Last season, players like Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello played important roles as injury call-ups to help the ailing Penguins. With those guys ready to stake a more permanent role in the NHL, it will be up to others behind them on the depth chart to come through when called upon.
While the Penguins don’t have the deepest prospect pool when compared to other teams around the league, there are a handful of guys waiting in the wings looking to make an impact at the NHL level as soon as this coming season.
Pierre-Olivier Joseph, LD
Even with the Penguins log jam on the blue line, it feels like only a matter of time before Joseph makes his breakthrough to the NHL level, possibly as early as this coming season. Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranks Joseph as the Penguins third overall prospect and projects him as a legit NHL player.
POJ had a strong rookie pro season, particularly in the second half where he played big minutes in all situations for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He’s valuable as a 6-foot-2 defenseman who can skate and kills a lot of rushes. He closes on checks very well due to his feet and how well he anticipates the play, breaking up a lot of plays in the neutral zone. The defensive parts of his game are excellent.
Originally acquired as part of the Phil Kessel trade with the Arizona Coyotes, Joseph is coming off his first professional season in the Penguins organization turned some heads in the process. While it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Joseph in 2019-20, his play was strong enough to make the Penguins playoff roster and spend time inside the bubble which allowed him to gain extra experience with the big club.
Entering 2020-21, Joseph will be behind Mike Matheson and Juuso Riikola on the depth chart, meaning he will likely be starting the year in the AHL. How his path to the NHL plays out remains to be seen, but there is no question Joseph is knocking on the door and he is ready to kick it down be it as an injury call-up or NHL regular.
Samuel Poulin, RW
Drafted 21st overall by the Penguins at the 2019 NHL Draft, Poulin immediately became the top prospect in the Penguins system the minute his name was called. Poulin was impressive in his first NHL training camp last fall and produced another good showing during the Penguins summer camp session before the playoffs.
Pronman has Poulin listed as the Pens top prospect and has this to say about him:
Poulin was one of the best players in the QMHL and a driving player for arguably the best team in that league. Poulin is a very creative offensive player with high-end hands who can flash elite caliber puck handling. He can beat defenders one-on-one with ease and has the ability to break open a shift with his skill. He also makes a ton of great plays to his teammates in the offensive zone, showing vision and patience with the puck. Poulin has a strong frame and shows the ability to make plays around the net.
In 46 games with the Sherbrooke Phoenix last season, Poulin posted 77 points, including 32 goals. Based on Pronman’s insight, Poulin sounds like a Patric Hornqvist type player with perhaps a little more speed and a little more skill outside the crease area.
Although he wasn’t included on the Penguins playoff roster like Joseph above, it’s clear Poulin is destined for the NHL in the very near future. With the 2020-21 QMJHL season already underway, Poulin is currently playing for the Phoenix, but one imagines he will turn pro once the NHL season gets underway.
With little space on the Penguins roster at the moment, it will likely be an AHL start for Poulin, but once room opens up, Poulin could be an instant impact player.
Sam Miletic, LW
Before Miletic can make an impact at the NHL level for the Penguins this season, he will first need to reach an agreement with the team on a new contract. Right now he is a restricted free agent after the Penguins qualified him last week, meaning the Penguins can match any offer he receives from another team.
In 2019-2020, his second professional season, Miletic played a career high 62 games out of a possible 63 with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL. This is notable considering Miletec’s 2018-19 season was hampered by a nagging shoulder injury that limited his ice time.
Although his health was much improved last season, his box car stats took a bit a slide from his injury riddled season. In those 62 games played, Miletic tallied 32 points, a slight drop from the 35 a season before in just 49 games.
But he probably is not talented enough to be a top-six forward at the NHL level. He appears to realize that and has devoted much of his energy this season towards refining his defensive game.
With NHL wingers such as Patrick Marleau and Conor Sheary facing pending unrestricted free agency this offseason, Anthony Angello and Sam Lafferty would appear to be candidates to graduate from part-time to full-time NHL status.
That would allow Miletic to become among the top forwards in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to considered for a potential recall in the event of an injury or absence.
Assuming he re-ups with the Penguins for the coming season, Miletic should provide injury call-up depth as one of the best forward options available in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Jonathan Gruden, LW
One of the newest additions to the Penguins prospect pool, Gruden joined the organization as a part of the Matt Murray trade with the Ottawa Senators. Gruden was originally drafted in the fourth round (95th overall) by the Senators in 2018.
He spent a season at Miami (OH) University before joining the London Knights of the OHL in 2019-20. Last season with the Knights, Gruden was an offensive force on the ice, recording 66 points, including 30 goals, in 59 games played.
Gruden was listed as a player with NHL potential by Pronman in his overview of the Senators organization, but it was Jesse Marshall who had the most praise for the newly acquired prospect.
Gruden was an effective north-to-south player in London. I was surprised by how well he fits in a transitional offense. While Gruden’s skating isn’t a strength of his game, it didn’t hamper him playing alongside some talented players. Highlighted by a distinct center drive, Gruden found himself getting open quite a bit.
Gruden’s shot is effective without possessing any singular trait that makes it overwhelming. His release is quick and he routinely disguises his looks by taking no-look shots or using his eyes and posture to fool goaltenders. London ran a good bit of set faceoff plays, and Gruden was often the triggerman, given his quick release and penchant for getting it on net.
Perhaps the most important nugget from Marshall’s piece was this:
With Gruden, the Penguins get a forward who is much further along in his development than some of their other prospects. With his first professional year of hockey on the horizon, Gruden could be a bottom-six option sooner rather than later.
Having a prospect like Gruden who is already so far along in his development could prove invaluable to the Penguins depth. It remains to be seen just when he can make his jump to the NHL level, but it does appear that he enters his first pro season closer than others around him.