Last summer we wrote a fun article “Which players could make their NHL career debuts with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019-20?” which boiled down to:
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.
We listed eight candidates, and the bottom line proved to be true that only two players made their NHL season debuts for the Penguins: Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello. A third player, John Marino, came out of no where to make his NHL debut after not needing any AHL time at all. A fourth, Thomas Di Pauli, played two games, which required a historically bad injury year to get the opportunity that he otherwise wouldn’t have gotten without the Pens’ medical room being so full for so long.
It’s always interesting to see which young players rise and fall. Lafferty is doubtlessly on the upswing with his standing in the organization, even if he’s probably not worthy of the hype train that sometimes gets associated with his uptempo style. Angello too has a good shot at making the NHL roster next season.
Then there are others that don’t pan out. European UFA signing Oula Palve was a top player in Finland, but barely made a mark in the AHL, let alone came anywhere close to the NHL roster. Palve was quietly traded mid-season and finished out the season with Dallas’ AHL club and then signed with a Swedish team for 2020-21.
Another unseen, unfortunate development was youngster Kaspar Bjorkqvist having his season derailed with more injuries and preventing any chance of a shot at the NHL while rehabbing from a major knee surgery in a year when he was coming off a major shoulder injury. The former second round pick is now 23 years old and still has a lot of proving himself to do, with only six professional games under his belt in North America.
What about this year?
The Pens said they want to get younger, which could be music to the ears of hungry players in the minors who might get more opportunities to push for NHL playing time. However, some changes are still necessary, and certainly going to happen. Pittsburgh has 9 NHL forwards under contract next season, and five more are restricted free agents. They have 6 defensemen under contract for next year as well.
But after a disappointing off-season exit, changes will be coming to open up room for young players. The other big issue, is that Rutherford might have to find new, young talent, because Wilkes-Barre isn’t exactly brimming with NHL caliber players right now. We’ve seen efforts for this, including recently, when the Pens’ signed undrafted collegiate player Josh Maniscalco.
Here’s the players that are most likely to make their NHL debuts in 2020-21 for the Pens.
Joseph is definitely Pittsburgh’s best professional prospect right now. The tall, lanky defenseman got some seasoning in his first professional season in 2019-20, playing 52 games with WB/S. It’s a shame the shutdown happened, as Joseph was playing his best hockey as the year went on — including 2G+6A in the last month (13 games) of the season.
Joseph is still only 21, and still younger than similar players and builds like Marcus Pettersson and Brian Dumoulin when they made their respective NHL debuts. That said, the Pens really need a viable defense option behind Dumoulin and Pettersson. Joseph probably will get a look sooner than later to see if he’s ready to perform.
Don’t sleep on Drew O’Connor. He’s big, can skate, has a nose for the net and knack for scoring goals. That’s a great combination. As TSN said:
The ECAC’s Co-Player of the Year has sprouted into a can’t-miss find. O’Connor was just 5-foot-8 at age 18, a big reason he wasn’t on NHL radars in his draft year, but has grown to 6-foot-3 while playing for the appropriately named for the Big Green. NHL teams have flocked to watch O’Connor, who they see as a legitimate NHL power forward prospect with a nose for the net. His 38 goals (in 68 games) are the third most in the country over the last two seasons – with a 16 per cent shooting percentage this season – but his overall game has grown as much as his body
If the Pens are serious about turning to youth, building an uptempo fourth line with some young players would be a good start. Kinda like the salad days of the Tom Kuhnhackl - Matt Cullen - Bryan Rust fourth line in 2016. A line like O’Connor - Evan Rodrigues - Lafferty would increase team speed and add some new elements. That would be pretty fun.
The Pens speak of O’Connor as if they think he will be in the NHL sooner than later. We’ll see how his transition to the pros goes, that’s always an unknown, but O’Connor really should play in the NHL in 2020-21 at some point if he holds up his end of the bargain.
The John Marino factor is real. The Pens also don’t have much for depth as far as right handed defensemen go, even though Chad Ruhwedel is still under contract. We’ve written a lot about Maiscalco here, and it all holds. He’ll have the opportunity to shoot for the sky, just like Marino did last season.
Some others candidates to make NHL debuts:
Sam Poulin: after practicing with the NHL team in Phase 3 (though limited by being kept off the ice for a full week by a secondary exposure issue), Poulin didn’t make the Pens’ 31-player roster from the bubble. He’s only 19 and would have to be assigned back to the Quebec league in 2020-21 if he doesn’t make the NHL. Based on this summer, he’s not all that close to cracking the NHL roster.
Bjorkqvist: It would be nice to see him stay healthy and work his way into the picture. Let’s hope!