If it’s the dead of summer it’s time for the annual Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 list of all the best young players in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. This year we solicited votes from the fans and got a pretty good turn-out there so thanks to all who participated. We took that average and meshed it with a list that I came up with, in conjunction with someone who scouts for a living and the result is what we have in 2018.
Per traditional SB Nation practice, all players under 25 years old right now are eligible. Some folks want to see prospect rankings, and that’s understandable. To get an idea of that, simply ignore the NHL caliber players if you must. The point of this exercise isn’t to rank prospects it’s to take stock of the overall talent and strength of the organization’s young players.
With that in mind, here’s the first chunk of the Pensburgh 2018 Top 25 Under 25!
#25: Tobias Lindberg, Winger, 23 years old
Tobias Lindberg is an interesting case - he was involved in the Derrick Brassard trade sending his NHL rights from Vegas to Pittsburgh last February. But Wilkes-Barre already had an excess of forwards so the Golden Knights and Penguins agreed to have Lindberg remain in AHL Chicago for the rest of the 2017-18 season. Usually a sign that the team doesn’t have much interest or a future planned when they don’t even bring him onto their farm team.
“When the general manager (Jim Rutherford) called me, he said to me, ‘This is a very complicated trade, one that I’ve never seen before,’” Lindberg recalled of the day he was technically dealt to the Penguins. “I didn’t try to let it bother me. I didn’t want to think about it too much. I’m just going to go crazy. I said whatever you guys want me to do, I’ll do it.”
But Pittsburgh did want him after all, re-signing Lindberg this summer for the 2018-19 season, giving him a chance to finally make his debut with his new organization.
“I still look at myself as a young player, even though I’ve packed in a lot in a few years,” he said. “It’s been a lot of trades, a lot of new cities, a lot of new teammates, a lot of injuries. I feel like I’ve learned to be more calm and work on getting a little better every summer and every day, I’m going to play in the NHL some day.”
The Trib’s Jonathan Bombulie thought this about Lindberg at the Pens summer prospect camp:
He obviously stands out above this group as a 22-year-old with NHL experience. He scored one goal in the scrimmage on a rocket to the top-left corner from the right wing. He tried the Forsberg move on a breakaway. He’s awfully slick with the puck for a guy who hasn’t put up big numbers in his AHL career. Needs to put it all together.
Ideally, Lindberg starts strong in the AHL and could be a call-up for Pittsburgh in 2018-19 if there are injuries to wingers. At 6’3 his size is encouraging but as Bombulie notes his lack of production in the AHL despite three years of experience in that league suggests a player who has appeared to hit his ceiling.
#24: Justin Almeida, center, 19 years old
Justin Almeida was Pittsburgh’s 2018 draft contribution to the Pens strategy of drafting overage players. The center put up a ton of points last year for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL, but his major flaw is in his size. Or, lack of it at a generously listed 5’9 and 160 pounds officially.
“Obviously, I’m a smaller player,” Almeida said at the Pens June summer camp. “I have to use my skill, smarts and speed to get around those bigger players. [Johnny] Gaudreau and I have the same build. He’s fast and smart. I just try to model my game after him.”
The Pens didn’t mind using a mid-round pick on such a productive player in this summer’s draft.
“He’s such a competitive player,” said Penguins amateur scouting director Patrik Allvin at the NHL Draft. “For a small guy, he finds the hard areas. He gets it done.”
The Athletic’s Jesse Marshall has a great article (redundant statement) breaking down some Almeida highlights as well. This description stood out:
This season, Almeida struck me as having one important trait shared with current Penguins forward Jake Guentzel: they both know how to exploit the open space of the ice.
Almeida’s attack was particularly intriguing to watch this season. It was a combination of speed and stealth. He found ways to generate scoring by exploiting the open areas of the ice. If those areas didn’t exist, Almeida created them himself with some stealthy moves away from the puck that got him into open areas or created them via his movement.
Questions persist about how much success Almeida will have in the future against stiffer professional competition, but the Pens lack a lot of pure talent in their prospect pool. Almeida offers that in spades and is an interesting player to watch to see how he will continue to progress. He’s back in the WHL this year but will be turning pro and likely playing in Wilkes-Barre for 2019-20.
#23: Jan Drozg, Wing, 19 years old
Drozg led a bad Shawinigan team in the QMJHL with 50 points last season but more impressive than that is the road the young Slovenian has traveled. Coming from a still somewhat untraditional place for high-end hockey players, Drozg has gone from playing at home to Sweden to a French-speaking city in Quebec.
