The 2020-21 hockey seasons around the world are winding down this time of year, with the exception of the NHL which still has about 20% of the season plus playoffs to go. As the world continued to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, it was the most weird and uneven season ever, filled with late starts, some stoppages and overall different than normal.
So, in a way, the Penguins will be affected less than other teams. Most prospect observers put Pittsburgh about 28th - 31st in overall NHL team rankings for young pools of talent. The Pens have traded away many young high draft picks and players over the last five years, ripping away most the high-end talent of their future.
Still, it’s never really good to not have a fresh pipeline of talent on the horizon, and that will be a major issue that is on the forefront of general manager Ron Hextall’s mind as he shapes the team. Unlike Jim Rutherford, Hextall is a manager that prioritizes the draft and gives a lot of value to creating young talent. Hextall did not trade Pittsburgh’s second round pick at this deadline, and still has a first round pick in 2022 in the future to work with.
Let’s take a gander around the world to check out how the prospects from last year’s Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 list did this year.
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 12 games, 3 goals, 8 assists
Pittsburgh (NHL): 8gp, 2G+2A
All the injuries to the Pens gave an opportunity for Zohorna to make his NHL debut. He’s only averaged 9:02 in NHL games, mainly on the fourth line, but was able to showcase his hands and a surprising bit of skating ability to go along with the natural talents of a 6’6, 220 pound frame. Zorhona really isn’t young anymore, he turns 25 later this month, but his NHL cameo and AHL production has lent credence that he could be a full-time NHL roster player next season. He might not have a high ceiling, but certainly was a great find and signing by Pittsburgh as he was almost totally off the NHL radar.
North Dakota (NCHC): 26 gp, 4G+7A
Caulfield completed his sophomore season at the NCAA level and continues to be a long-term prospect that will need one more season in college, if not both remaining years of his eligibility. He’s been a good lower line player at every level he’s been at, including NCAA, but there are real questions about if he will have the all-around ability to continue to do that at the pro levels.
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 17gp, 2G+2A
Reilly’s debut professional season was this year, and probably hampered big time by not being at 50-60 AHL games right now. He turns 24 this summer and while he looks decent enough on a lower pair for Wilkes, it remains to be seen how much more growth the Pens are really going to get out of him. As the very last pick in the 2017 draft, he has quietly and slowly been consistently taking small steps forward in his progression. A best case scenario for him (albeit with a different style of play) would be a Deryk Engelland type career where he slowly finds his way up the ranks and continues to keep developing.
Ljubljana (AlpsHL): 7gp, 7G+10A
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 20gp, 5G+2A
Drozg stayed busy playing and dominating a few games in a very low-level league and then came over to the AHL when that season begun. At 22 he has some skill and scoring ability, but he hasn’t been a game-breaker in the AHL. Still, he split time in ECHL/AHL in 2019-20 and now is an AHL lineup regular, so this year was a small step forward for Drozg. He’s got a long way to go, though, before being any sort of NHL option.
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 14gp, 1G+2A
A disappointing season for Miletic, who seemed like he could have been on the verge of making a jump to at least being in the NHL picture but was never tabbed to do so. As a free agent this summer, his time in the Pens organization could be at its end.
Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL): 14gp, 9G+9A
Svejkovsky ranked third on his team in goals and fifth in points while missing two games in an abbreviated WHL season. It would have been great to see the 2020 fourth round pick get more games and experience in his age-19 season, but that’s a boat that every prospect in the world is also in right now.
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 22gp, 2G+5A
The soon-to-be 21 year old played in his third different league in three seasons (NCAA, OHL, and now AHL) and did well to be an “every game” AHL player at a young age this season at a very young age. Gruden wasn’t a big part of WB/S this year, but being there and getting a crack at it is probably all you could expect given the circumstances.
Pelicans (SM-liiga): 28gp, 1G+6A
The pandemic kept Almari in his native Finland all season, playing a fairly decent role on a good team over there. That might have been a good thing, being as WB/S had P.O Joseph, Cam Lee and Kevin Czuzcman on the left side this season. Almari is under contract with the Pens again next season and should be back, and the clock is probably ticking a bit louder on his NHL future next year for his age-23 season.
Penn State (Big 10): 20gp, 2G+5A
Phillips completed his second season at Penn State, and his fourth at the NCAA level this season. He will take advantage of an NCAA rule allowing him a fifth season of college hockey for 2021-22. He’s still a pretty young player, doesn’t turn 22 until September. The Pens retain Phillips’ NCAA rights until August 2022, so he will be a candidate to sign next March when his Penn State season ends, or if he wants he can elect to not sign with Pittsburgh and become an unrestricted free agent and pick his own NHL organization next August.
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 19gp, 8G+4A
Bellerive started out really hot in the AHL but has cooled. He’s spent a few days on the NHL taxi squad and is currently tied for the WB/S team lead in goals. Bellerive has done well to take a step forward into being one of the team’s better forwards this season, and he’s still relatively young turning 22 next month. He’s under contract for one more year in 2021-22 with the Pens in what will be a crucial season for his future in the organization.
Wilkes-Barre (AHL): 2gp, 1G+1A
Pittsburgh (NHL): 19gp, 2G+2A
Angello has been trying to carve out a niche on the NHL fourth line being a physical forward. It’s been working, he’s seventh on the team in hits (and first in hits/60!) and he was playing some pretty good hockey before he got injured, like so many other of his teammates. Angello has a one-way contract that pays him $750,000 next year, so at this point he looks like a good bet to be at least the 13th forward on the NHL Pens for 2021-22, barring any trade or re-shaping from the new GM.
KooKoo (SM-liiga): 44gp, 11G+15A
After missing most of the 2019-20 season, Bjorkqvist did well to stay healthy and get a full year in over in Finland. He finished fourth on his team in goals and points. Bjorkqvist is at something of a crossroads now, he will be a restricted free agent this summer, where he also turns 24. Will the Pens want to keep him? They don’t have much else in the organization, but the new regime will have to answer that question.
Kristianstads IK (Hockey Allsvensken): 32 games, 13-19 record, 2.46 GAA, .919 save%
Clang had a strong season. He played on the worst team in the second level of Sweden (think basically the AHL version of Swedish hockey from a North American perspective) but stood on his head throughout the year. Clang was often shelled and playing in front of an overmatched team that only won two games when he didn’t play this year, according to our pal Jesse Marshall.
Clang won MVP of the league for his efforts. A lot was made (mostly negatively) about the Penguins using second and third round picks on goaltenders in 2020, but for Clang’s part he certainly justified the pick in draft+1 with a great year. He’s still 18 and well away from competing in North America, but has only improved his stock as a very promising young netminder in Sweden.
Clang was voted MVP of the Swedish 2nd division of hockey this year for his efforts in net. Here is a photo of him accepting his check during the presentation. Spent the majority of the year under siege and put up a phenomenal effort. pic.twitter.com/ycx6t58oSt— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) March 16, 2021
Since this is already getting pretty long, we’ll put a cap on it here. Part II tomorrow of the #1-12 young players in the organization with their 2020-21 season updates.