Since the Pittsburgh Penguins often trade their high draft picks for short-term NHL gains, they must find other ways to add talent. A great way is undrafted players who have slipped through the cracks and are potentially the classic “late bloomers”.
Conor Sheary is the ultimate example, going from basically an after-thought in the hockey world and working all the way up to scoring a Stanley Cup Final overtime goal assisted by no less than Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. Doesn’t get much better than that. Zach Aston-Reese and Casey DeSmith have also been valuable recent UFA signings by Pittsburgh who have made it all the way to the NHL from a path of being passed over for multiple years on draft day.
After last year’s prospect and training camps, the Pens signed forwards Jordy Bellerive and Sam Miletic who impressed them as amateur tryouts, as well as goalie Alex D’Orio. These players are the next one in the process to try and become the next Sheary or Aston-Reese.
This week on Friday the prospect challenge in Buffalo begins and the cycle for a team like Pittsburgh without much talent or depth of professional prospects begins anew.
Of the 24 players Pittsburgh is bringing, there are 9 players who made our summer list of the Top 25 Players Under 25 in the organization right now. They range from bright prospects now like Bellerive (#5) and 2018 2nd round pick Calen Addison (#9) down to longer shots like Miletic (#18) and Sam Lafferty (#22). But all those players are at least firmly in the organization’s plans over the next few years.
There are eight are unaffiliated players who will be on the Pens roster heading up to Buffalo that are amateur tryouts. This means that the Pens don’t currently hold any future rights to them and could cut ties as soon as next Monday afternoon if they wanted to. And surely, some of these guys might simply figure to be camp bodies to get them through the weekend. But every day is an opportunity, and they simply don’t invite anyone to go play with a Pens jersey on, so to some degree there’s always a chance. Here’s the guys to keep an eye on that could be the next Jordy Bellerive:
On the surface, Roberts has parallels to Bellerive- both were very high picks to Juniors (Roberts was drafted #3 overall in the OHL Priority selection draft in 2016; Bellerive was drafted #2 overall in the WHL Bantam selection draft in 2014). Both Roberts and Bellerive started their respective junior careers very slowly but have shown signs of promise. Roberts only scored 11 goals in his first 85 career games with Hamilton, then saw a dramatic uptick when was traded to Flint last season and scored 15 goals in 44 games with his new team.
“Coming over to Flint halfway through last season I was given a lot more responsibility,” Roberts told ontariohockeyleague.com earlier this week. “I think I took that and played better with it. My point production increased and I became a lot more comfortable on the ice and I think that this season, my third season in the league, I think it’s going to be good. I had a good summer and I’m definitely going to be a lot more comfortable on the ice and hopefully playing with some good line mates this season it will be really good.”
As you can see in the graphic above, Roberts is listed at 6’4, 214 pounds by the Penguins that’s some serious size. If the hands are on display this month, he could be an excellent UFA signing at just 18 years old for the Pens prospect system. Roberts won’t be an NHL caliber player anytime soon, but the Pittsburgh organization could definitely use a huge winger with upside in their ranks.
After Olli Maatta was selected in 2012, the Pens really haven’t drafted a reasonable NHL upside defenseman prospect until Calen Addison in 2018. The pipeline of defensive players isn’t very good at this point, a far cry from recent days with promising youngsters like Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, et al that were stocking the system for years and made defensemen the strong point of Pittsburgh’s system.
Carter Robertson ended up ranked the 78th North American skater for the 2018 draft (down from a mid-season 61st ranking), so it is a bit surprising he went without hearing his name called in the draft, though you can see his stock was falling throughout the season from the official ranking source.
Perhaps having a fairly unimpressive-looking OHL season of 5 goals and 13 assists didn’t really stand out, but in a 17/18 year old season that’s nothing to scoff at in and of itself.
A 2016 scouting report for when Robertson was about to enter juniors says:
Carter is a smooth skating defenseman that has been steadily improving over the course of the season. He plays in every situation and logs a lot of big minutes for his team. He is a good skater with excellent mobility. He is very composed with the puck and doesn’t usually just throw it away. He makes good outlet passes and is effective on the offensive blueline. Carter is a very smart player that keeps the game simple.”
The key for Robertson will also be projection and potential and his future. He’s far from a finished product right now and might even need 2 more seasons in the OHL before turning pro. This isn’t a guy to sign now and expect he will help the NHL team by 2020, much more of a long-term type of asset to consider adding.
As we mentioned, the defensive pool of players in the organization right now is not very promising and help doesn’t look like it’s coming. Pittsburgh already elected to not sign 2016 3rd round pick Connor Hall. Fellow 2016 draftee Ryan Jones isn’t exactly turning heads in college. 2017 2nd round pick Zachary Lauzon looked like a hopeful over-draft from the beginning and injuries have derailed his progress. If guys like that might not be turning pro with Pittsburgh, a prospect like Robertson looks very appealing at this point to consider righting the wrongs of an ever-uncertain draft process.
The Pens had Robertston in Pittsburgh earlier this summer for their prospect camp. He acquitted himself well but did not get a contract offer yet. If he has a big September that could change.
The OHL netminder was a riser in 2017-18, going from being unranked by Central Scouting at mid-season to ending up as the #11 North American goalie at year end rankings. Unfortunately for him that still didn’t translate in getting drafted in 2018.
At 6’2, 183 pounds Propp already has solid professional size, and his results last season were pretty good. He ended up 5th in the OHL in Goals Against Average and 7th in the league in save percentage last season, following a trade that sent him to the starting job in North Bay.
It’s usually a smart organizational policy to bring in one goalie per off-season if it can be helped. The Pens did so last year by signing D’Orio. They didn’t draft a netminder in 2018, but have Propp in camp who was one of the better OHL goalies last season. It’ll be interesting to see if that translates to the pro game and if Propp gets an NHL contract. He seems to be a clear prospect to keep an eye on for how he performs in the context of this challenge and camp; and given his strong showing in the OHL last year that might suggest a strong performance upcoming as well.
All these guys can sound like they have some upside so why not sign ‘em all, right? Limits, unfortunately. NHL teams can only have 50 players under contract at any one time, and for flexibility for the trade deadline it’s always a good idea to leave some wiggle room when possible. It wouldn’t be that harmful now, but it wouldn’t be great either to sign undrafted players without feeling pretty good that they will develop into professional level players.
The other five players who will be giving it a shot on amateur tryouts for Pittsburgh are defensemen Jacob Hrauf (WHL, Red Deer) and Wyatt McLeod (WHL, Edmonton), forwards Renars Krastenbergs (OHL, Oshawa) Cedric Lacroix (graduate of U of Maine) and QMJHL goalie Tristan Cote-Cazenave (Victoriaville).