It all boils down to this, the top five of the annual summer series here on Pensburgh where we talk about and give a rank to the top young players under 25 years old in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
#5 Jordy Bellerive, center, 19 years old
It’s been an absolutely meteoric rise over the last 12 months for Jordy Bellerive. First, he wasn’t drafted in summer 2017 but was invited to Penguins prospect camp. He impressed there enough to earn an invite to the main NHL training camp. Bellerive did well there and was signed by Pittsburgh to an entry level contract. He then went back to the WHL and continued to roll, finishing 8th in the league in goals and 12th in points, tremendous numbers for an 18-year old, and especially one not typically known for being all that strong. (The next highest player on his team in goals, for instance had 22, compared to Bellerive’s 46).
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman wrote earlier in the month:
Bellerive could be one of the best post-draft free agent signings of the past few years. The former second-overall pick in his WHL bantam draft was very impressive from Penguins camp through the end of the WHL season. Bellerive is a well-rounded prospect. He skates quite well, he’s got a lot of skill and intelligence, he has a big shot and he works hard. He can make an impact on either special team and play both center and wing. I don’t know if he’ll be dynamic enough to be a legit top-six scorer in the NHL, but it’s certainly possible with the way he thinks the game.
Bellerive received “very severe and painful burns” in a mishap this summer, causing him to spend about 10 days in the hospital. Very fortunately, there should be no lasting damage and he was able to resume training for the upcoming season. He will be back in Lethbridge for one last season in the WHL, a potential Team Canada U-20 player as well, so it should be another exciting season in juniors, before what’s becoming an anticipated professional start to his career in 2019-20, likely in Wilkes-Barre.
#4 Daniel Sprong, right wing, 21 years old
We’ve already written about all there is to write about Daniel Sprong, so let’s just share it again for your viewing pleasure:
- The top Penguins with the most to prove in 2018-19 [July 23, 2018]
- Pittsburgh re-signs Sprong for two years, $750,000 per year [June 25, 2018]
- Pens going back to Buffalo for Prospects Challenge [August 3, 2018]
- Where will Daniel Sprong fall in the battle between coaching and creativity? [August 9, 2018]
- Will the Pens be better off trading Daniel Sprong this summer? [April 27, 2018]
At his peak, Sprong is an offensive machine. His 65 points in 65 AHL games placed him t-5th in the entire league in scoring, tremendous point production for a 20-year old in the highest minor league level, and his 32 goals were second in the league, despite having a few long dry spells.
However, he’s still a work in progress. When ex-teammates are playfully chirping about Sprong finally finding where the defensive zone is, there’s probably more a kernel of truth in that than his biggest fans would like to admit. Coach Mike Sullivan has taken a harsh line on Sprong, only using him in a handful of NHL games last season and quickly relegating him to low minutes (and eventual healthy scratches and demotion) when Sprong’s play and shots on goal dropped off at the tail end of his eight game NHL cameo last season.
Sprong is waiver eligible, so he must remain with the NHL club now. And 2018-19 could be sink or swim for him in the Pens organization. Seems odd for such a young player to already be at a major career crossroads, but thanks to playing 18 NHL games back in 2015-16, here we are. It goes without saying what opportunities Sprong gets, and how much he does or doesn’t make of them will be one of the most intriguing (if not THE most intriguing) little note about training camp.
#3 Olli Maatta, defenseman, 24 years old
Another player who has seemingly been on the T25U25 list FOREVER, Maatta will finish up at #3 in this series. Pretty crazy that with all his injuries he’s still over 300 NHL games, and probably crazier still that 2018-19 will be the 6th NHL season for the recently-turned 24 year old.
From Maatta’s 2018 Pensburgh player report card:
Olli Maatta settled into his role as a second pairing defenseman this season and his underlying numbers will back that up. Maatta is middle of the pack in most advanced stats categories among Penguins defenseman and all of those same numbers are good for a defenseman with his amount of ice time.
