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2019 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25: #25- 21

The countdown of the best young players in the Penguins’ organization begins!

2019 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Welcome to this summer’s listing of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top young players in the organization. The purpose of this ranking is to take stock in the young talent throughout the organization. Whether it’s a prospect drafted just last month who is 18 years old and years away from turning pro, or a full-fledged young NHL caliber player who is 23 or 24, they’re all eligible here.

Part 1: The Graduates and Departed

#25 Santeri Airola, Right Defense

2018 Ranking: n/a

Age: 19 (June 29, 2000)

Acquired Via: 2019 Draft (Seventh Round)

Height/Weight: 5’11, 163 pounds

(via elite prospects)

At last month’s development camp, no player really came out of left field to surprise me as much as smooth skating right handed defenseman Santeri Airola. It’s easy to tell this is a guy the Penguins really wanted to bring into the fold, since their draft was completed but they traded back in towards the very end to make sure they could select Airola this year. The general consensus at the time was “who?” – Airola wasn’t highly ranked in pre-draft services -- but Pens’ top scout Patrik Allvin has done well in the past in Finland and for a small gamble this pick looks worth the cost. As we said at the camp:

Airola seemed a bit off the radar for a draft pick last week, but he’s flashing a bit. Easy to see how he got on the radar, not big (again 5’11 seems generous) but he moves very well and has good hands controlling and playing the puck.

Airola just turned 19 years old, so in hockey terms he’s probably light years away from being an NHLer. But the intrigue of why Pittsburgh wanted him, plus a solid performance this summer that showed what they saw in him is enough to make the low-end of the rankings this year in what is a pretty light pool of prospects.

#24 Nikita Pavlychev, Center

2018 Ranking: n/a

Age: 22 (March 23, 1997)

Acquired Via: 2015 Draft (Seventh Round)

Height/Weight: 6’7, 225 pounds

(via hockeydb)

What started out mainly as a novelty “oh he’s 6’7” and “oh he goes to Penn State”, Pavlychev put himself on the radar as something more of a pro prospect with showing development and progression in 2018-19, his junior season. Pavlychev was able to show pro-style production at the NCAA level and will have one more chance in 2019-20 before the team decides to sign him as a professional or not. It will be interesting to see if Pavlychev can continue developing his scoring touch and nose for the net, ideally you would like to see such a large player use his physical advantages and convert it into a lot of production at the collegiate ranks.

Pavlychev has been a work in progress, but 2018-19 was the first year where he actually showed a bit of tangible progress. As such, he earns his first nod into the Pensburgh T25U25.

#23 Judd Caulfield, Right Wing

2018 Ranking: n/a

Age: 18 (March 19, 2001)

Acquired Via: 2019 Draft (Fifth Round)

Height/Weight: 6’3, 207 pounds

(via elite prospects)

2019 draftee Judd Caulfield played on the superbly talented US National Development team in 2018-19. In a lot of ways he was like the Jordan Staal to do a lot of the dirty work so the stars of the team (Jack Hughes, Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte, Cole Caufield etc ,etc) would be free for the offensive opportunities and power plays. Caulfield is all-around a pretty solid player, his talent doesn’t pop off the ice with elite skill, but he does a lot of the little things to help support a team very well. Caulfield will be at the University of North Dakota in 2019-20, and actually may get more of an opportunity to play a more offensive role and power play, as he won’t be surrounded by so much first round talent.

The Grand Forks Herald had a nice writeup on Caulfield with some quotes from his next coach:

“He’s a big body, right-shot winger,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “He can play the game any way you want it to be played. He did an outstanding job on the penalty kill (for the NTDP). He was a big part of their success on the PK. He has good offensive ability. The majority of his points came against D-I teams. They play a hybrid schedule of D-I and junior teams and he scored most of his points against D-I teams. That bodes well for him coming in as a freshman playing against hard and heavy competition.”

Caulfield had 12 goals and 36 points in 64 games last season with the U.S. Under-18 Team, playing in numerous different roles. He played games on all four lines during the season.

”He’s a big, powerful winger,” an NHL scout told the Herald. “Really good down low. He’s really good along the walls. He’s really good in front of the net. He was a good penalty killer for the NTDP. I wouldn’t be surprised if they get him in that role at UND. His biggest challenge is that he’s such a nice kid -- quiet and reserved -- that he’s going to have to learn how to play outside of his personality, I think. He has more to give. It’s OK to run over people to get to where you need to go.

”Next year, he can provide a big body up and down the wing in a bottom-six role and he’ll have special teams value. If he ever scores more than 10-12 goals in a season, I’d be surprised.”

He’s a very interesting developmental prospect for the Penguins at this point. Caulfield was mostly ranked higher than he got drafted at 145th overall, giving some reason to believe and hope Pittsburgh might have found a player that can exceed draft position eventually.

At this point he needs to show some hands and production to be of value at the NHL level, but with his size and ability to play a two-way game, this could be a “high floor, low ceiling” type of lower ling wing prospect for the future.

#22 Alex D’Orio, Goalie

2018 Ranking: n/a

Age: 20 (April 28, 1999)

Acquired Via: unsigned free agent (9/13/2017)

Height/Weight: 6’3, 208 pounds

Alex D’Orio is trying to follow in the mold of several recent Pens’ goaltenders (including Casey DeSmith) to go from undrafted into making nice careers out of it. I think he’s really coming along too as he now jumps from the junior ranks to the pros. His teams in the Q were always very weak defensively, so don’t puck a lot of stock or judgement into the unimpressive numbers there.

Looking beyond that, D’Orio has really good size and technique and should be right in the mix to help either the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pens or the ECHL Wheeling Nailers this year as he acclimates to the next level.

#21 Jan Drozg, Right Wing

2018 Ranking: 21

Age: 20 (April 1, 1999)

Acquired Via: 2017 Draft (Fifth Round)

Height/Weight: 6’2, 174 pounds

(via elite prospects)

Another player about to finally get on a bigger stage too is the well-traveled Jan Drozg. Drozg has been among the top players for another fairly weak team in the Q, he’s been a standout at various U20 and World Championship competitions for Slovenia (a smaller country that doesn’t always play in the top division). He’s done well and has demonstrated the skill but I feel like we’re still really waiting to truly see what he potentially has to offer as a pro.

The Tribune-Review is high on Drozg as a potential “sleeper” type of prospect, writing recently:

He was his junior team’s leading scorer each of the past two seasons, averaging 18 goals and 56 points, but Shawinigan hasn’t been one of the Quebec Major Junior League’s marquee clubs. Drozg, 20, will get his chance to make some headlines when he turns pro in the fall.

“No one is perfect. Everyone needs to do something better. I work to be better every day, to not make so many mistakes in the game,” Drozg said. “I played a skilled game. There’s more room for mistakes. That’s normal. But I try to work on my game to make as few mistakes as possible.”

With his size and skill it will be interesting to see how Drozg fares as he finally makes it to the big time.