Training camp kicks off today, and Pittsburgh’s veteran players will take to the ice just 95 days after winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup Championship. GM Jim Rutherford, Head Coach Mike Sullivan, and the team’s leaders are dead set on picking things off right where they left them and earning a three-peat, despite the brevity of the 2017-18 season. But with question marks still spread across the bottom-six portion of the Penguins’ roster, especially that tricky third-line center job, it’s safe to assume most of the attention in camp will be on this year’s prospect class.
For fun, I’ve decided to take the top names from the Prospect Challenge and fit them into a hypothetical, yet realistic, position on Pittsburgh’s capricious depth-chart if they improve on their weaknesses and show out during camp. I say capricious because we all know what typically happens when January rolls around. We’ll take a closer look at the team as a whole and make updates as camp marches on, and at the conclusion of camp, we’ll summarize any accomplishments.
For now, here’s a more straightforward and compartmentalized look at the prospects, who arguably have the most to gain in the upcoming week.
Why he’s noteworthy: The 23-year-old Latvian has everything a coach wants in a young guy: poise, attention to detail, natural-born leadership, and relentless dedication on and off the ice. Most importantly, he’s is a great penalty killer — a trait this Penguins team desperately needs. He has a calmness about him that’s compelling, and it translates to him never getting jarred during in-game situations you’d normally expect from a veteran player. Blueger is also intelligent and flaunts a certain responsibility with the puck. His experience in four years of college and one year in the AHL prove that Blueger’s had a ton of development opportunity after being drafted in the second round.
What he should work on during camp: Though Blueger is steady and prides himself on a high level of detail in his play, it takes away from his strength in tallying offensive points. To support that, he only scored seven goals in 54 games last season. Matt Cullen had almost twice that with 13. Because the Penguins have a lot of firepower on the offensive front, there’s a tiny chance he’ll be able to get away with it. However, as a center, especially if he wants to make it on the team’s final roster, he’ll need to start formulating a more offensively-charged frame of mind.
Where he could fit on the roster: Out of all the prospects, save Zach-Aston Reese and Daniel Sprong, Blueger has the highest chance to land a spot on the depth-chart. The most important thing about Blueger is the position he plays. As a centerman, he has a golden chance to earn a bottom-six role for Pittsburgh this year with the lack of a set-in-stone starter on the third line. Blueger definitely knows that, so watch for him to try and impress his coaches even further moving forward. I wouldn’t be surprised if he succeeds.
Why he’s noteworthy: Bellerive was exceptional in the Buffalo prospect tournament. His feisty and voracious scoring ability nabbed him a head-turning hat trick, surprising just about everybody present. Unfortunately, he’s not very big or very fast, standing at only 5’10”, 194 lbs, and his four goals and three assists in three games on the fourth line may just be a “fool’s gold” sort of situation. But as an 18-year-old, Bellerive’s future is very bright if he can continue producing like this in a bottom-six role.
What he should work on during camp: His speed. The new era of NHL teams have grown their hockey clubs’ skill and speed (probably to keep up with the Penguins, as they’ve built their success on those very two things), and if Bellerive wants to get drafted and/or secure a spot on any roster in this league, he has to get faster.
Where he could fit on the roster: All signs point to this kid not making it onto the final roster because of CBA regulations forcing the Penguins into a contract-signing snag before the season starts. So, one of two things will happen. Pittsburgh will either sign him immediately after camp or, down the road, and maybe after he re-enters the draft, take him in the later rounds. His production quality would be stupid to waste if he can keep developing it.
Thomas Di Pauli
Why he’s noteworthy: Due to being riddled with injuries, his rookie season was unimpressive. However, the speedy, left-handed winger/center came into the Buffalo prospect tournament looking fantastic physically, while proving just how consistent and versatile he is as a player. Perhaps what is Di Pauli’s most glimmering feature is his tenacity around the net, which is similar to how Patric Hornqvist or Bryan Rust can affect a game. He can also be utilized as a two-way forward when called upon, which adds to his value as a player.
What he should work on during camp: At 5’11”, 188 lbs, Di Pauli will have to find a way to either bulk up or play bigger. He’s too prone to injury, and needs to find a way to grow his strength to avoid getting hurt in the future. Di Pauli could also benefit from upping his goal-scoring ability. He’ll need that sort of trait to be considered for an NHL-caliber roster.
Where he could fit on the roster: There’s no doubt Di Pauli will find himself on the Wilkes-Barre lineup to start the season, especially when you consider how loaded this Penguins team is at the forward slot. Don’t count him out though, if he finds a way to stay healthy this year, you might see him in a Pittsburgh jersey come January.
Why he’s noteworthy: The only thing I can spin positively for Lauzon is his ability to be developed for the future. He was a surprise pick in the 2017 draft, going in the second round at 51, and didn’t really compel any of the other NHL teams. Pittsburgh saw something, and during the Buffalo tourney, he showed glimpses of why the organization took a chance on him. Lauzon protects the blue line in a way that almost seems illegal, but just barely stays behind that thin margin. He likes the rough stuff and is always looking to get involved physically. He’s also decent skater, but he doesn’t have any outright skills that make him stand out.
What he should work on during camp: A bit of everything, to be honest. Lauzon flashed the occasional good play during the Buffalo prospect tournament, but didn’t wow anybody. He’s also a small guy and will need to increase his size if he wants to continue playing as physically as he does now in the big leagues. There’s been some comparison of him to Brian Dumoulin, which is fine, but it’s going to take a lot of development to get him playing at the level the Pittsburgh Penguins’ executives want him at.
Where he could fit on the roster: After the news of Rutherford bringing in known grinder Ryan Reeves, it seems as though adding more “defensive” defensemen to the roster is going to be a set goal each season. It’s no secret that this team is tired of being pushed around, and getting a physical-minded player like Lauzon, who’s willing to throw his body around and protect the blue line while also finding clear shooting paths to the net, evolved into a high-level talent is a future endeavor in the upcoming years. I’d expect to see a lot more guys like him brought into the mix in the next few drafts as well.
Zach Aston-Reese & Daniel Sprong
Why they’re noteworthy: There’s really nothing left to say about these guys, but I included them to keep things honest. Aston-Reese and Sprong are very, very good hockey players. They tore apart the competition (which wasn’t much compared to them) in Buffalo and proved just how dangerous they are with a stick in their hands. Sprong has a shot that’ll rip through every net in the NHL, and Aston-Reese is as dynamic as advertised. These two will be superstars in no time, especially once they start getting experience in real-time games on the biggest stage.
What they should work on during camp: Position battles, position battles, position battles. Pittsburgh has a colossus of veteran talent in the forward category that will already be fighting each other for top line spots, so to throw Aston-Reese and Sprong into that mix will only be adding white noise. Training camp is a beautiful way for line pairings, goal tending, and top-six defensive battles to weed out the most impressive candidates for the final, and official, jobs on the roster. They’ll really need to out-do themselves.
Where they could fit on the roster: There is absolutely no doubt these two will see ice time in a Pittsburgh uniform before the season ends. If not for alleviating pressure of the top lines, they’ll be key for the playoff push come spring — especially if the chronic injury bug strikes again.