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Valtteri Puustinen: the Penguins Latest Surprisingly Successful Development Case

There’s another “Mark Donk” on the scene, and this one is generating excitement

NHL: MAR 11 Golden Knights at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Valtteri Puustinen became the latest “Mark Donk” type of Penguin sensation to come out of no where and make a positive impact in the NHL last night. In addition to recording an assist on a smart up ice pass to give a breakaway to Brock McGinn, Puustinen excelled in the advanced areas of the game against the Vegas Golden Knights as well.

There were encouraging signs in his game, like the way he called for the puck from John Marino on a 6v5 delayed penalty situation. Or some of the areas he found to settle in as play went on looking for a scoring chance (one such play resulted in a shooting misfire from a puck that rolled off his stick, otherwise we might have been talking about Puustinen’s first NHL goal).

None of that sounded like it would have surprised his coach. Here’s Mike Sullivan pre-game yesterday:

“He has a game that could play up and down the lineup. When you look at Puusty’s game his greatest strengths are his offensive instincts. His ability to finish, he can really shoot the puck. But for me that’s the area of the game where I think Puusty excels. If and when we do put him in the lineup, we’re gonna try to put him in a place where he can play to those strengths.”

After the game, Sullivan was just as pleased — perhaps even more effusive in his praise after seeing Puustinen play a solid game at the NHL level.

“I thought he played a real solid game,” Sullivan said. “His enthusiasm is contagious. He was so excited to play his first NHL game. To see that raw emotion, for me, is so great. He’s a really likable kid. We couldn’t be happier for him.”

Sullivan using words like “enthusiasm” and “emotion” stand out as positives. The Penguins are a veteran team (nice way to say old). Their average forward age is almost 30, with Puustinen (22) being 15 years younger than his center Jeff Carter (37). In fact, Puustinen is at least five years younger than all of the forwards in the lineup last night (save Danton Heinen, who is four years older).

Going through the slog and marathon of a season, it has to be nice for the players to see a younger guy come in, make his NHL debut, do well and obviously have fun to inject a little extra energy into the proceedings. Bryan Rust’s post-game comments reflected that excitement and general “breath of fresh air” feeling that Puustinen has added to the mix.

At the same time, a brake check or glimpse at the bigger picture is necessary too. Puustinen barely played over 10 minutes in the game, he only took one shift in what was a tight third period prior to “garbage time” where he picked up two more shifts in the game’s final minutes after the competitive portion of the night was over.

Puustinen isn’t likely to be asked to be a young Jake Guentzel, instantly playing on a top-line and getting a ton of opportunity. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t have chances — Puustinen was on the second power play group and Sullivan does look more interested in giving him perhaps a little more important roles than the typical Wilkes-Barre call up (which is always subject to change after the coach sees a decision or action he doesn’t like).

The journey to this point for Puustinen has been a unique one. He was passed over in two NHL drafts, the Penguins finally selected him in 2019 at the advanced age of 20, in part of the successful over-age strategy that former GM Jim Rutherford employed.

At this point, a tip of the cap to Rutherford and the scouting staff. In this day and age of scouting, there aren’t too many inefficiencies to attack or ways to out-smart the league. But drafting over-age players in later rounds is one such way, and probably no one has been as dedicated to that as Pittsburgh.

The draft pick looked like a solid one, as soon as it was made Puustinen sky-rocketed in his production and role in Finland for the powerhouse HPK club, becoming one of the top scorers and high-end players in the SM-liiga. Puustinen also has performed well in Wilkes-Barre this season, as their current leading scorer with 17 goals and 34 points in 53 games.

His time in the AHL was well served, the comments here from WBS coach J.D. Forrest about some of the specific intricacies of how a young player from Europe has to adapt and adjust to the stylistic changes to the North American game with everything from the strategy of less static forechecking schemes to small ice dimensions and then over to the physical nature of adding more conditioning and speed to succeed in the game is very illuminating.

Puustinen proved to be a fast study in the AHL, and gave a very positive impression in his first sighting in the NHL. He has advanced up the ranks quickly from being undrafted and off the NHL radar as recently as 2018 to now playing in the world’s top league with some of its best players impressed and happy to have his energetic vibe. Not bad for what will soon be seen in NHL circles as another “Pittsburgh overnight sensation” that has actually been years in the making with a careful scouting plan and the individual development of a player who has been on the uptick for several years.