Maatta sits third in Points/60 but the only two players above him were Ian Cole and Jamie Oleksiak, both who played 500 minutes less than Maatta in a Penguins uniform this season. His underlying offensive numbers were really good despite only posting 29 points during the regular season.
Maatta’s solid play (and thankfully availability to play all 82 games for the first time) landed him a mention as a 2017-18 season surprise. In all, Maatta fades into the background on most shifts, solid all-around but no stand out. Ideally he could be a part of adding slightly to his TOI as the Pens look to attempt to bring down Kris Letang’s minutes.
#2 Jake Guentzel, winger, 23 years old
Landing at #2 (and, for what it’s worth a very slight #1 in the fan portion of the vote), Jake Guentzel used another excellent playoff to prove he’s a force to be reckoned with.
From his 2018 Pensburgh report card:
When you comb over Guentzel’s heat maps, he absolutely owns the slot and goal crease down low, landing shots on goal in a gargantuan manner. Playing alongside Crosby will do that. It’s also nice to see that he doesn’t favor his natural side and manages to evenly split his offensive work in front of the net. In fact, according to these maps, Guentzel showed a bit of a preference for the right side of the net mouth even though he plays left-handed. However, backing up more towards the blue line, you’ll notice he takes his shots from 40 feet out more often on the left side of the ice. During power play shifts, Guentzel also favored the left side and middle of the ice — both excellent places for scoring chances on the man-advantage.
Guentzel’s season had a couple of dry spots, and like the rest of the team he was hamstrung by low shooting percentages throughout the season. In December and January Guentzel only scored 4 goals and 4 assists in 26 games. He ended the regular season scoring just 2 goals in the last 20 games. Then, obviously that went away really quickly scoring an eye-popping 10 goals and 11 assists in 12 playoff games.
This is the final season of Guentzel on a cheap entry-level contract, and his negotiation next summer for an extension will be the biggest matter on the plate of the Pens going forward. Nothing to worry about at this point, especially since restricted free agents like Guentzel almost never change teams unless their teams want to trade them.
#1 Matt Murray, goalie, 23 years old
Once again at the top of the heap, despite a rough 2017-18 season, is the Pens starting goalie Matt Murray.
From his Pensburgh season in review:
Murray’s .907 save percentage for the season fell well below his projected save percentage of .920 and that really says a lot about the season he had. It also says a lot about the play in front of him but he needs to be better in certain instances and he knows that. Still only 24 years old, Murray will have a full offseason to rest and rehabilitate any lingering injuries from a season plagued by them.
He only played in 49 games this season which is well below what you expect from your number one goaltender. Injuries throughout the season played a significant role in that number and it’s something that likely affected his play. The brief stretches where Murray actually had consistent playing time he was posting better than league average numbers.
Murray’s even strength save % went in the dumps last year, from .933% and .932% in his first two NHL seasons to .911% in 2017-18. Getting that back up will be a major key to concentrate on.
If you’re looking for optimism, the Pens season basically turned around with the calendar to 2018. From 1/1/2018 up to the point where Murray was concussed in practice in late February (his last game was 2/24/18), Murray’s stat-line is great. 9-1-1, .925 save%, 2.35 GAA. That’s more of the 2016 and 2017 playoff versions of Murray. Unfortunately he never was able to string together performances like that once returning from injury in late March.
Also, as I’m fond of pointing out, it’s a close line between winning and losing in the playoffs. A lot of the blame to losing to the Caps fell on Murray’s shoulders, as it always does for a goalie that loses in the playoffs. However Murray surrendered 16 goals in the six game series in 2018. In 2016 when Murray and the Pens beat the Caps, he gave up 15 goals. Different series and different year, but the point being that while MM surely should have made a couple more saves, it’s a team effort and this wasn’t total incompetent goaltending that torpedoed the Pens season.
Watching how Murray bounces back will be a fun portion to watch in 2018-19. Despite the tough outings, he remains one of the game’s top young goalies with tremendous size and ability. Murray has navigated his way to two Stanley Cups already and the Pens will look to him to get back on top of his game to try and make a run at another this year.