Part two of our series of the best young players in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
Catch up on the first installment here: #25 Tobias Lindberg #24 Justin Almeida #23 Jan Drozg #22 Sam Lafferty #21 Clayton Phillips
#20 Adam Johnson, forward, 24 years old
A strong showing in the fan portion of the vote boosted Johnson up to 20th in our summer 2018 rankings. After being one of the NCAA’s best forwards in 2016-17 Johnson was invited to Pens camp and impressed and walked away with a contract to turn pro. As an older rookie at age 23, he didn’t jump off the page statistically in Wilkes-Barre but used his versatility of being able to play all three forward positions competently and above average speed to make him an AHL lineup mainstay.
Now in the final year of his two-year entry level contract and at age-24, 2018-19 will be a very important season for Johnson. Often you can see a jump from the first to second year as a professional and Johnson will need to put up some production to turn heads and really get himself on the NHL radar. It’s not inconceivable that he could be an option for a call-up if injuries strike and he gets off to a great start but he’s really going to have to show a lot to earn an opportunity at the next level.
#19 Zach Lauzon, defenseman, 19 years old
Mainly known for his status as a 2nd round pick in 2017, Lauzon unfortunately had an injury-shortened draft+1 season last year due to injury that may be a harbinger of doom for his future.
Said The Athletic’s Corey Pronman last November
I was critical of the Penguins for picking Lauzon at No. 51 and still am to an extent given his low offensive potential, but I definitely see some shutdown potential as he skates well, is quite good in his physical play and can make stops.
But that was before Lauzon missed most of the season with a recurring neck injury. Due to his age (20 in October), Pittsburgh could sign him and have him turn pro for 2018-19 but there has been no movement on that and little talk of it, so he may be bound back for the Q for an over-age season and to see what his pro potential may hold. Which is probably a good idea since organizationally the Penguins have no shortage of pro players signed for the AHL next season.
Ideally training camp would be a good place for Lauzon to show he is 100% healthy and can use his skating and defensive ability to get his game back on track. At this point though, like most of the non-top 10 in the Pens Under 25 list, he’s looking like a longshot for a meaningful career at this point.
#18 Sam Miletic, forward, 21 years old
Another beneficary of the Pens not having too many draft picks, Miletic is another undrafted free agent invitee that has parlayed a successful junior career into a professional contract. Last year Miletic ripped up the OHL as an over-age player scoring 92 points in 63 games which repped him well in the fan vote.
The Pens organization is excited about what the future could hold too:
“The biggest thing with Sam is his attention to detail,” said Penguins development coach Jarrod Skalde. “He already looks like a pro. He conducts himself like a pro. You can see how he pays attention on the ice to all the little things.”
“We were so impressed with him last year, that’s why we signed him to the entry-level deal,” Skalde added. “We’re really excited to have him. He seems like a guy that’s already pro-ready.”
Miletic will be in WB/S this season and it should be a year of transition. He’ll no longer be a big fish in a small pond in junior, he’ll be competing in a tough league so it will be interesting to see how he fares. This is a guy who could be +5 spots next summer or off the list entirely depending on how the transition goes.
#17 Niclas Almari, defenseman, 20 years old
Almari had a wild ride in 2017-18, playing for five different teams- four for clubs (including three total games in an amateur tryout with Wilkes-Barre at the end of year for his first taste of North American action) and a pretty solid turn with Finland’s WJC-20 team in the middle of the year.
Almari is the type of low-key defenseman who does everything pretty well but doesn’t stand out in many ways. His size is good but not great. He can skate well but doesn’t jump off the page. His passing is a good point of his game but also isn’t going to wow.
There’s more development to come with Almari slated to go back to Finland to play in 2018-19 but he will be c
oming to North America for good for 2019-20. Best case he looks like a low-ceiling, steady bottom pair player that can eat some minutes, not make mistakes and keep it moving. He’s not an exciting player but 2017-18 was an important year of development at several different levels (including graduating to the top league in Finland competing against men at 19/20 years old) so there’s a bit to be encouraged about.
#16 Linus Olund, center, 21 years old
Another Euro import with the arrow pointing up is the Pens 5th rounder in 2017 (another ver-age draft pick), Linus Olund. Olund (in his 20-year old season) put up career highs in the top Swedish league and was basically his third year of competing at that country’s top level which is pretty impressive competition for a young player.
Said Dobber Hockey’s Mark Allan:
The 21-year-old stuck with the Swedish Hockey League post-season instead of coming over for Calder Cup play. Outperforming his 51-game, 23-point regular schedule for Brynäs IF, the skillful two-way center posted two goals and three assists in five playoff contests. Playing in his nation’s elite league has prepared Ölund to play against men, but the Penguins will be interested to see how he makes the transition to a new league, smaller rinks and a radically different culture.
The Pens have signed Olund to a three-year entry level contract and he will start that transition in 2018-19 which will be, like so many others, an important measuring stick to show where he is and what his future might hold. The offensive numbers in Sweden suggest some skill and upside so this is a player to be moderately excited about as he starts his North American pro career.
Olund doesn’t have top-end skill but has been a capable player to this point and if that development continues he could make a name for himself as a prospect to watch, if not this season then possibly for 2019-20 to make an NHL debut at some point with a strong upward trajectory.
Soon we’ll jump into the top-15 and start seeing more of the top young players in the Pens organization named to the list. For now, there’s a lot of hopes and dreams but still more hard work and time for development and to a chance to “prove it” for all the names above.