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Penguins sign prospect Justin Almeida to contract

Another draft pick in the fold

Moose Jaw Warriors v Edmonton Oil Kings Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins have added another draft pick for next season, this time it’s forward Justin Almeida. From a team release:

The Pittsburgh Penguins have signed forward Justin Almeida to a three-year, entry-level contract, it was announced today by executive vice president and general manager Jim Rutherford.

The contract will begin when Almeida turns pro next season in 2019-20. Pittsburgh selected Almeida in the fifth round (129th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Almeida, 20, has been one of top offensive performers in the Western Hockey League this season with the Moose Jaw Warriors. A multiple-time WHL Player of the Week winner this year, Almeida currently leads the league in assists with 68 and places fourth in points with 95. He needs just four points to top his total from last season.

A native of North Vancouver, British Columbia, Almeida enjoyed a breakout performance for Moose Jaw in 2017-18. In 72 games played last year, he produced 43 goals, 55 assists and 98 points. His point total was 10th-best in the WHL, and his assist total ranked 12th overall. During the playoffs, Almeida added 13 points (6G-7A) in 14 games.

The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Almeida has skated for four-plus seasons in the WHL with Moose Jaw and Prince George, tallying 83 goals, 144 assists and 227 points in 250 games.

Almeida participated in both the Penguins’ prospect development camp last June and the team’s rookie tournament in Buffalo in September.

Almeida went undrafted in 2017, but the Pens snatched him up in 2018 as an overage player. Under Jim Rutherford, no team has drafted a higher frequency of overage players. One of which was Dominik Simon.

At Pensburgh, Almeida was ranked #24 in our summer series for Top 25 Players Under 25. Since then he’s probably taken a small step forward, leading a major junior league in assists is impressive.

But there never really was any question about his scoring ability at the junior level, the big question still to be answered is if Almeida’s skill and skating will translate to the professional ranks. He’ll get the chance to show it next season. Almeida doesn’t really project to be a bottom-six player, so he’s either going to sink or swim by using the strengths of his game (vision, playmaking, production) to make it, or he won’t.

A good roadmap for Almeida to use might be that of another player drafted as a small and slight young man in Jake Guentzel. Guentzel turned pro at age-21, scored six points in 11 regular season AHL games and really planted a seed for future success by scoring 14 points in 10 AHL playoff games in 2016. From there, Guentzel showed he was a class above AHL level by lighting up the league in scoring (ending up with 42 points in 33 AHL games in 2016-17) and then showing he could do the same in the NHL scoring 33 points in 40 NHL regular season games and then really setting the league on notice with 13 goals and 21 points in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Of course, that would be the best case scenario and is an almost impossibly easy map to success that in truth not many would be able to follow. It remains to be seen if Almeida’s hockey IQ and hands will seamlessly fit in and excel at the pro level like it did for Guentzel. 99% of players don’t transition so well.

But from Jonathan Marchessault to Tyler Johnson, there are plenty of examples of smaller players who go undrafted despite putting up big numbers in junior. Almeida, like those two, are skilled guys at that level. Pittsburgh snapped Almeida up on the second go round hoping he can chart a similar course.

Perhaps he can, perhaps he can’t, but the thing for sure is the Penguins’ organization doesn’t have a lot of high-end skilled forward prospects, and very few can score as much as Almeida can at the junior level. It will be interesting and fun to watch him try and prove himself at the AHL level next season as his pro career begins.