One of our annual staples this time of year here at Pensburgh to help pass the dog days of summer is to rank, profile and discuss the top 25 young players in the Penguins’ organization. It gives a chance to take stock of how healthy (or not) the pipeline of talent on the team is at that moment in time.
In that regard, when time passes, it can be fun and a good exercise to look back at what happened AFTER the rankings came out. Development in hockey can take so long — take a guy like Teddy Blueger who was drafted in June 2012 but didn’t make his NHL debut until January 2019 — that you really need the distance of time to be able and look back.
This will also show that they’re called “prospects” and not “sure things”. Young players don’t always reach their potential or the plans that teams may hope for early on in the process. The flip side is you can also see some diamonds in the rough really blossom out of seemingly no where to become real impact players.
One theme, unfortunately — especially for a team like Pittsburgh that had traded a lot of high picks over the years — is that a lot of the lower-end of the list ends up being basically minor footnotes in history. Of the last 10 or so players, #16-25 on this list, only a few had NHL futures, and even then limited at best. Probably keep that in mind for future lists if you want to bring some practicality to judging prospects; most of the long shots are bound to fall short.
Tom Kuhnhackl certainly highlights the lower-end of the list from 2015, as he went on to be a very good fourth line player in the NHL in 2015-16 and help the Pens to a Stanley Cup. He’s been able to stick around in the league, but pretty much as a low-ceiling and barely above replacement level, dime-a-dozen energy type of checker
Josh Archibald has bounced around a bit, he was traded to Arizona in 2017 and at least stuck on the fringe of the NHL lineup before not receiving a qualifying offer by the Coyotes this summer. However, Archibald was able to signed with Edmonton (one year, $1 million) which is a nice sign for him.
Jean-Sebastien Dea similarly got a bigger taste of the NHL in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh but mostly New Jersey who claimed him off waivers and gave him an opportunity to play in the NHL for a couple weeks before waiving him again. Dea signed a two-way contract with Buffalo and could be in competition to make the NHL roster, but probably figures to be back to the NHL-AHL yo-yo again in 2019-20.
Beyond that, none of the bottom ten really made it past the AHL level, if they even got that far. It’s tough to make a path to the very highest levels.
At about #15 though, this list takes a turn to start featuring players with real futures. Jake Guentzel obviously stands out at #14 as a player we know will go on to reach the very top heights of all of hockey, but in 2014-15 he was just finishing a sophomore season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and returning for a junior season. Still a big unknown and unproven player, thus why he ends up needing a bit more time to grow and eventually prove himself. We did see Guentzel as potentially a player with a bright future - thus why he ranked over others who were older and further along in the process - but obviously no one anticipated 24 months after this list he would lead the NHL in playoff goals, or be three years away from a 40-goal NHL season.
Along with Guentzel, a bunch of these mid-range players have developed into solid NHL caliber players by 2019-20 with the likes of Dominik Simon, Teddy Blueger, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary all in the next tier. Even then it’s a numbers game with a well-regarded player like Scott Wilson being less valuable in 2019 than a lot of names he ranked over in 2015.
We also see some more not-so-successful stories. Tristan Jarry’s potential was evident but his ability to stick and perform in the NHL hasn’t matched it. Two different Pittsburgh coaches (Mike Johnston and Mike Sullivan) didn’t trust Daniel Sprong to play more than a fourth line role. Beau Bennett’s obvious skill couldn’t shine because of all the injuries he amassed. Derrick Pouliot also didn’t develop into the consistent defender hoped when drafted eight overall in 2012. To a degree even, Olli Maatta’s development was stalled out by a litany of injuries as well. Though unlike the others, at least Maatta did provide several quality seasons as a second pair defensive defenseman when healthy.
Others shined though. Players like Blueger, Brian Dumoulin and Oskar Sundqvist had relatively slow development curves, but all eventually reached becoming solid level NHL players. Matt Murray was the AHL’s best goalie by 2015, and by 2016 and 2017 he had helped lead the Pens to two Stanley Cups.
Prospect lists can’t predict the future, and players are bound to succeed and also fail in unpredictable ways. That’s part of what makes it fun, the future is tough to call. NHL prospect development is a long process, but a fun one to track over the years to track what happens to shooting stars like Guentzel, but unfortunately with that comes the stories of players that fade and never live up to their high draft picks.