Even though the Nittany Lions upset No. 1 seeded Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals, they couldn’t muster up a complete enough effort to beat Notre Dame in the final, win their second conference championship in three years, and earn a 2019 NCAA tourney berth in the process last Saturday night.
That loss concluded Penn State’s rollercoaster of a 2018-19 campaign, as even though it possessed the most electric offense in the nation, its regular season record was underwhelming given the talent on the roster, leaving it short of its third-straight postseason bid.
Because of that, several of the Lions’ current NHL Draft picks, like many of their college hockey peers already, may forgo their remaining years of eligibility to turn pro.
Nikita Pavlychev, the Penguins’ 2015 seventh-round pick (197 overall), may be one of head coach Guy Gadowsky’s players that’s considering making the jump. Even though the expectation of him joining the organization is slim, the possibility is definitely there. Palyvchev is one to keep an eye on as the rest of the NHL season/playoffs/offseason carry out.
Currently a junior, the 6-foot-8, 212 pound center has seen his development at Penn State soar from his initial substandard performances in his freshman and sophomore stints to being one of the top scorers on a team filled with offensive firepower. As evidence, he went out and doubled his points output this season. For a refresher, I wrote about Pavlychev back in November whenever he was in the middle of a scorching-hot point streak. He also earned the No. 1 spot on Sportcenter’s Top-10 plays in December.
Since then, the big Russian cooled off a bit, but he still stayed consistent enough to rank seventh in Penn State’s scoring with 29 points (14 goals, 15 assists) in 39 games played. Given the teammates he had to compete with (i.e., Blackhawks’ draft pick Evan Barratt, Alex Limoges, and Liam Folkes — A.K.A. the best forward line in all of college hockey), that isn’t a stat line to bat an eye at. It’s also solid considering Pavlychev plays a two-way, shutdown role for the Lions and was very successful doing so.
The reason Pavlychev’s jump to the pro ranks has merit is because of the Penguins’ organizational roster situation next season. GM Jim Rutherford has a surplus of players to either re-sign or deal. Marcus Pettersson, Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and (now) Adam Johnson are Pittsburgh’s current impending restricted free agents after the 2018-19 campaign ends. Matt Cullen, Garrett Wilson, Chad Ruhwedel, and Zach Trotman are all impending unrestricted free agents as well.
Down in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, there are a ton of players in the same boat, specifically UFA defenseman Ethan Prow. Typically, AHL contracts concluding have zero implication on signing college players or bringing in undrafted overagers. However, WBS did just bring in Michigan Tech’s Jake Lucchini on an ATO deal to fill a spot in WBS’s playoff push with all the NHL call-ups being made via injury. Lucchini’s entry-level contract then begins for 2019-20.
You also have Filip Hallander, Jordy Bellerive, and Justin Almeida to consider coming to WBS next year. Bellerive and Almedia are both out of eligibility at the junior level and are signed and expected to join the Penguins’ organization starting in the AHL for 2019-20. Hallander still remains a question mark, as team and player might mutually decide the best place for him to develop remains in Sweden. Next year will only be his age-19 season, which would be very young for a rookie campaign in North America.
Like Pavlychev, the Penguins’ 2016 second round draft pick Kaspar Bjorkqvist (Providence) is also a rising senior next season, and there may be a decision for him as well to turn pro for 2019-20. Providence’s season is still ongoing with the Frozen Four starting this weekend.
The Penguins must manage decisions based on staying under the 50 contract limit. Next season, there are nine names under contract for the forward position probably bound for the AHL level (Almeida, Bellerive, Lucchini, Anthony Angello, Linus Olund, Sam Lafferty, Sam Miletic, Ryan Haggerty, and Jan Drozg). Most of those players are young, and the team probably will add a few AHL level veterans to keep or replace players like Jimmy Hayes, Joseph Cramarossa, and Ben Sexton. But that’s something to keep in mind as the team considers adding any further draft picks or undrafted free agent signings as spots are filling quickly for next year’s outlook.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Baby Pens might not even be in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton next season, as the Mohegan Sun Arena extension talks still have yet to be finalized. Some players may not want to deal with such a large unknown in their careers and leave the Pittsburgh affiliate — unlikely, but a factor nonetheless.
Pavlychev spent the 2011-2014 seasons playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s local bantam U16 and U18 teams. A return to eastern Pennsylvania would be quite the homecoming for him, if/whenever it happens. He could slot in with fellow big bodies Angello and Hayes, and utilize his skill and size. For comparative terms, Pavlychev may fit a similar role as Adam Johnson did, whose defensive work and small adjustment period stood out immediately whenever he came to the pros. If inserted into the lineup today, he could potentially fill a fourth-line spot, replacing a player like Cam Brown for example.
Needless to say, a lot of decisions need to be made this offseason, so it’s a bit of a food for thought scenario and interesting to theorize if Pavlychev fits what the Penguins are planning for in the future. The chances of him turning pro may be slim, and he may want to stay in State College for one more year to continue developing at the fast rate he has been (especially considering a promotion or increased role if his aforementioned teammates decide to leave), but with the Nittany Lions being officially out of contention, the possibility is there.