree with Jake, no need to fall in love and make a huge commitment based only on one great weekend (sage advice for more than hockey). Bellerive was awesome now but at 5’10, 190 he doesn’t standout. His stats last year in junior (27g+29a in 70 games) were nice but again, not enough to standout and be drafted this summer.

It’s a gamble but the prudent course would seem to be to send him back to the WHL and now he’ll have more scouting eyes one him (from outside the Pens organization too after this weekend) so we’ll see what he can do. As an older junior player, he ought to have a great season. If so, he could be a guy the Penguins target in the 2018 draft.

Maybe another team cuts in line to grab him first, but that remains to be seen. Usually there isn’t a ton of competition or interest for players who have been passed over in the draft. NHL teams tend to favor drafting the younger players with higher perceived ceilings, so barring some crazy season, Bellerive ought to be a mid-to-late round option in 2018 if he continues to impress.

The advantage to taking this option would be to preserve one of the 50 NHL contracts that would be given out if signed now. That buys the team more time to see how his development goes and if he’s worthy of a contract or not when it’s time to turn professional. A great weekend for Bellerive, but no real need to lock in at this point.

#4 The Pens highest draft pick has flashes but a ways to go

As probably expected, one of the youngest players out there was also a bit inconsistent and green but also demonstrated why Pittsburgh liked him as a 2nd round pick.


Lauzon needs to add weight and fill out, but having a little bit of nasty on a blue line that features plenty of puck-movers isn’t the worst thing.

As Sullivan’s said, Lauzon — who said his favorite player is Marc-Edouard Vlasic from San Jose — isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there and toe the line of legality.

“I thought he was excellent,” Guerin said. “Steady. He’s a strong kid. Seems like he’s very trustworthy. Stays within himself and doesn’t try to be something he’s not, which is impressive for a young kid.”


Lauzon has me puzzled. He skates well enough but he’s not outwardly impressive. He’s alright defensively, but doesn’t play like a shutdown D. He has a strong breakout pass, but I can’t get a bead on whether he’s unlucky or just doesn’t see the ice at speed (I’d be willing to chock this one up to small sample size more than the others, but it could be something to watch). He might have a high ceiling, but he doesn’t seem to have any one clear strength. I honestly don’t know what to think about him, and he needs to figure out what kind of player he’s going to be.

Guerin’s public review, as expected, is a bit sunnier but that’s OK too. It’s clear Lauzon needs to add muscle and just all-around experience at the junior level and he’ll have another couple of years before he turns pro and then likely some AHL time in his future as well. As we’ve seen if you take a complimentary tone to compare him to a smaller, meaner Brian Dumoulin type of player, it’s going to be a while. His development will be an interesting one to follow and track.

#5 Hockey season is right around the corner

This was the first real activity of the fall, and yes it’s pretty much the fall now. The main camp will be open soon and the preseason exhibition game will be going before you know it. In fact, Game 1 is a week from today, next Tuesday 9/19 in Buffalo and the home exhibition opener is the very next night. Buckle up.