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Will Penguins continue undrafted free agent success with Ron Hextall?

Restocking the organization comes in many forms. Looking into the goalies that could help

COLLEGE HOCKEY: MAR 22 Hockey East Championship - Boston College v UMASS Photo by Michael Tureski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a goalie problem this spring in the NHL playoffs. They have another problem too: they only have three goaltenders (Tristan Jarry, Casey DeSmith, Alex D’Orio) signed to NHL contracts for the 2021-22 season.

The organization badly needs more talent, and young talent too. Fortunately for them, there are two incredible options popping onto the unrestricted free agent market.

The first would be UMass goalie Filip Lindberg. He just won the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh a few months ago, so the team should be well aware of Lindberg’s prowess.

The Finnish netminder had a .949 save% this season, he was a former seventh round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2019, but was unable to reach a contract agreement with the Wild and will be free to sign with any NHL team on July 28th. The Wild have a solid young goalie in Kaapo Kahkonen in the NHL, as well as 2019 second rounder Hunter Jones, so it’s pretty understandable why that situation isn’t the best for Lindberg to dive into, when the choice is up to him as to what organization he wants to join.

There is also another marquee option for the Penguins and the NHL that will test free agency as well.

Petruzzelli has an even higher profile with being a relatively high third round pick with the prototypical 6’5 NHL goalie build and a strong senior season at Quinnipiac on his resume.

The sun will still rise in the east on July 29th if Pittsburgh is unable to sign either of these two goalies, but in an ideal world it makes a lot of sense that they should pursue either Lindberg or Petruzzelli to join Wilkes-Barre next season on an entry level contract.

For one, the team need is obvious in the short-term. The Pens have intriguing European prospects in 2020 draftees Joel Blomqvist and Calle Clang, but both are still teenagers with unknown, and likely longer-term prospects to join the organization.

Developing and grooming goaltenders takes a long time, a player like Jarry was drafted in 2013 and didn’t graduate to the NHL full-time until the 2019-20 season.

Who will be the Pens’ goalie in 5 years? Or even 3 or 4 years down the road? Right now, the answer is a huge unknown, there’s no one in the organization who likely has any sort of chance to be ready for even the near-future.

To answer that question of the longer-term, Pittsburgh desperately needs one of the top amateur 21-22 year old goalies in the world, which Lindberg and Petruzzelli both provide. It’s no guarantee that either will eventually be the answer, but the team’s organizational depth chart gets a lot better by adding a talented youngster.

This summer’s college UFA crop is also uncharted territory since it’s the first for Ron Hextall with the Penguins. In the past, whether it’s been Ray Shero (and Jason Botterill) or Jim Rutherford (and Bill Guerin), the Pens have made a killing on filling needs and growing young college FA’s. Everyone from Conor Sheary to Zach Aston-Reese to Ben Lovejoy and Carter Rowney have come from being college FA signings. Others like Cam Lee and Josh Maniscalco remain in the pipeline as potential future NHL contributors.

The Pens have an especially proud history of developing goalie college FA signings. Current backup Casey DeSmith joined the team that way. So too did John Curry, Eric Hartzell and Brad Thiessen, as did Jeff Zatkoff (though he joined the LA organization first). Not all of those players have gone onto glorious careers, but all have at least been worth looks and helped out at the AHL level.

In many ways, the Pens have needed to unearth gems like the above names to replenish their system and overcome the trading of draft picks. It makes for a natural sales pitch for young players — “come be the next Sheary or DeSmith. You know we have the opportunity open and we send a lot of people in your situation to the NHL!” It’s worked for years.

Seeing how or if Hextall is able to carry on this tradition and convince talented college players to join the Pens won’t be the most important or second most important decision or activity on his off-season checklist. Far from it. But it still will be quite the telling one to see how the organization is able to position themselves for the future if they remain a primary choice for free agent goalies like Keith Petruzzelli and Filip Lindberg.