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NCAA Free Agents still in play for the Penguins

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There’s a work stoppage, but no end to trying to sign NCAA players for NHL teams right now

At this time it’s hard to think about business as usual. But hey, this is a hockey blog. If you’re here you can use a bit of a distraction to look at what could happen. Because, the fact is the NCAA season has ended, unfortunately, but for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the ability to improve and add hasn’t.

The Pens have already struck big by signing forward Drew O’Connor from Dartmouth.

The Pens’ website provided an interesting outlook about the signing of O’Connor and how that comes to pass.

O’Connor, 21, was highly-sought after by many NHL clubs. And it’s easy to see why. The Chatham, New Jersey native has a unique blend of size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), scoring touch (38 career goals) and skating.

”When you have that size and you can skate that well and the numbers he’s put up over the past two years really jumps out at you,” Young said. “You add that goal scoring ability to his heavy shot and his size and it’s a very attractive package for a hockey player.”

So, the Penguins started a full-court press on O’Connor. Members of the organization, which included Young, met with O’Connor, his family and his advisor. And they were selling the Penguins.

”It’s about building relationships,” Young said. “It’s well known throughout the league that we have had success with college free agents. It’s a great destination for college free agents because we’ve traded away so many draft picks in order to win now.

”When they really start to dive deep and look at teams and teams’ depth with their prospects, we’re a very attractive destination because they’re going to get a chance here.”

It was also very telling what Penguins GM Jim Rutherford had to say about the signing:

“Drew is a powerful skater with good hands, which helped him have a very good year at Dartmouth,” said Rutherford. “We are very happy Drew has joined the Penguins as we feel he can help our NHL club sooner rather than later.”

Pittsburgh has an advantage to say things like that, because they have a track record. It’s why they’re often in the consideration of the best of the free agents. Whether it’s been Conor Sheary or Zach Aston-Reese, there’s often a quick path to the NHL in Pittsburgh for young players if they can handle the opportunity.

Another example is John Marino. While Marino wasn’t a pure college free agent signing, his situation shares a lot of similarities. The Pens traded for Marino last summer, but he could have easily decided to return to Harvard for his senior season. Pittsburgh recruited Marino and offered him an opportunity, even when it seemed like it might not have been there, but he made the most of it and is another success story in that regard.

That reputation has made the Pens a very attractive place for the best college free agents to at least consider. And, based on reports, Pittsburgh has been aggressive and a finalist for almost any elite one. That’s a great thing, and is a win/win. The Pens don’t have a lot of talent in their age 20-23 pool of prospects, adding good prospects for just the cost of a contract is a great way to mitigate trading draft picks away.

Here’s some more candidates that Pittsburgh could also add in addition to O’Connor to further boost their system via The Athletic’s Corey Pronman:

Josh Dunne, C, Clarkson-ECAC

Dunne is intriguing because he’s a 6-foot-4 center with skill and a lot of power. He’s an elite presence in front of the net at the college level with how well he generates chances in the high percentage areas. He’s also very strong on pucks, protects well and plays hard defensively. He’s not all brute strength, though, as he has a good stick and makes plays in open ice. The one concern on his NHL projection is his quickness. His stride is technically OK, but he does lack the kind of speed you’d like in an NHL player. I like the sum of the parts, though, and think he could play in the league.

Dunne only finished his sophomore season at Clarkson, in many ways he’s similar to O’Connor in the player they already signed. Especially considering his speed/skating which might project for a shift to wing like O’Connor already plays.

Jack Ahcan, D, St. Cloud State-NCHC

Ahcan has been a top defenseman in the NCHC the last few years. This season he was really leaned on by St. Cloud, logging big minutes in all situations. Ahcan is a fun player to watch. He’s full of skill and offensive creativity. He’s a power play quarterback at the pro level due to how well he walks the line, finds seams and improvises with the puck. He’s a good skater. He’s not the elite speedster that you’d like at 5-foot-8, but he’s got great edges and can evade pressure. Even though he’s not big, I think he’ll defend OK in the pros because he has push back in his game. I understand why a 5-foot-8 defender without huge numbers may not scream NHL player, but I think Ahcan can make it

Ahcan turning 23 in May and was a senior this year so he’ll be turning pro. He would be a nice add considering the Pens just traded a similar smallish offensive minded puck-moving defenseman in Calen Addison last month. Other than Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of prime NHL prospects on the back end. A player like Ahcan would fill a niche in the organization and seemingly be one to consider.

Jordan Kawaguchi, LW, North Dakota-NCHC

Kawaguchi is the No. 2 scorer in the nation, sandwiched in between several good drafted players. He’s been a huge part of why North Dakota is arguably the best team in the nation. He plays the game with a lot of skill and offensive creativity. He can make high-end plays and help on a pro power play. I think Kawaguchi is a fine skater, but the reason some scouts question his NHL projection is that he’s 5-foot-9 and lacks true NHL quickness in his skating. Despite his size I find he drives the net well and can win some pucks. I think he’s got a decent chance to play games, but his physical tools could hold him back. Scouts also think he could go back for his senior season.

Kawaguchi will certainly be on the NHL radar with his 45 points (15G+30A) in 33 games at North Dakota to put him towards the top of the scoring list this year. Kawaguchi’s 1.15 P1/60 ranked first in the NCAA (min 25 games, per Pick 224). Especially in a season where you can say that prospects like Justin Almeida and Jordy Bellerive have taken either a step back or a realization about realistic NHL odds, adding more skill is probably an area the Pens should be looking.

The current state of the hockey world is definitely in limbo, but there’s nothing to prevent trying to operate like acting like business as usual by adding college free agents right now. The Pens have already struck big in this area by signing O’Connor, and if that’s all they end up accomplishing, it’s still a very positive step and feather in their cap. But right now, there’s an opportunity to stock up more and it will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh is able to further do just that.

Here’s a chart from Pick224, which is a really fun website to click around and track junior/NCAA raw advanced stats. I’m sure in the weeks and months ahead we’ll be using this to check in on the Pens’ top guys in Quebec.

Below is a lot of data going on, I’ve highlighted in yellow some free agents that could make sense as potential targets. In green is O’Connor, who has already signed with Pittsburgh. This is sorted by P1/60, which isn’t the be-all, end-all and there are some differences in age/experience in play but it’s interesting to see some of these names above 2019 first round picks like Alex Newhook, Cole Caufield and Trevor Zegras. The latter names would likely surpass these totals if they play multiple years of college hockey before turning pro

One big thing that stands out about O’Connor based on these stats is 147 shots on goal. That ranks sixth in the whole NCAA. That’s pretty impressive for a sophomore season, though at age-21, O’Connor is a pretty physically advanced sophomore being as he maxed out his junior eligibility as his body (and future prospects) grew a lot from age 18-20. Still, based on his ability to get shots away and produce goals at an impressive rate, based on this alone it’s clear to see why the Penguins are very intrigued and excited for his future.