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#1-5 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25: the best young players in Pittsburgh

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We’ve reached the mountain top and here is the best of the best for the young players in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Summer must be over, here’s the finale of this year’s profile of the Top 25 Players Under 25 years old in the Penguins organization.

Here’s what you may have missed -

Catching up on the 2016 List

2017: #25 - #21

2017: #20 - 16

2017: #15 -11

2017: #10 - 6

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#5 Tristan Jarry goalie, 22 years old, Wilkes-Barre (AHL), 2nd round pick 2013

Jarry took a huge step in his second full professional season last year, his AHL numbers markedly improved. His GAA went from 2.69 in his rookie year to 2.15 in 2016-17, save percentage jumping from .905% to .925% and total games in the AHL going from 33 up to 45. Jarry also made his debut in an actual NHL game (after sitting the bench a few times as backup) in Game 82 of the season as the Penguins were resting their key players. He made 22 saves on 25 shots in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers but showed some athleticism and why he’s a well-regarded young goalie.

Given AHL success, Jarry’s probably at least worthy for an NHL audition in 2017-18, and who knows, Matt Murray hasn’t been the most durable goalie and Antti Niemi perhaps isn’t much more than a replacement level player. If Niemi struggles as a backup like Jeff Zatkoff did a couple years ago while Marc-Andre Fleury was injured, the team could try to give Jarry the opportunity to be in the position Murray was to get NHL action.

The Penguins under Mike Sullivan have managed 3 goalie situations before and have been pretty aggressive in giving a young player minutes over a struggling veteran, which one would have to think could bode well for Jarry.

Then again, the team did decide to sign Niemi instead of turn the NHL backup job over full-time to Jarry in 2017-18, at least in plan and theory to add more depth to the goal position. Even that could be to Jarry’s benefit, as he should be inline to play another 45-50 games in the AHL and get more game action under his belt.

With another strong season this year, in 2018-19 the Pens probably won’t have much trepidation or reason not to turn Jarry as the #2 goalie in the organization. Until then, another season of development but he’s only one injury away from getting another chance at NHL minutes for a talented young goalie.

#4 Daniel Sprong, right wing 20 years old, Wilkes-Barre (AHL), 2nd round pick 2015

Despite only being drafted 2 years ago, it seemingly feels like Pens fans have been waiting forever for Sprong to be finished with his juniors eligibility and able to turn pro full-time.

The wait for the explosive winger is over.

Despite coming off a summer 2016 shoulder surgery, Sprong was a man among boys in the QMJHL, scoring 32 goals and 27 assists in just 31 regular season games. Playoffs were more of the same with 9g+11a in just ten games.

Sprong is now in Pittsburgh’s organization full-time and that could even mean starting the season in the NHL according to Jim Rutherford:

“I don’t want to automatically say they can’t make the team out of camp, but my point is that usually for a guy to go and play half a season or a season in the minors, it gives him a better chance to get his confidence, and when he comes in it makes it easier,” Rutherford said last week. “But I’m not going to rule out anybody making it out of camp, because that’s what we have camp for.”

The Penguins have a lot of right wing depth, so a trip to Wilkes-Barre is more likely, but if Sprong puts up numbers he will likely soon rise to an NHL opportunity sooner than later, much like Jake Guentzel was able to. What he does with that opportunity remains to be seen, but there’s good reason for excitement.

Since drafting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the Pens have had just 2 home-grown wingers score 20 goals in a season. One was Tyler Kennedy in 2010-11 (who played on the 3rd line and only had one 20-goal season in his career) and the other was Conor Sheary just last season. Guentzel has a pretty fair chance to be the 3rd, and the visions dancing in the heads of Pens fans is that Sprong will be the 4th, and sooner than later. Pittsburgh’s organization hasn’t done much to add a ton of young talent around 87 and 71 but Rutherford’s second draft pick for the Pens might just be such a talent.

#3 Olli Maatta defenseman, 23 years old, Pittsburgh, 1st round pick 2012

Maatta is a polarizing player among Pens fans for his style. His skating and foot-speed leave something to be desired. Playing defense in the NHL is a game of mistakes, and he’s made his share. At times he can be a frustrating player.

The bigger picture puts Maatta in a different context- he’s handled 2nd pair NHL minutes since the age of 19. It hasn’t always been pretty but his Goals Against rates are as low as anyone on the team. Despite missing huge swatches of time to injury, Maatta’s got 220 NHL regular season games under his belt and 56 more in he playoffs.

2 of these too

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Troublingly, Maatta’s point production has dried up (just 1 goal and 6 assists in 55 regular season games in 2016-17) but with good health for himself and teammates he should be in a position to improve on all facets, considering that he should be paired with either Kris Letang or Justin Schultz, two talented defensemen who can lead breakouts, control possession and outscore the opposition.

So even though it feels odd for a player who has been a major cog on a team that has accomplished so much in recent years, there’s still some room to grow and more to prove for Maatta in 2017-18.

#2 Jake Guentzel left wing, 22 years old, Pittsburgh, 3rd round pick 2013

Years can’t go any better than Guentzel did in 2016-17, his first as a pro. As we said in his season recap:

A top prospect already, Guentzel made a fairly seamless and smooth transition to become an extremely productive top-6 winger. For years the search for a “winger for Sid” or two has gone on. Finally they found one here, and on an entry-level contract for two more seasons as well. Guentzel showed that he can think the game on Crosby’s level and also beat the goalie with his shot, a willingness to drive the net and also extreme patience and vision. (How many young players would pause an extra beat in Game 7 after a Crosby pass to wait for Bryan Rust to enter the screen here? And then have the skill to saucer a perfect pass over the falling defenseman?)

Not too much more to say than that. Guentzel is amazing and the Penguins are beyond #blessed to have him still on an entry level contract for 2 more seasons to come.

Now the question becomes how high can he fly? 2017-18 will be Guentzel’s first full one in the NHL. His first regular season of 40 games, 16 goals and 17 assists would look mighty nice if he could double all three boxcar numbers there. Based on the chemistry shown with Crosby that helped lead to 13 more goals in the playoffs, that seems like good numbers to shoot for this year.

#1 Matt Murray goalie, 23 years old, Pittsburgh, 3rd round pick 2012

Not even sure what else needs to be said about Murray at this point after leading the Penguins to 8 Stanley Cup Finals wins in the last two seasons.

Everywhere you look his numbers pop off the chart: a .925 career regular season save percentage, bettered by a .928% mark in the playoffs.

Hockey-Reference has Murray with a ratio of 57 Quality Starts versus 6 “Really Bad Starts” in his combined NHL career of regular season and playoffs, numbers that put even the elite goalies in the NHL to shame. Based on metrics like that, the argument could be made that Murray is the best goalie in the NHL today. Even if he’s not, he’s certainly in the very top handful of goalies.

The 2017-18 season will be a first for Murray, though, as it will be the first time where he has to carry the full weight of the team with Marc-Andre Fleury moving on. Murray’s missed time to injuries and the Pens will need him to start more than the 47 games he started last season. Playing in a full season is about the only thing Murray’s yet to do, and should he be able to do so, it seems likely with the number of wins and high save percentage that he carries that he could/should be in the Vezina race. Murray’s EV save % in 2016-17 was .932%, placing him 5th in the NHL among regular starters.

You could say that’s a high bar to clear and certainly is a high expectation, but based off what Murray’s shown and proven in the biggest moments of the playoffs it just seems like the next logical step.