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2019 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25: #2 and #1

It’s very clear who the top two young players in the Penguins’ organization currently are

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NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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 - #11: Tristan Jarry, Emil Larmi, Justin Almeida, Sam Lafferty, Filip Hallander

#10 - #6: Nathan Legare, Kasper Bjorkqvist, Jordy Bellerive, Calen Addison, Pierre-Olivier Joseph

#5 - #3: Dominik Kahun, Samuel Poulin, Jared McCann

#2 Marcus Pettersson, left defense

2018 Ranking: n/a

Age: 23 (May 8, 1996)

Acquired Via: trade with Anaheim, December 2018

Height/Weight: 6’3, 177 pounds

(via elite prospects)

While still technically a rookie in 2018-19, Marcus Pettersson had an eventful and wonderfully successful season. He joined the Penguins organization in early December and never came out of the lineup, eventually becoming a reliable piece that helped even weak partners like Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson to decent enough stretches while playing with the lanky Swede who was a much steadier player than his rookie status would suggest.

Often Pettersson would have to scramble and recover, such as on this play when Johnson couldn’t complete the simple task of controlling a pass back to the point, which quickly turned into a breakaway against and a nice diving play by Pettersson to save a goal.

Using his situational awareness, long wing-span and reach has made Pettersson a valuable defender in bailing out his goalies, as he saved a goal against late in the 3rd period against Washington:

Pettersson doesn’t really have that hard of a shot, but by the end of the year he was comfortable enough in open space to find a good area to short for and score. Pettersson did record five power play points on the season (this goal and four more assists).

Pettersson is also the answer to an unusual question, as he was the team leader in fights with three, mostly the result of getting challenged after making clean hits.

Pettersson also took 12 minor penalties in 57 games with the Pens, that’s a number he’ll have to reduce in the upcoming season as he’ll need to quiet his stick down and limit the hooking, slashing type of stick fouls.

But overall Pettersson gives the Penguins something they need- he’s got the size and skating ability to be effective in all three zones. He makes a good outlet pass. He can control positioning and gaps well defending on the rush. He’s a threat to dish a big open ice hit, a dying art in today’s game.

Related: Pensburgh 2018-19 Season in Review- Marcus Pettersson

All in all he was a solid lower pair defender, and at such a young age the natural question is to wonder what could come next. When looking this summer into Pettersson’s upside, his rookie season put him in some pretty fine company:

Age 22, playing in their second season in the NHL (technically Pettersson was considered a “rookie” this season, but he still played in the NHL for a quarter of the 2017-18 season ... it is his second season in the league), played at least 1,200 minutes, and finished with at least 18 even-strength points and a 50 percent Corsi Percentage. This went back as far as the 2007-08 season and it produced the following list of names:

Brady Skjei

Vince Dunn

Jaccob Slavin

Matt Niskanen

Shayne Gostisbehere

Jason Demers

Marcus Pettersson

This is hardly an exact science here and definitely cherry-picking some numbers (again, just wanted to find players similar to what Pettersson did this past season) but that is definitely an interesting list of names. Pretty much all of those players are either top-four defenders, have been top-four defenders, or are on their way to being top-four defenders.

We’ll see what the future will hold and while Pettersson doesn’t seem to be quite as dynamic or have all-star potential, his value is incredible being as that he is a very solid, very capable all-around defender who can help support and prop up teammates all over the ice.

#1 Jake Guentzel, winger

2018 Ranking: 2

Age: 24 (October 6, 1994)

Acquired Via: 2013 draft (third round)

Height/Weight: 5’11, 181 pounds

(via elite prospects)

Checking in one more time in the Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 before aging out, and leaving the list at the top will of course be Jake Guentzel. The long sought after trope, meme, running joke of the mythical “winger for Sid”, which stretched on for years by Pens fans just desperate to have the team actually develop a young player who could thrive and prosper playing with Sidney Crosby.

