The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a tough spot with their prospect pool. Even calling it a “pool” might be a charitable notion at this point.
One on hand, sacrificing futures is a necessary function of feeding the win now mentality of a team that is in the playoffs and pushing to attempt to compete for championships in the late-stage of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Kris Letang era. An era that will be going on for at least the next three seasons, and possibly even longer.
The Pens have not made many first or second round picks in the last decade, and that shows when looking at the base of young talent they have in the organization. While general manager Ron Hextall has paid more than lip service about attempting to build the base of potential young talent in the organization for the future, he has still had to balance that against moves to bring in players like Rickard Rakell and Jeff Carter that has cost future assets.
This article is a kickoff to the summer feature where we will profile and rank the top players under 25 years old within the organization. Some will contend for NHL jobs as soon as now, others are deeper in the pipeline and will require a lot of patience and some good development luck and work by the player and organization to make it to the big show.
With Hextall now in his second year as Penguins’ GM, his influence is becoming clear throughout the organization. This year’s T25U25 will showcase that, with now almost half of the list coming from additions made by the still somewhat new-ish regime.
That means others from the previous days have cycled out. Some of this is natural, but other context involved shows just how much of a struggle it has been, and continues to be, for Pittsburgh to find enough promising material in the organization’s depth chart. Many other SB Nation hockey blogs also participate in almost identical T25U25 lists for their respective teams, and quite frankly the list and base of talent shows that different NHL clubs at different stages of their franchise’s “life cycles” are in very different places.
Related: Catch up on the previous years of the Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 Series here
The strength of the Penguins isn’t and won’t be their young players. It hasn’t been in quite some time, and realistically won’t be again for the better part of a decade while the current impetus of the team clearly remains with a goal to make the playoffs and try and compete for titles on a yearly basis.
There is a lot of turnover this year, with eight players from the 2021 Pensburgh T25U25 not appearing in this year’s list. Five of them came by way of not being offered contracts to stay, and a sixth player departed for Europe without much of a hit to the future plans at the NHL level either.
Graduates and Departed from 2021 Pensburgh T25U25
|2021 rank||Player||Reason ineligible||Notes|
|2021 rank||Player||Reason ineligible||Notes|
|24||Jan Drozg||Not qualified||Drozg's time with the Pens' organization ended with a loan to AHL Grand Rapids halfway through 2021-22 (he had 0G+1A in 15 games there) and is officially out of the organization now|
|23||Will Reilly||Not qualified||"Mr Irrelevant" in the 2017 NHL draft never found a real niche during two seasons with AHL Wilkes-Barre, wasn't given a qualifying offer as team decided to move on|
|22||Clayton Phillips||Not signed..yet||Pittsburgh is set to lose NHL rights from 2017 draft pick, who just finished up at Penn State. Phillips wasn't at the team's July prospect camp, and doesn't look like much of a prospect any longer|
|15||Kasper Bjorkqvist||Signed in Europe||Injuries derailed development for former second round pick, though extreme NHL absences allowed him a six game cameo with Pens in 2021-22. Instead of come back to an organization with an extreme uphill climb to make roster, Bjorkqvist elected to return to Europe for next two seasons|
|14||Jordy Bellerive||Not qualified||Bellerive never seemed to recover with his hand from major injuries after being burned in an accident in summer 2018. Pittsburgh opted to not qualify him after he scored just 8 goals in 72 games with AHL Wilkes last season.|
|13||Cam Lee||Not qualified||After four years of college and then the COVID fall out, it never quite worked for the now 25-year old Lee to get on track or above the AHL level. Pittsburgh opted to move on and not qualify him this summer after a 1 goal, 19 point season in 61 games with AHL Wilkes.|
|9||Calle Clang||Traded to ANA||The Pens do have some goalie prospect depth, and had to give Clang up in the deal to acquire Rickard Rakell in March. With Rakell re-signed, it looks like a solid use of the asset, even though Clang's future looks bright|
|1||John Marino||Traded to NJ||Despite being a decent second pair defender, Marino's offense in Pittsburgh stalled out and he was moved to the Devils in a recent deal to get a younger (and cheaper) defender in Ty Smith back|
There are always comings and goings at the bottom of the list, as player stocks rise and fall. Due to timing of contracts, several players without much NHL futures were cast out of the organization recently, with another in unsigned NCAA prospect Clayton Phillips looking on that path as well.
Much of the material above were either low round draft picks or unsigned free agents, players who were longshots from the get go that mostly never caught hold of a niche in the AHL, let alone showed much promise for advancement.
Of them all, the end to the sage Bellerive is one of most unfortunate developments. Despite recently turning 23, Bellerive has been around with the Pens almost forever as a prospect, signing with Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent after a training camp surprise in September 2017. As mentioned above, his pro path was hindered quite a bit by significant damage caused from burns he received in a fire many years ago, specifically to how his hand came out of that incident.
Although a big scorer in junior, he wasn’t very big for a center and spent the latter part of his days in Wilkes-Barre revamping as a two-way player with energy, grit and being a pesky player to get under the opponent’s skin. That wasn’t enough to earn another contract this summer, with the Pens opting to move on.
The biggest two losses to last year’s group of young talent came via trade. John Marino, who would be ineligible for 2022’s list anyways being as he turned 25 in May, was dealt to New Jersey for defender Ty Smith. Marino, as at least a steady second pair defender, will be a loss for the organization, but recouping him with a 22-year old former first round pick who has played two seasons in the NHL is a way to refresh the system and get younger. (The important piece on if Smith will pan out and help make the Pens eventually better in the future looms large and remains a question yet to be answered).
Calle Clang, along with Pittsburgh’s 2022-second round pick was shipped out west to the Ducks in the deal that brought scoring forward Rickard Rakell to the Pens. Clang is a very talented and promising goalie prospect, even though the variability of that does not always translate to NHL performance. Yet, if Pittsburgh is strong anywhere among young players, it would be in goal with Joel Blomqvist, Filip Lindberg and now the newly signed Taylor Gauthier all stocking the system for a nice crop of netminder talent within the organization that helps minimize the loss of Clang.