Over the past few years the Pittsburgh Penguins have reaped the benefits of a healthy minor league system with players like Conor Sheary, Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin (and more!) all emerged from apprenticeships in the American Hockey League to help the NHL Pens win Stanley Cups. That’s fun!
Fast forward to 2019-20 and several players from Wilkes-Barre were thrust into NHL roles due to a historically awful season of injuries for the Pens. Sam Lafferty made the most of it, shining in some of his debut games and basically getting to stick around in the NHL for most of the season as a result of his strong early performance. But down on the farm, which stocks rose and fell as a result of 2019-20? Let’s dig into individual performances of players who could be considered NHL prospects, sorted by scoring in the AHL this season.
Adam Johnson: Johnson, 25, did manage to lead what was left of the AHL Pens in scoring in 2019-20 (10G+24A in 48 games), and his seven NHL games were one more than 2018-19. Yet, it didn’t really feel like much of a step forward for Johnson, especially when he watched players like Lafferty, Anthony Angello, Andrew Agozzino and Joseph Blandisi continually be preferred for call-up opportunities. Johnson qualifies for Group VI free agency this summer and his time in the Pens’ organization may be at it’s end. Grade: fall
Sam Miletic: Miletic showed some flashes as a rookie in 2018-19 (12G+23A in just 49 AHL games) but regressed statistically with just nine goals and 23 assists in 62 games in 2019-20. He’ll soon reach his 23rd birthday and appears to be at a cross-roads for next season as far as his NHL future goes. Didn’t take a step forward this year though. Grade: fall
Anthony Angello: Angello developed more scoring touch in 2019-20, his second full pro season putting up 16 goals in 48 AHL games (matching his total in 65 games back in 2018-19 as a rookie). That improved play earned Angello a look in Pittsburgh for his NHL debut, playing in eight games (1G+0A). He’s big and not the greatest skater or puck-skills at the NHL level, but you can’t teach 6’5 and Angello didn’t look totally out of place in the big show. Grade: rising
Jordy Bellerive: This is a tricky one, and depends on expectation of a once highly-touted prospect (though undrafted) who suffered a major setback in a summer 2018 fire-related injury that seems to have limited his hands more than he’s willing to admit or use an excuse. The 20-year old in his first pro season started the season as a healthy scratch. And then he mostly played a bottom-six role this season. But, there’s reasons for hope too. In the last 26 games, Bellerive put up 16 points (10G+6A), a big improvement over just the six points (2G+4A) he scored in his first 27 games of the season. Beyond the boxcar stats, it is very obvious the team is trying to instill a more well-rounded game for Bellerive, who will need to play a more complete two-way game to continue to move up the ladder. That’s nothing new, many great scorers from juniors have to face finding new aspects of growth to become solid pros. Expectations probably need to be tempered on what Bellerive’s reasonable ceiling is, but he did lay the groundwork as a rookie this season to see what steps he could make in the all-important second pro season. Grade: rising...with a caveat
Thomas Di Pauli: Di Pauli signed with the Pens in summer 2016 as something of a minor coup after he didn’t want to sign with Washington. But since then he’s toiled in the AHL, never really able to stay healthy or shine or break-through. Well, 2019-20 marked Di Pauli’s NHL debut with two games. At 26 later this month he’s also a Group VI UFA and could be moving on. Grade: rising...but probably not enough
Pierre-Olivier Joseph: The jewel prospect of the Phil Kessel trade, there’s plenty of observant and expectant eyes cast on Joseph, 20, to pan out for the future. It was a bit of a murky start, Joseph missed time early in the season, zapped with mono. His offensive numbers never popped (3G+14A in 52 games) but he did pick up as the season rolled on with eight points (2G+6A) in an 11 game stretch near the end of the year. And, again, he’s 20. Where was Brian Dumoulin at age-20? Boston College, Dumo wouldn’t make NHL full-time until age-24. Where was Marcus Pettersson at 20? Still in Sweden. Point being, it’s a long road to travel for a young defenseman to mature into an NHL caliber defensive defenseman.
(Source: Dobber Hockey)
As the chart above shows, league-wide prospect rankers are probably cooling a bit on Joseph due to his offensive seasons since the draft, yet he’s still young and probably still has the upside to be a Dumoulin/Pettersson type of player that is pretty good, despite a low offensive ceiling. At this point though, he seems like more “Pettersson” than “Dumoulin”, though. Grade: rising
Jan Drozg: Drozg checked in a 21st in the 2019 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25, but spent almost as many games with ECHL Wheeling (24) as AHL Wilkes-Barre (32) in his first pro season this year. That’s never a very good sign to be stuck at that level. He’s worth keeping an eye on to see if he is able to make a big jump for next season, but any hope the player who has always been a “big fish in a small pond” (playing with Slovenia internationally and on a bad QMJHL team in juniors) making a seamless transition to big time competition has faded. Grade: ehh, about the same
Niclas Almari: There was a lot of interest in how the Pens’ fifth rounder from 2016 would transition to North American hockey, and he certainly had his struggles adjusting to the smaller rinks and speed of the game. At just 21, he’s got a long way to go, but is capable of making the smart, simple play. Grade: about the same
Sam Lafferty: Lafferty is this buried in the list, because he only scored three AHL points (all goals). But he only played six AHL games, because he was in the NHL for the rest of the time. That’s a great turn for a player who hadn’t played any NHL games before this season. His advanced NHL metrics weren’t the prettiest, and he had a long scoring slump in the middle of the season, but Lafferty also flashed to show why he made it up the ladder.
The skill level of NHL players never fails to blow me away. Here, Sam Lafferty (6 career goals, 9:37 TOI/GP) sets up the shot by flaring wide with a series of crossovers, then shoots far-side in-stride. I wouldn't expect that from a top-line CHLer -- just another shot in the NHL. pic.twitter.com/QCi4o5ZTBT— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) March 27, 2020
Lafferty ended up with 13 points (6G+7A) in 50 NHL games, and proved that he can fill a 12th/13th forward role on a good team in the NHL. His days in the AHL might be over for now. Grade: big time rising
Kasper Bjorkqvist: After a major shoulder surgery last summer, Bjorkqvist unfortunately had a lost season in 2019-20 with just six AHL games played (1G+0A) before tearing his ACL which knocked him out with surgery. Tough age-22 season down the drain. We’ll see how he bounces back from the major injury. Grade: falling
Justin Almeida: See Drozg, but even worse considering it’s 37 ECHL games vs. 9 AHL games (1G+0A) for Almeida. The Pens took a shot on him in the fifth round of 2018 as an over-age player, but he hasn’t found a way to translate gaudy WHL scoring numbers into being a valuable pro. Grade: falling
Overall, this seemed like a “set the stage” year for the Pens’ minor leaguers. Bellerive and Bjorkqvist (and Joseph too for that matter) are all still important prospects but still more projects than immediate contributors. All will face critical seasons in 2020-21 that could define their paths as professionals in the Pittsburgh organization.