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 - #21: Santeri Airola, Nikita Pavlychev, Judd Caulfield, Alex D’Orio, Jan Drozg
#20 - # 16: Jake Lucchini, Clayton Phillips, Niclas Almari, Anthony Angello, Sam Miletic
#15 Tristan Jarry, Goalie
2018 Ranking: 8
Age: 24 (April 29, 1995)
Acquired Via: 2013 draft (second round)
Height/Weight: 6’2, 194 pounds
This might seem low for a talented player and once top prospect in Jarry, but through four full professional seasons he remains fully outside of the NHL — and now blocked by a three year extension to Casey DeSmith. It couldn’t be classified as a successful 2018-19 for Jarry, who played just two NHL games (despite Matt Murray missing time to injury).
With this list being a snapshot in a moment in time in 2019, Jarry figures to be waived at the end of training camp, if he’s not traded before hand. And to this point in his career (14-8-3 record, 2.84 GAA, .906 save%) he’s been unimpressive when rarely seen at the NHL for injury fill-in purposes.
Jarry seems at a cross-roads now, one that looks to take him out of the organization sooner than later.
#14 Emil Larmi, Goalie
2018 Ranking: n/a
Age: 22 (September 28, 1996)
Acquired Via: undrafted free agent June 2019
Height/Weight: 6’0, 203 pounds
It’s no secret the Penguins rely heavily on developing older goalies. In the six drafts under Jim Rutherford’s leadership Pittsburgh has only drafted one goalie (Filip Gustavsson in the second round of 2016) and he was traded shortly thereafter.
The latest hope to develop a late bloomer is the undrafted Emil Larmi who will join the Pens’ organization after being signed following leading Finnish team HPK to the championship last spring.
“Emil is coming off of a fantastic playoff run with HPK, and has proved himself to be one of the best goaltenders in Liiga,” said Pens goaltending development coach Andy Chiodo said at the time Larmi was signed. “He’s an athletic and mobile goaltender that reads the game well and is highly competitive.
Larmi was the shortest goalie in development camp, but as backup goalie Casey DeSmith has shown, size isn’t the only thing that matters. Larmi plays a fun style, he’s technically sound (per reputation of all high-level Finnish goalies) and has very fast legs. Larmi is also a pretty distinctive goalie with the all black pads, gloves and blocker that he uses, so it will be fun to watch him get into the Pens’ organization and try to make a name for himself in North America.
#13 Justin Almeida
2018 Ranking: 24
Age: 20 (February 6, 1999)
Acquired Via: 2018 draft (Fifth round)
Height/Weight: 5’9, 159 pounds
(via elite prospects)
Almeida blew up in 2017-18 and was drafted as an over-age player, and as a result the 2018 draft pick is able to turn pro this season. 2018-19 looks pretty good just on boxcars — he did finish third in the WHL in points and led the league in assists (by a wide margin of 13 better than second place!).
But then when you realize he had been gutting out the season since early November with a torn labrum in his shoulder that required playing with a brace most the year, it looks all the more impressive (Almeida underwent surgery in April and is expected back in time for camp).
“I didn’t want to end my season in November,” Almeida said in March. “I came into the year wanting to have a great year and have a great year for our team. I knew I wanted to play right from when it happened.”
His measurements fluctuate (and likely are inflated) but at about 5’9 and 160 pounds, Almeida is always going to be one of the smaller players on the ice. Showing some grit to tough out playing hurt all year — and playing well at that — is a great sign. He’s likely to have to deal with pain management throughout his career.
“He’s a solid point producer,” assistant general manager Bill Guerin told the Tribune-Review in 2018 “Undersized guy, but super smart and super skilled.”
Now we’ll see how much of that skill translates to the pros. Plenty of players can put up big time numbers in juniors but shrink at the pro level against bigger, stronger, tougher competition. Almeida has hands and he proved this past season he’s got a lot of heart too, which is a good place to start.
(Note: Almeida going from #24 in the T25U25 last year up 11 spots to #13 now is the highest riser of anyone on the list that was ranked in both years.)
#12 Sam Lafferty
2018 Ranking: 22
Age: 24 (March 6, 1995)
Acquired Via: 2014 draft (Fourth round)
Height/Weight: 6’1, 194 pounds
(via elite prospects)
While it seems like a lot of the prospects on this list flounder or never fully materialize, but that’s not the case for Hollidaysburg’s Sam Lafferty. He put up 36 assists to lead WB/S (and third highest in the AHL among rookies) and his 49 points were second on the team to showcase an impressive start to his career that’s now put him seriously on the radar to b a potential call-up to the NHL.
“His season, his development, it was great to see,” said former WB/S Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli. “It’s not like the moment he stepped on the ice it all happened for him at once. There was a progression.”
Lafferty put an exclamation point on his impressive 2018-19 season with a three point game against Binghampton where assistant coach Jarrod Skalde called him “the best player on the ice for either team.”
Bill Guerin’s 2018 assessment of Laffery to the PG:
“Sam has a drive and a competitive level that was much higher than we anticipated. Coming from college hockey to being a pro – doing this as a living, playing every day – he’s thrived. He’s like a sponge. He wants information, wants to be coached. He can fly. His skating if off the charts right now, and Sam competes. If there’s a knock on him right now, sometimes he’ll get so excited, competes so hard, that he’ll take himself out of position in the defensive zone, but those are mistakes we can live with.”
“His determination, his drive, his singular focus towards getting to the NHL was impressive,” Skalde said. “He’s an absolute joy to have as a coach, because he wants to get better every day, and he shows it. He really wants to improve on a daily basis. He shows you what he wants to become.”
After a great rookie year, Lafferty’s closer to his goal than ever and probably a good chance to make his NHL debut at some point in 2019-20 with the Penguins if they need an injury call-up or two.
(Lafferty is the second highest riser on our T25U25 from 2018 to 2019 behind Almeida, going up 10 spots from #22 to 12th.)
#11 Filip Hallander
2018 Ranking: 12
Age: 19 (June 29, 2000)
Acquired Via: 2018 draft (Second round)
Height/Weight: 6’1, 190 pounds
(via elite prospects)
As an 18-year old in 2018-19, Hallander’s stats are seriously impressive. He skated all season in the SHL (Sweden’s top professional league) and finished fifth on his team in assists, and sixth in points. Even more impressive was during the relegation battle, Hallander was one of Timra’s best players and really ratcheted up his point production grabbing eight points (5g+3a) in seven games, both among team leaders.
Unfortunately though, Timra failed to stay in the SHL and was relegated, but that could be a blessing in disguise for Hallander who has been loaned out to joining Lulea for next season in what could be a stronger team.
Hallander competed with Sweden at World Juniors, though he was used in a lower line checking role, and he’s still young enough where he should be a bigger part of the team at next winter’s U-20 event.
As Bill Guerin put it:
“He’s a very good young player. Started out the season really well offensively; he’s dipped a little bit. He’s a very good two-way player. … An 18-year-old kid playing in the Swedish Elite League is pretty impressive, and he plays in all situations over there. He’s going to have to come over at some point in time and get adjusted to the North American game and sometimes that takes a little time, but he’s a very smart player.”
Hallander got some of that adjustment time last month in Cranberry, playing with the other Pens’ prospects at development camp. As advertised, he’s a very strong skater (not really explosive or fast, but very steady) and capable of making subtle, small plays all over the ice to help win the puck or create offense with nice passes or shots.
He’s still very young and has more development to do, but for his age this is a very advanced and intelligent player that only figures to improve more as he continues to get more action under his belt.