It took a while, but Guentzel has proven to be worth the wait. Guentzel’s 40 goals in 2018-19 (with an impressive 33 coming at even strength action, third highest in the NHL) were the most that a Crosby linemate has ever scored in a season.

Of Guentzel’s goals, this OT winner vs Florida may have been a favorite. It shows everything great about him as a player - the anticipation to fly the zone the instant the Crosby has won a contested puck, picking up the flip pass and taking the right angle, fighting through the check of a much bigger defender, making a beautiful move to score. Couldn’t dream up a better goal.

And while Crosby obviously is a big part in Guentzel’s success, he’s not the sole reason the Minnesota native prospers. Check this goal against New Jersey, Guentzel’s puck poise, control and skating ability is on display as he lugs the puck around multiple defenders, hitting Bryan Rust with a simple yet effective pass for a goal. It’s a weak one for the goalie to give up, but is a display of Guentzel getting the puck to a dangerous area that pays off.

For a player probably generously listed at 180 pounds, another Guentzel gift is the ability to hang around the net, get lost in traffic but pop up in front of the goalie or at the back post juuust in time to knock the puck in. Here’s a nice redirect against Calgary:

I always think of this excellent 2017 article by Justin Bourne (The Athletic $) which is probably the best breakdown and writing about why Guentzel performs so well and how he does what he does. It’s worth the reminder to see what he’s talking about:

He finds the soft spot and gets open. This one is a true goal scorer’s trait. If there’s a pocket of ice, and the size and location of that pocket changes every second as players move, Guentzel always seems to find a way to be in the dead middle of it. That’s such a demonstration of hockey sense to me, because it can’t be reactionary, it’s anticipatory. He finds that open ice, loads up and gets that shot off quick.

Points of note for me in that section:

On the goal against Vancouver, he lets the defender think he’s going to the other side of him, then doesn’t. He gets lost in his blind spot.

On the overhead view of the goal against Columbus, look at the clear space he ACTUALLY has from defenders.

On the PP entry goal vs. Carolina, look how his path changes when he sees how clean the entry was. Heads right for the back post.

These are the guys that make people go “another easy tap-in, sheesh.”

It’s easy for guys that know where to go.

Because Guentzel knows where to go and has Crosby firing him passes, his scoring percentage in the NHL has been in each of his three seasons: 19.8%, 12.9% and 17.6%. Shooting double-digits+ for most the league might be a red flag or risk for regression, but based on Guentzel’s history (and the face he’s got 78 goals in 204 career games), you can count on that.

If he shoots closer to 20% again like in 2018-19, he’s going to be back around the 40 goal mark. If it’s closer to 10% (like 2017-18), he’s probably at that season’s output of “just” 22 goals, which probably would be a disappointment at this point considering his success.

But there’s no doubt the Pens finally got their diamond in the rough when they drafted and developed a short and scrawny kid from Minnesota who ended up becoming one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive weapons. And they were even smart enough to get him locked up for the next five seasons at what already has become a reasonable rate.

Guentzel has long been a staple in the Pensburgh T25U25 and now at the end of his run here, he’s going out as the undisputed king and biggest success story this series has tracked and watched over the years. It’s truly been a pleasure to watch him grow and explore onto the scene and now Pittsburgh will get to enjoy his prime years just as much.

2019 Top 25 Under 25 List:

2019 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25

25 Santeri Airola
25 Santeri Airola
24 Nikita Pavlychev
23 Judd Caulfield
22 Alex D'Orio
21 Jan Drozg
20 Jake Lucchini
19 Clayton Phillips
18 Niclas Almari
17 Anthony Angelo
16 Sam Miletic
15 Tristan Jarry
14 Emil Larmi
13 Justin Almeida
12 Sam Lafferty
11 Filip Hallander
10 Nathan Legare
9 Kaspar Bjorkqvist
8 Jordy Bellerive
7 Calen Addison
6 PO Joseph
5 Dominik Kahun
4 Sam Poulin
3 Jared McCann
2 Marcus Pettersson
1 Jake Guentzel
2019 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25