“It is a big jump, and the language barrier is a tough part,” Penguins director of player development Scott Young said. “He’s a tremendously skilled player. The fact that he was playing in Shawinigan, which is French-speaking, just adds complications to the whole situation. We have high hopes for him.”
Some fancy stickhandling by Pens first 5th round pick Jan Drozg https://t.co/BNumhJBHvl— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) June 24, 2017
Bombulie also said during the recent prospect camp:
Fifth-round pick is a throwback Eastern European forward. Would rather beat a defender one-on-one than dump a puck in the corner. Good at protecting the puck. Not big, but uses his size well. A prospect to keep an eye on in the QMJHL.
Drozg will be back in the Q this season, he did get a glimpse of the pros with 1 AHL game last season on an amateur tryout, so once his junior season ends he should be a player that Pittsburgh will send back to Wilkes-Barre for their stretch run, and then he will be a full-time pro player in 2019-20.
#22: Sam Lafferty, 23 years old, center/winger
A somewhat forgotten prospect due to playing out all four seasons at not-exactly-a-power Brown, Lafferty finally turned pro last March after being drafted back in 2014.
As Seth Rorabaugh from The Athletic found out, Lafferty is ready to get going:
According to player development coach Jarrod Skalde, Lafferty has a few basics on which to build upon, mainly his skating, size and hockey sense.
What he needs to work on, according to Skalde, is his strength and simply gaining experience at the pro level.
“There is a big jump from college to the American Hockey League. The guys at this level have strength that you don’t see in college,” Skalde said. “Once he gets stronger, Sam is going to be a very effective player for us.”
When Lafferty joined WB/S, head coach Clark Donatelli was impressed saying, “he looks fast out there. We have a lot of games [down the stretch], so he’s going to get in [the lineup].”
And get in Lafferty did, playing nine AHL regular season contests, a nice preview of his likely new league for 2018-19. Given all the young college players Pittsburgh has developed in recent years, having another speedy forward in Lafferty makes for an intriguing prospect.
#21: Clayton Phillips, defenseman, 18 years old
In an unusual move, Phillips jumped from the USHL up to the University of Minnesota in mid-season. From SBN College Hockey:
Minnesota will bring in Muskegon(USHL) defenseman Clayton Phillips. Phillips committed to the Gophers in the fall of 2015, and was expected to enroll at Minnesota next fall.
Phillips was a third round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Penguins—current Minnesota assistant coach Scott Bell was Pittsburgh’s regional scout last year—last summer. Known as an offensive defenseman, Phillips could potentially address a major need for the Gophers.
Though the Gophers currently sit at 9th overall in the Pairwise Rankings, it has been far from a glamorous first half of the season. They currently sit with a record of 10-9-1, and despite starting the season as heavy favorites, appear to finally be free of the burden of pretending that winning a Big Ten regular season title is a thing.
The problems in the first half largely stemmed from a lack of offensive production. They currently rank 42nd nationally in offense, scoring just 2.65 goals per game. Beyond that, Minnesota’s power play ranks 45th in the nation, succeeding just 14.9% of the time.
Whether Phillips will be able to be that guy as a true freshman making the big jump to college hockey at the midway point of the season remains to be seen. But with the option at hand, it makes sense for Minnesota to try it, especially considering the possibility that, as a third round NHL draft pick, the Gophers may not have gotten a full four years from Phillips anyway.
Phillips wasn’t really able to help much, but he did play quite a bit in the second semester with 11 games for the Golden Gophers (who now have a whole new coaching staff for 2018-19). Phillips will be a rising sophomore, as he lost a year of college eligibility by playing last season.
Now that he’s gotten some NCAA experience, it’s onto the next step. From Phillips’ SBN College Hockey draft profile it almost sounds like his best-case scenario is to develop into the style of player like an Alex Goligoski (right down to his alma mater).
The hope would be that he develops into a power play quarterback for the Gophers, and that those skills carry over to the pro level some day. At this point, it’s probably not realistic to suggest he will develop into a top pairing power play quarterback at the NHL level, but it is reasonable to hope he becomes a solid puck-moving defenseman that maybe contributes as a second unit power play guy.
But, patience will be the key still, as Phillips will need 2-3 more years of development time in NCAA and probably another year+ in the AHL to acclimate an prove himself in the pros. It will be a while before Phillips gets to the show, but for now the youngster who still is 18 years old has nothing but time to continue on the process.
Monday, the next part of the list for #20-16.