In 2021, Cody Ceci entered Pittsburgh as something of a professional pariah on a one-year contract for a relatively low amount. His career was fast-tracked with Ottawa, but then was stuck in neutral. Fast forward to the end of the season, Ceci was playing the third most minutes of any Penguin defender and seen as a key, steady piece for the team. He would parlay that success and go on to sign a four-year, $13 million contract with Edmonton.
Last year, it was Danton Heinen’s turn for a surprise turn for the better with the Pens. Unqualified by Anaheim, Heinen was unsigned on the first day of free agency and somewhat quietly slid into Pittsburgh on a one-year deal. At the end of the season, Heinen scored 18 goals — 15 at 5v5 play. That’s the same number at full strength as Sidney Crosby. Not bad at all.
Surprises don’t always have to come off the scrap heap of free agency or be career rejuvenations, but it’s seemed to follow that course lately for the Pens. They haven’t had a young player come on board and stand out and carve out a major niche in a while, which may or may not continue again in 2022-23.
This year there doesn’t look like obvious candidates to surprise, then again that could be the whole point of surprises. If you could see it coming, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
If Kasperi Kapanen channels the right mindset/approach to his game, gets confident and starts hot, it’s not going to be a surprise if he’s back around 20 goals and 40 points. If Pierre-Olivier Joseph makes the team (in no small part since the Pens can’t send him to the minors without putting him on waivers) and he ends up finding a niche and spot in the lineup, that won’t truly be much of a surprise. A welcome development? Sure. But it’s a fairly likely scenario that could play out. If Josh Archibald finds a groove and chips in 10+ goals, it might be a surprise if you compare that to the fringe prospect who was with the Pens from 2014-17, but it would be in-line with what he’s regularly done (before a dreadful season to forget last year).
With all that said, do the Pens have any actual surprise candidates? It could be Ryan Poehling, if he shifts to be a winger and finds a full-time NHL role and does well, that would be a step in the right direction for his career and pretty surprising, given all the options and competition around.
Similarly, if Drew O’Connor or Radim Zohorna finally put it together and show why many in the organization are high on them, that actually might be a surprise now in the wake of Pittsburgh bringing in names like Heinen, Poehling and Archibald that could be blocking the younger wave out.
Down the line, it’s unlikely, but a solid NHL showing at some point this year for Sam Poulin would be a welcome surprise. The 2019 draftee is still just 21, but it’s tough to ignore that all but six of the 31 players drafted in the first round that year have already made an NHL regular season appearance. Poulin hasn’t, but all 20 players before him have, as have three of the next four picked immediately after him. These days in the development world where the NHL loves youth and young players are getting more physically ready for the big leagues at earlier ages, it tends to “get late pretty early” as the great Yogi Berra once said.
Valtteri Puustinen was Wilkes-Barre’s leading scorer in his first season in North America last year. He’s been productive everywhere he’s been. That includes an infinitesimally small one point in one game sample size in the NHL. Yet due to all the names above that are on that cut-off for the NHL roster, Puustinen’s name is rarely mentioned as a player who will have much of an opportunity to make a mark. Given his offensive gifts, and the fact he’s already been successful at the AHL level, it would seem like the opportunity is all Puustinen would be lacking to get a chunk of NHL games and possibly make a name for himself more broadly in the hockey world.
The Penguins surely expect 18-year old Owen Pickering, their 2022 first round pick, to need some seasoning before he’s ready to compete at the NHL level. He’s growing into his 6’4 body and still needs the experience of playing more and gaining game action. But any time a first round pick is in camp, there’s always the chance the skill and talent that put them on the map could click in. Would should we count on it to happen in 2022? Absolutely not. Would we be surprised? Oh yeah. Well, that’s the point. Pickering isn’t going to play 80 NHL games, but could he potentially play himself into a nine game tryout and get re-assigned before burning the first year of this contract? It’s a crazy notion to ponder in August, but not an impossible one.
Goaltending is also another spot where surprise players can pop up. Sadly, a November injury pretty much made 2021-22 a lost season for Filip Lindberg. That’s a shame, he’s a player with talent and has a bright future. That immediate future doesn’t figure to include NHL playing time so soon, but then again we’re in a world where Louis Domingue and Alex D’Orio dressed as the Pens’ two goalies for multiple playoff games, so who’s to say what the future holds? It would likely require an injury to see Lindberg — possibly even two since Pittsburgh has Dustin Tokarski around as a veteran depth option — but a goalie getting an unexpected and unforeseen chance to play in the NHL is a fairly regular occurrence.
With that in mind, let’s talk surprises. Players like Kapanen and Heinen or Jason Zucker playing up to their potential or avoiding injury to do it isn’t going to be a surprise if it happens. Let’s go more off the radar than that. Make a case if anyone is missing or for why you call your surprise shot early.
Who will be the biggest positive surprise performance for the Penguins in 2022-23?
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