Gettin’ to the good stuff as we roll into the top 10 of our annual series of the best young players in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
Look at what happened earlier:
#10 Kaspar Bjorkqvist, right wing, 21 years old
A riser from #17 on last year’s Pensburgh T25U25, Bjorkqvist turned many heads with his play in 2017-18. Going from 3 goals as a freshman to 16 as a sophomore will do that. Last year the theme for Bjorkqvist was certainly gaining comfort in his second year in North America.
“I think that comes with getting more comfortable with the game,” the young Finn said at Penguins development camp this summer. “[I’m] starting to make more plays. I think that’s the next big step, sort of getting more comfortable and getting better at that: making plays and skating with the puck, that kind of stuff.”
The Pens are really excited, borderline giddy, about this guy. Just look at the quotes from director of player development Scott Young this summer at development camp:
“We have very high hopes for him. He’s a specimen. You guys have seen him in a t-shirt, right? He’s ripped. He’s a very disciplined person.”
“The leadership that his coaches [at Providence] talk about, that’s a huge part of his game. They say he’s the reason they have intense weeks at practice or rebound from a bad game, and he goes out in practice and sets the tone. He’s going to be a captain on that team this year and this is going to be a big year for him.”
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman had a very complimentary report on Bjorkqvist in Pronman’s recent review of the Pens system of young players:
Bjorkqvist is a quick, hard-nosed forward who can play a physical style. He’s always been a tenacious penalty killer and strong defensive forward. He shows me flashes of skill/playmaking, but inconsistently. I don’t think he has the capability to make good offensive plays at a pro pace, but he can make a nice zone entry here or there and has impressed all the scouts I’ve talked to who have watched him in college.
Bjorkqvist will be back at Providence for his junior season in 2018-19, and it’s typical that organizations sign top prospects prior to their senior season. Bjorkqvist mentioned his goal of graduating college so it should be an interesting question for next March whether Pittsburgh can lure him into the pros soon or if he’ll be back in the NCAA for 2019-20.
#9 Calen Addison, defenseman, 18 years old
Pittsburgh’s highest draft pick in 2018 is carrying a lot of buzz and fan-fare for his abilities. He’s got to be the odds-on favorite to win the imaginary “Pens Prospect of the Year” for a non-professional level player in 2018-19.
Earlier in August, Addison scored what ended up being a GWG for Canada against Team USA at a showcase event. It looks like Addison could be used in a power play/7th “extra” defenseman type player for Canada at the WJC this December, which would be huge since he’s still eligible to play in next year’s tournament too. If he makes that team, Addison would be the first Pittsburgh draft prospect on powerhouse Canada U-20 since Derrick Pouliot.
The Athletic’s Pronman looks like he’s buying big on Addison too.
Addison is a great skater. He’s able to lead a rush due to how quickly he can transition the puck from his own end into the offensive zone. On top of the speed, he brings impressive skill and vision from the back end, able to show off his hands at full speed and look to stretch the ice with his passes. He’s an offensive-minded guy who can activate into the play, although I found him a little too passive to try and push the pace at even strength. Addison likes to make plays, but he has a decent point shot, too. His main drawback is that Addison is a tiny defender who, despite being reasonably smart, can struggle to win defensive battles and is just adequate defending at the WHL level.
Lethbridge will be a team to watch for Pens fans for sure in 2018-19 with Addison AND yet-to-be-listed in the T25U25 Jordy Bellerive on the squad. Both should be dominant players at that level, scoring a ton of points and getting a ton of development time. Addison has a boatload of tools but needs to add experience, muscle and defensive ability in the next two seasons while junior-eligible before jumping into the pro ranks.
#8 Tristan Jarry, goalie, 23 years old
The first of two goalies on the T25U25 (gee, wonder who the other is...) Tristan Jarry took some tangible steps for his career in 2017-18. His 26 NHL games were 2nd most among Pittsburgh goalies, which many people weren’t projecting 12 months ago.
But on the flip-side, he’s never really been that great in the AHL, often posting save percentages well below his peers. Similarly he was pretty flat in a quick three game playoff sweep of the WB/S Penguins.
Jarry’s play in the NHL showed a goalie with good size and solid athleticism. He played very well in the NHL in stretches and helped ease the loss of not having Matt Murray available, and may be called on to do the same in 2018-19. However, with Casey DeSmith back, Jarry’s future looks much like his past with the thought process of getting the young Jarry more development time and game action in the AHL while he is still waiver exempt. Jarry signed a two-year deal recently and the one-way salary consideration next year suggests he is being groomed to be a full-time NHLer by 2019-20. But to make the NHL squad in 2018 Jarry is going to have to have a great training camp and earn his spot as the backup.
#7 Dominik Simon, forward, 24 years old
Dominik Simon is a little bit of everything. Not all that fast, but can get around the ice. Not the most skilled guy, but his hands are pretty good. Simon’s also good at little details though, and that’s resulted in being a 60.6% Corsi For player with Sidney Crosby in a small but not irrelevant 244 minute sample size.
That’s led the Trib’s Jonathan Bombulie to predict Simon will be the most regular Crosby right winger in 2018-19, a prime gig to have. We tend to agree, already labeling Simon as the young Penguin to watch in 2018-19 back last month. Probably won’t excite many of the fanbase clamoring for a more offensive player, but Simon’s proven that he will be in the right spot at the right time, and that sort of dependability is a very good trait for a Crosby linemate to have.
There’s a bit of a recency effect to why many are sour on Simon. After the all-star break (including playoffs) he scored no goals and added 6 assists in 25 games. That’s not great, though much of it was playing in a 4th line role after an injury. Prior to the ASB, Simon had 9 points (4g+5a) in his first 16 games of the season which is much better. How he bounces back will be something to watch, as will be how healthy he is and what he’s able to do towards the end of the season.
#6 Zach Aston-Reese, winger, 24 years old
After being one of the top NCAA players in 2016-2017, Zach Aston-Reese was able to start his professional career out with a very successful rookie campaign. He proved to be an impact player and difference-maker almost immediately at the AHL level and earned several call-ups to the NHL where he did not look out of place. And, in fact, was able to chip in all over the ice playing on both wings at different times and anywhere from the Crosby line down to the 4th line.
That type of versatility gives Aston-Reese a lot to build on and a lot to be excited for going forward. Although he is sometimes compared to a Patric Hornqvist type of net-front winger with a high motor, a player comparison I like better for ZAR is a fellow left-handed, late-blooming, undrafted winger in Chris Kunitz. Both think the game well, are responsible all around the ice and have enough hands to capably finish plays and put points on the board.
It remains to be seen if Aston-Reese can enjoy the type of illustrious career Kunitz has had - and with the ability to be sent to the AHL at the start of the season without waivers ZAR could be the odd man pushed out due to numbers. However this is a player that coach Mike Sullivan and the staff love, and one they utilized in the playoffs over Dominik Simon at times. So ZAR will have an opportunity at some point to make an NHL impact and if he plays well in camp it might go a long way to establishing him as an NHL regular.
In no time at all Aston-Reese has gone from an almost unknown and undrafted college player to one with among the brightest futures in a top NHL organization. It’s been quite the career ascension for a hard-working player who will age out of the T25U25 in a very respectable sixth spot.
There are but five to go in the Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 series as we countdown the best and brightest young players in the organization and soon the battle everyone has been waiting for. Can Jake Guentzel unseat Matt Murray as #1? Find out...soon.