In the eyes of many Penguins fans, draft enthusiasts, and those who exist in the overlap, Jim Rutherford et al’s decision to trade the Penguins’ first-rounder and Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and pick 51 was something approaching unforgivable. Seen as prioritizing the hockey mindset of the past—the need for enforcers to ‘protect’ star players—over building a weakened prospect pool to bolster the future of the organization, the trade didn’t go over well with a large subset of fans and analysts alike.
Let’s not rehash that, however. Instead, let’s look at what they’ve done since then to supplement organizational depth.
Undrafted players invited to rookie camps don’t always pan out, but when they turn into worthwhile signings, they’re basically free draft picks. This year, the Penguins found three—forwards Jordy Bellerive and Sam Miletic, and goaltender Alex D’Orio.
Bellerive turned heads playing for the Penguins at this year’s rookie tournament, and rightfully so—he ended the tournament with 7 points, including 4 goals, in three games. The Penguins have already returned him to the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL, where he’ll work on refining his game.
Ranked 82nd by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters at the end of last season, Bellerive nevertheless went undrafted, and was thus available for the Penguins to invite him to their camps and sign him as a free agent. The center is smart, fast, and good at protecting the puck, but could stand to improve his offensive output and reduce his penalty minutes.
And 23 seconds later, @Baby_Baer8 drives, @jordybellerive parks the puck in the back of the net. TIE GAME! #REGvsLET #WHLPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/nobvYmcybZ— The WHL (@TheWHL) April 23, 2017
Trade a goalie away, add a goalie to the system. Makes sense, right? That likely wasn’t the Penguins’ motivation behind signing Alex D’Orio, but keeping the goaltender shelf of the cupboard stocked is always a good idea. Though he went undrafted, D’Orio was ranked 13th by Central Scouting among North American goaltenders, and backed up Carolina Hurricanes prospect Callum Booth for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL at the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup.
With Booth in Charlotte with the Checkers this season, D’Orio should see a significantly increased workload, something that will no doubt please the Penguins.
D'Orio makes an impressive save near the end of the 2nd period. We'll need a big 3rd period from him to win this tournament. Let's Go Pens! pic.twitter.com/TZb8r4eb8A— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 12, 2017
A year and a half ago, Sam Miletic wasn’t even playing hockey. In January 2016, he left the London Knights to return home to Michigan and focus on his education. While he missed their Memorial Cup run in Red Deer, he was welcomed back to the roster last fall with open arms. What he accomplished with the Knights in that return, including leading the team in goals with 37, caught the eyes of the Penguins and earned Miletic an invite to development camp and the rookie tournament.
As evidenced by his goal total, Miletic took a significant step forward with his offensive play last season. Right now he projects as a bottom-six forward, but the kind of the bottom-six forward the Penguins want—one who can play a strong, complete game and chip in offensively.
Miletic is now in Wilkes-Barre, at least for a while. Because he’s 20, he can play in the AHL rather than return immediately to his CHL team. If the development staff in WBS feel he’s not up to the AHL just yet, they can choose to return him to the Knights. Time will tell whether that’s necessary, but the challenge of the AHL should be good for his development.
Let there be GIFs!— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 22, 2017
Here's a look at Sam Miletic's 1st period goal. pic.twitter.com/TweAsaEOT8
This signings shouldn’t be labeled as “making up for” the Reaves trade. Signing three undrafted prospects to entry-level contracts in September isn’t the same as drafting one first-rounder in June, and you can’t really evaluate them equally. Still, these players are steps toward addressing the problem of lack of organizational depth.
Teams stay successful for longer periods when using the draft-and-develop method. Free agent prospect signings aren’t draft picks, but they have the same effect, and more prospects means more opportunities to hit the mark.