Pittsburgh & Wilkes-Barre fans are well aware of the organization restocking the cupboard by dipping into the pool of available NCAA free agents in recent years. Conor Sheary, Zach Aston-Reese, Adam Johnson, Ethan Prow and Thomas DiPauli are all filling roles that might not be available in other organitzations due to the seemingly endless “win-now” mandate that has often left the team housing nachos and arguing instead of announcing names on the draft floor.
This past offseason, the team turned their attention a bit further north and signed three undrafted CHL players to ELCs: goalie Alex D’Orio (18), forwards Sam Miletic (20) and Jordy Bellerive (18). D’Orio and Miletic are having fine seasons - it’s hard to read much into QMJHL save percentages and Miletic, while sitting in the top-five in OHL scoring, is an overager. The list of 20-year-old OHL-ers making it to the NHL in recent years is very short and may actually double as a law firm (Goodrow, Andreoff, & Blandisi).
The real gem here is Bellerive.
Bellerive, captain of the Lethbridge Hurricanes in his third WHL season, has broken out in a massive way. Many were left wondering why he went undrafted after putting up a respectable 56 points in 70 games, and it didn’t take long for that to translate into a contract.
The Penguins signed Bellerive after impressing at prospect camp in July & leading all players during their Prospects Challenge tournament as an invite. Since that time, Bellerive has absolutely dominated the WHL scoresheet, putting up 44 goals and 89 points through 62 games to this point. If he’s able to crack 100 points in the final eight games, he’ll be joining some very nice company. Since 2010, only 13 players under 19 have cracked the century mark. Of those, only six have scored more than 44 goals.
I think it’s useful to break it down even further by looking at strength of team. To do this, I simply took the players point total and found the difference between he and the second highest scorer on the team. Here we see that list of players sorted from largest gap to smallest:
- Leon Draisatl ‘13-’14 (+32)
- Jordy Bellerive ‘17-’18 (+30)
- Ty Rattie ‘11-’12 (+27)
- Michael St. Croix ‘11-’12 (+25)
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ‘10-’11 (+24)
- Brayden Burke ‘15-’16 (+20)
- Mark Stone ‘10-’11 (+15)
- Sam Reinhart ‘13-’14 (+7)
- Nic Petan ‘13-’14 (+4)
- Sam Steel ‘16-’17 (+1)
- Nic Petan ‘12-’13 (0)
- Brendan Leipsic ‘12-’13 (0)
- Oliver Bjorkstrand ‘13-’14 (-4)
- Nolan Patrick ‘15-’16 (-4)
- Aleksi Heponiemi ‘17-’18 (-10)
Bellerive is putting up some lofty numbers with almost no help. Heponiemi’s point total jumps off the page this season, but he has 17 fewer goals than Bellerive and is clearly benefitting from playing next to 20-year-old Glenn Gawdin and his 55 goals. That he is doing it lining up more often than not as a #1 center should be that much more appealing to the Penguins faithful. The WHL recently put up a nice highlight reel spotlighting Bellerive and his rather impressive skill set:
You know it’s good when the color commentator loses any semblance of professionalism on a good 30% of the goals.
While I think the addition of Derick Brassard might hurt Bellerive’s chances of cracking the roster out of camp next year (he won’t be eligible for the AHL until 2020), he does stand an outside chance. After impressing everyone in camp last year and then dominating the WHL as an 18 year old, I certainly wouldn’t bet against him. I don’t think he’s far behind a Guentzel or Sprong in terms of impact forwards.
Given that the daylight is starting to really fade from The Window, he very well could be a piece of the puzzle in Sid & Geno’s last run or two and - if you’ll allow me the stretch to tie it together - quite possibly acting as a star player on a team lacking much behind him as the inevitably painful transition begins in 5 or so years. At least he’ll be prepared.
Can’t spell Simon without sin
Dominik Simon was drafted as a 20-year-old back in 2015 with the hopes that his pro experience and skill level would vault him into the pros before long. Three years later and he’s carving out a permanent role, first in a plum spot next to Sidney Crosby, then to the fourth line, then to WBS for a few, and finally back up where I think he’ll be given an “it’s your spot to lose” look down the stretch. The demotion left a few fans wondering why coach Mike Sullivan seemed to sour on the skilled winger, so I went looking into the numbers to find out.
It doesn’t take long to realize Simon isn’t hurting anyone he plays with. In fact, if we adjust for score & venue, Simon tops the Penguins with a 55.95 CF% (5v5 minimum 300 mins, via NaturalStatTrick.com) and is similarly tilting the ice in scoring chances. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise given he joined the team right as Crosby (and the entire team, for that matter) was shedding his early season 5v5 struggles. Sid gets on a roll and he could probably carry Tom Kuhnhackl and that German Olympic team along for the ride (note: not an endorsement). But still, he did not look out of place. 1.83 points an hour is solid top-six production as well, so that’s not an issue to this point.
Let’s just keep going here and... woah, he’s taken how many penalties? I guess I remember a few stick infractions and quick “head down and don’t look at the coach” skates to the box, but that seems like a lot. Looking deeper, and since January 1, only 15 skaters in the NHL have taken more minor penalties. His penalties taken per hour leads the Penguins, which is a bit of an accomplishment considering he lines up with a few known hot heads in Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Patric Hornqvist.
We know by now that Sullivan has been known to bench undisciplined non-star players (good luck with Torts, Mr. Cole), and with Simon taking a minor penalty in each of the two games leading up to his demotion, that appears to be the case here. The message is loud and clear: we want you to have a jersey come playoff time, but you have to stay out of the box.
I get the feeling management is using the rest of this season as an audition for backup goalie for next season. Not in the one or the other “Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith” sense, but in a “Jarry/DeSmith or someone with more experience” way. This is due to Matt Murray’s injury struggles and what I feel is the need to have a solid 1B-type moving forward. It’s tough to plan and act on injury possibilities at the deadline, but the team absolutely has to have a goalie capable of starting 40 games if need be going into camp.
It’s tough to be too optimistic that the answer is currently on the roster after the past couple of games, but goaltending is wild like that. As a market, the position of goaltender is seemingly either getting picked apart by vultures on the side of the desert highway or they’re signing six-year deals for $6.5M per year and getting picked apart in colder environs. I will not let my daughter take up goaltending.