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Checking in on P.O. Joseph’s AHL development

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The Penguins returned one of their most exciting rookies to the AHL on March 5. How has Joseph been developing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders
Pierre-Olivier Joseph takes a shot against the New York Islanders on Feb. 28, 2021.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When he was selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at 18 years old, Joseph received a similar critique from scouts and coaches alike: the 160-pound defenseman could skate, and he could stickhandle, but he needed to put on weight to play at the NHL level.

From living with a team nutritionist during his 2017-18 season with the Charlottetown Islanders to Wilkes/Barre-Scranton head coach Mike Vellucci saying in summer 2020 that Joseph’s main goal is to gain strength, Joseph has spent most of his journey to the NHL trying to bulk up.

These issues couldn’t stop the wiry blueliner from having a successful NHL debut back in March, when he racked up five points (1-4—5) in his first seven games as he eventually slotted into a first defense pairing alongside Kris Letang to replace an injured Brian Dumoulin. But growing pains began to show, as they often have this season for rookies thrust into the NHL without the benefit of the usual offseason and training camp timeline, and Joseph was sent back down to the AHL to re-join the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on March 5, 2021.

In 11 AHL games from March 6 to April 10, Joseph recorded six points (1-5—6). Let’s take a look at his performance through these 11 outings and see what we can pinpoint about the state of his development— and whether or not we should expect to see him return to the roster for the Penguins’ (hopeful) 2021 postseason.

What’s Already Good

Remember Joseph’s first NHL goal? It tied the first period of a road game against the New York Islanders on February 6, and it was a beauty. Joseph passed the puck up to Jake Guentzel, then caught Guentzel’s drop pass at the blue line. Spotting open ice between himself and the left circle, the defenseman wired a shot into the top right corner for his first Penguins tally.

If you have been watching the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins since Joseph’s return, you might have felt a sense of déjà vu on April 3, when Joseph scored the exact same goal against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. (The video below is set to the correct timestamp to see this twin goal, and Joseph is at the bottom left of your screen.)

Those two tallies are indicative of a pattern of Joseph’s. He generally stays glued to the point when the Penguins set up in the offensive zone— that is, unless he gets the puck and looks up to see a swath of open ice between himself and the face-off dot, in which case he is likely to skate up the side and either take a shot or dish a pass to the slot.

It’s a good tactic for a skater who can cover impressive distances with his long stride. The kind of speed he displayed in this highlight from April 10— when Joseph went end-to-end in overtime, outskating the Binghamton Devils before dishing to the slot for Jordy Bellerive to seal a 5-4 victory— proves that he can be quick enough, even at the NHL level, to justify an occasionally-risky pinch.

So far, we’ve seen the bright side of Joseph’s straightforward approach to defense. However, his less-developed skills are exposed when his efforts to keep the puck in the zone or to close off an opposing rush fail.

More often that not, those problems stem from exactly what scouts have been noticing since the 2017 draft: Joseph is still working on becoming a more intimidating physical presence on the ice.

What’s Still Developing

As we mentioned earlier, this has been a tough year for rookies in general. The abrupt start to the 2020-21 season has been challenging for nearly every freshman (unless, of course, your name is Kirill Kaprizov).

The biggest adjustment Joseph had to make was to the physicality of the NHL, which showed in his struggles to stifle opposing rushes like the one below.

When the Penguins visited Washington on February 23, Conor Sheary pushed the puck up the left side— where Joseph was waiting— to advance the Capitals up the ice. Joseph placed his body between Sheary and the puck, but was unable block the former Penguin from continuing the play. Sheary retrieved it unhindered and proceeded to score.

This is a weakness that has burned Joseph in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as well. Watch Joseph (he’s at the top left of your screen) on this zone entry by the Syracuse Crunch on March 19. He once again correctly gets his body between the puck-carrier and the net, but without a hit or a poke-check, it’s easy enough for the Syracuse skater to maneuver around Joseph and set up a goal.

We’ll likely never see bone-rattling, glass-shaking collisions from Joseph, but it would benefit his game hugely to be more aggressive against oncoming skaters. Adding well-placed hits to his already well-positioned defense could bring his game to the next level.

We know Vellucci is working with him on his strength. We know Joseph is well aware of where his game needs to develop. What remains to be seen is how quickly he can adapt his game to the strength level he now knows he’ll need to succeed in the NHL. Since being sent down, Joseph has been a staple on the first pair for Wilkes-Barre, giving him an excellent opportunity to gain experience and log more minutes and the pro level to continue his development as still a very young player at just 21 years old.

Fans may want to keep an eye on No. 57 in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as Pittsburgh’s regular season winds to a close to see how Joseph’s defensive play is progressing. With his NHL-level skating abilities and precise passing skills, the rookie could grow into the kind of stable presence at the blue line that the Penguins may need for another grueling postseason run in the form of depth this spring or a bigger role in the years to come.