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2022 NHL Draft: Centers of attention for the Penguins

Could the Pens be looking towards the middle of the ice for their first round pick?

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2022 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

We’re only two days away from the start of the NHL draft, which begins on Thursday night and continues on Friday. As part of the meandering series of NHL draft previews on Pensburgh, here’s some of the previous work to get up to speed about the upcoming entry draft:

-The NHL’s legendary 2003 draft class
-Examining possible US National team products for Pittsburgh at pick 21
-Logan Cooley is raising the bar for Western PA hockey players
-Ron Hextall’s historical first round drafting tendencies
-A decade review of when Pittsburgh hosted the 2012 NHL draft
-The “higher risk, higher reward” candidates in the 2022 first round
-The Penguins could really use a prospect boost defensively
-2022 SBN Mock Draft: Pensburgh selects Ivan Miroshnichenko for the Penguins at No 21 overall
-Looking back over the years at Pensburgh’s performance in mock drafts

We all know the Penguins have major needs all over their system as far as young talent goes. They really can’t go wrong in the first round, no matter what direction they go in, as far as adding a high-end prospect.

Center could be a great spot for the Pens to look — they haven’t drafted what projects to be an NHL center in the first or second round since all the way back in 2012 (not counting picks like Tristan Broz and Filip Hallander that have slid over to the wing at higher levels). That was Teddy Blueger. Before him, it was Jordan Staal as the previous high Pittsburgh center draft pick.

Having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for all these years has meant the Pens had no room or need for high-end centers and could focus more on wingers and defenders — where they have spent almost all of their high draft picks in the Crosby era.

But times are changing now, and since hockey picks can take two or three years to make up the ranks, it is time to re-emphasize center picks again. Arguably even past time to address the issue now, being as Crosby turns 35 this summer, Malkin is a free agent with an uncertain future, Blueger has one year left before free agency himself, and Jeff Carter is also long in the tooth.

At pick No. 21 this week, here are who the Pens could be looking at, if they decide that the center position is what they want to address.

Nathan Gaucher

Bob McKenzie (TSN) Ranking: 28
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) Ranking: 23
Sportsnet Ranking: 22

Gaucher is considered something of a “safe” pick, but with the trade-off of likely not having a tremendously high ceiling. This probably isn’t going to be a top line player or one of a NHL team’s leading scorers in the future. But at 6’3 and 207 pounds, he offers a big body and is a good compete level.

Pronman wrote of Gaucher that he, “is a physical player which allows him to win a lot of puck battles. Gaucher creates a lot of offense around the net due to his physical tools. He’s a responsible two-way player who can PK well. Offensively he’s not flashy, but he has the hands to make plays inside the offensive zone”.

Style-wise he has been compared to an Adam Lowry-type, maybe even a David Backes if you squint, though I tend to doubt there is a 30-goal, 60-point NHL season in his future.

If the Pens want a reliable player with size, physicality and are willing to trade off on a huge offensive talent, Gaucher would make a lot of sense to consider at pick number 21.

Noah Ostlund

Bob McKenzie (TSN) Ranking: 22
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) Ranking: 40
Sportsnet Ranking: 19

Sportsnet wrote that Ostlund, “gained a lot of steam with a dominant performance in the U18 worlds. A determined player motivated even when without the puck”. Ostlund is a pass-first center with a fairly weak shot, but is a good player in transition and well-rounded. In a way, Ostlund sounds like a mix of Blueger and Hallander as far as his style and skill-level, but perhaps with a touch better skating and energy levels.

Opinions vary on Ostlund’s potential, as you could guess from the rankings, Sportsnet sees him projecting to have a potential top-six ability one day, but an analyst like Pronman calls him a bottom-six player.

At 5’10 and 162 pounds, Ostlund has a lot of physical development to do before he will be ready for the NHL, but his two-way game and recent success makes him look like a pretty good bet for some team towards the back-end of the first round.

Luca Del Bel Belluz

Bob McKenzie (TSN) Ranking: 29
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) Ranking: 25
Sportsnet Ranking: 26

Del Bel Belluz scored 76 points in 68 OHL games last season, making him one of the most productive draft-eligible players this year. He is a very skilled center who scored 12 power play goals in 2021-22 and was able to harness the time and space to create offense.

Physical development will again be something to watch, Sportsnet called him “light on his skates” and others cited that ineffectiveness in skating and strength might be a limiting factor in the pro levels. At 6’1, 180, he should have a good frame to continue that development.

The intrigue for the Pens and Del Bel Belluz would be that added offensive upside. By pick 21 it can be difficult to find incredibly skilled players who could be impressive point scorers at the NHL level. Del Bel Belluz offers that profile for the team that likes him enough to be that he is able to round out his game in the years to come.