In 2018-19, three players achieved life-long dreams and made their NHL season debuts with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Can you name them top of mind?
Teddy Blueger took the long road — drafted in 2012, four years of college and a couple more years of apprenticeship in the AHL finally culminated in making it to the NHL on January 30th, 2019 in a game against Tampa. Blueger made the most of his chance playing 28 games down the stretch in the regular season, and one more in the playoffs.
Juuso Riikola was the another, who actually made his NHL debut first back on October 11th, 2018 against Vegas. Riikola came out of no where as a European free agent and had an excellent training camp, earning a surprise spot on the NHL roster. He played 37 games in a season of turmoil on the blueline.
And the third? It was Adam Johnson with a six game NHL cameo as an injury replacement last season late in the year from March 21st to April 2nd.
So what could be in store for the 2019-20 season? The Penguins are not a developmental team and have a veteran-laden roster designed to win and win quickly. With so many high-priced veterans already with a roster spot set in stone, even if they don’t deserve it, it’s not going to be easy for any season debuts this year.
However with trades and injuries, crazy situations can and often do happen over the course of a long NHL regular season. Last year Pittsburgh dressed 33 different skaters in the regular season — from the obscure like Joseph Blandisi and Zach Trotman to of course the guys whose faces are literally on the sides of the building like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
In the event of injury or surprise training camp performance, let’s take a look at the candidates that have a reasonable shot at etching their name in NHL lore by playing that fabled first game of a career.
A bit of a forgotten or at least commonly overlooked player by fans, Palve was signed back in late-April as the team’s reach into Europe for free agents continue. The now 27-year old has plenty of pro experience in Finland’s top hockey league, including a 2018-19 where he recorded 51 points (16 goals + 35 assists) with TPS.
The Pens depth chart at forward is stacked right now, but if they do end up trading a forward like GM Jim Rutherford has hinted at, there would be that extra 13th roster spot open. Palve’s cap hit for 2019-20 is $793,500 which is another beneficial point that he wouldn’t be expensive to keep on the roster.
Palve is a complete unknown with how he will measure up against the top competition. It’s possible he flames out and goes the way of a Janne Pesonen type that doesn’t make a big impact in the NHL. But even guys like Pesonen and Sergei Plotnikov usually get some kind of audition time at the NHL level, if only the benefit of the doubt to show that they’re going to sink instead of swim.
For that reason, though it requires some projection, if you had to bet on it Palve seems like the highest overall chance to at least get one NHL game somewhere in the course in 2019-20, if it looks like he is competent at all in North America.
The book on the 20-year old Joseph, acquired in the Phil Kessel trade, is that the former first round pick will need more development time to gain strength to his lanky 6’3, 170-ish pound frame and more experience as he is just now turning pro.
That may well be the case and Pittsburgh might slow-play his development and give him a full AHL season in 2019-20 before considering him down the line.
However, Joseph has first round pedigree and some talent. It’s not inconceivable that he plays very strong this season. As of now Marcus Pettersson remains unsigned. While most expect he will be with the team sooner than later, there’s a big hole on the left side defense depth chart. If Jack Johnson struggles again this season — to continue a career’s long trend of being ineffective and outscored while on the ice — maybe Mike Sullivan wises up and benches him like he did in Game 1 of the playoffs. Should that happen and there be an injury, suddenly the chances of Joseph being needed in the NHL (if he’s up for it) could grow.
The 22-year old Providence College product (by way of Espoo, Finland) has already been turning heads on the social media circuit for his insane training abilities that have pretty much re-written the Pens’ prospect database strength records.
But Bjorkqvist is also rehabbing from off-season shoulder surgery and wasn’t on the ice with teammates at the June prospect development camp and wasn’t named to this week’s prospect challenge in Buffalo. How much (if anything) this injury/rehab schedule sets back the start of his training camp and beginning of the season may be a huge factor in determining if he can rise up to the NHL level at some point in the 2019-20 season.
Positional ability is one thing Bjorkqvist has going for him, being as he’s a winger and it seems like many of the top candidates to make NHL debuts are natural centers. So if injury dictates that Pittsburgh needs a wing for the NHL roster, that figures to favor him.
At age 24 going on his a second year as a professional (and the final year of his entry level contract), this has a bit of the vibe to be now or never for Lafferty in the Pens’ organization as far as NHL aspirations go. Lafferty put up a fairly impressive 49 points in 70 games last year in Wilkes-Barre and impressed many within the organization with a steady progression of improvement. He is a pretty good playmaker and has decent wheels, so the former fourth round pick back in 2013 is definitely on the radar. It remains to be seen if he takes that next step or if opportunity will even knock though.
Jordy Bellerive — would have to have a great camp and play exceptionally well in the AHL. Probably needs things out of his control to happen too (lots of injuries, or the Pens looking for a bit of extra scoring) to get the call.
Anthony Angello — similar to Lafferty this is Angello’s final year of his ELC, second year as a pro player. He’s big and has a bit of an edge, which it is always important to stand out and offer a unique attribute that other prospects may not have, and Angello is probably the biggest and could be the most physical of the forwards on this list, which could lend itself if the NHL Pens need a fourth line right wing at some point.
Sam Miletic — Another fairly versatile player with enough AHL experience to be on the NHL radar at this point. He would probably have to be recommended by the AHL staff as a top player on the team or the “hot hand” at the moment if an injury popped up for reinforcements.
Niclas Almari — See many of the reasons listed for Joseph and the potential issues at left-side defense. Almari may be a bit too green and new to the smaller rinks to make his NHL debut this season, and I would tend to doubt he’s playing in more than just a very limited number, but it’s probably not a total impossibility.
While last year three players made their NHL debuts with the Pens, this year is setup to probably be less, barring an unforeseen amount of roster moves and/or injuries. Perhaps just one or two of the names will get at least a regular season game in the show. But this team is pretty wide open about which direction that could be, which is a good opportunity for all the names listed above to have an excellent season and earn an opportunity.