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A sobering look at the shallow Penguin prospect pool

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They’re called “prospects” and not “sure things” for a reason..

NHL: JUN 28 Pittsburgh Penguins Development Camp Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A big area for the Penguins to address is the talent they have in the 18-23ish range of players. Developing prospect pipelines in hockey can take years to get in place, and Pittsburgh doesn’t have much in the way of promise now, as they’ve traded much away for shots at immediate glory in the late stages of their current window.

The pain is soon to follow, and reversing the trend is going to take a long time. Even in this month’s entry draft, the Pens have one selection in the first 150 picks of the event. And at 58th overall towards the end of the second round, it’s not in a prime position either.

A great new tool from JFresh and Top Down Hockey is a model that takes into account scoring at lower level and projects chances of players becoming NHL Star players, and then a little lower takes a shot at the odds they will play 200+ NHL games as an above average player.

Fans often get attached to prospects, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there also should be a realization or understanding that it’s long odds that the average prospect becomes Jake Guentzel or Brian Dumoulin. It’s a lot more likely they’ll end up as a Scott Harrington or Derrick Pouliot.

Let’s take a look at some of the most promising Pens’ prospects in this model (the first big red flag being that there aren’t even many good prospects available!)

It’s difficult to judge anyone too harshly over the shitshow known as the last 16 months on planet earth, but Samuel Poulin’s development in the Q never really popped off to levels that you would expect for a first round pick. He’s done fine and certainly hasn’t been a poor player, but he hasn’t really built himself into a consistent, steady scorer.

Like in 2019-20, when he was hot he was red hot scoring 32 points in a 12 game point scoring streak, aided by a massively impressive eight point game. The rest of the season he had 45 points in 34 games. This past year as a 19/20 year old he had just 31 points in 24 games, in context for an over-age player in the offensive-minded Quebec league that’s not quite what you’d hope to see. Poulin failed to make the Team Canada WJC team, getting beaten out by a slew of forwards drafted a year behind him.

With his big frame and all-around play, I’d expect Poulin to have a pretty good shot to play 200+ NHL games (though as a WAR positive player?) but we’ll see. Poulin has a lot of hype as the rare player the Pens draft in the first round and don’t trade, but really the last 18 months or so there’s not really a ton of positive signs from his development. Expectations — especially in the short-term — should be heavily tampered, if they’re there at all.

Another player with a big and generally favorable reputation is Nathan Legare. Legare has a massive shot that stood out in a development camp in Pittsburgh in 2019. His junior career also never really took off like it should have, though scoring 14 playoff goals in 15 games this spring was a nice coda for his time in Quebec.

There’s a lot of excitement for Legare, because the Pens pretty much have no other skilled wingers (besides himself and Poulin) that project to be any sort of point producers as pros. While many may hold Legare up as a right handed sniper and see shades of Daniel Sprong, the comparison I’ve made and keep coming back to is from a generation of player earlier. Decently sized but thicc, not the best skater but effective offensively and a RH guy from Quebec? There’s a lot of Michel Ouellet here. The only reason for excitement at this point is because there’s nothing else to get excited about...

Except..

It’s not a very big chance, but the models like Valtteri Puustinen as the player with the highest chance to become a NHL star player currently in the Pens’ organization. A seventh round pick from 2019, Pittsburgh found him from relative obscurity, but Puustinen has built up over the last two seasons into one of the best young scorers in the Finnish league.

Size is working against him and the transition to the smaller rink and North American style will be two big unknowns. However what Puustinen has displayed (hands, scoring touch, offensive instincts) are some areas that a player either has or doesn’t. We’ll see how much of that he’s able to bring with him, but this is a player to keep an eye on and hold out hope for the proverbial “winning lottery ticket” or “diamond in the rough” or whatever you want to call it.

In a convoluted way, P.O. Joseph could be considered a legacy member of the Pens’ drafting — being as they acquired Joseph for Phil Kessel (who himself was acquired for a 2016 first round pick). Whether you want to go that far or not, it’s very apparent that Joseph has the best chance of any non-NHLer in the Pens’ organization to establish himself as a good player. He showed flashes on the NHL stage and had a strong individual season on the first pair in Wilkes-Barre in their abbreviated year.

The big knock or question on Joseph was how much offense he would be able to generate at the pro level (after like Poulin and Legare never truly blossoming post-draft in the Q) but as a 21 year old putting up 12 assists and 13 points in 23 AHL games has to have one feeling a bit more encouraged in that regard.

The Pens’ prospect pool right now is about as dry as it can be, understandable under the circumstances and with what the franchise’s goals have been. But this will be an area in need of attention and a boost, and Ron Hextall’s reputation suggests he does a solid job of recognizing and collecting future assets. He’s got his work cut out for him with this organization.