The summer Top 25 Under 25 lists, which will be wrapping up this week here on PensBurgh, are a snapshot of a moment in time. Fortunes for young hockey players can always be just a day, week or month away from being altered permanently. Sometimes with injuries it can be unfortunate twists of fate, but then some unexpected growth and positive changes can go the other way and help others surprise projections.
At this point, only time can tell exactly where the youngsters on this year’s list will end up. As of right now, we can track where players are trending or how their trajectories are looking, but the fun of hockey prospect watching is where the surprises come in. Diehard fans paying attention might have taken note when a mid-round pick like Jake Guentzel was producing well at the NCAA level at Nebraska-Omaha. Or maybe when he turned pro and was doing the same in Wilkes-Barre. By the time he burst on the scene and led the NHL playoffs in goals as a rookie in 2017, it was an overnight success story. Except it had been in the works for years, just beneath the surface.
Such is the journey we go on every year with lists like this. Even if it’s impossible to tell the Daniel Sprong’s from the Jake Guentzel’s, the journey and the ups and downs are what makes it fun.
With that in mind, we turn an eye back to the summer 2017 list from five years ago.
Where are they now: 2017 PensBurgh Top 25 Under 25
|25||Ryan Jones||Went unsigned by Pens, has played for two different AHL teams last two seasons|
|24||Thomas Di Pauli||Played four seasons with AHL Wilkes, and two NHL games with Pens in 2019-20, then out of hockey|
|23||Frederik Tiffels||Only played one year in North America, has been back in his native Germany playing last four years|
|22||Nikita Pavlychev||Known for being 6'7 and going to Penn State, Penguins didn't sign him and he's been mostly an ECHL player elsewhere|
|21||Jeff Taylor||Has bounced around ECHL/AHL for various teams as of late|
|20||Connor Hall||Concussions caused end to high-level playing career in 2018|
|19||Clayton Phillips||Just became a free agent last month, rights with Pens expired after uneven NCAA career lasted five years and two schools|
|18||Niclas Almari||Never got traction in the AHL, and loaned back to his native Finland last season as team and player moved on from each other|
|17||Kasper Bjorkqvist||Injuries hurt career, but finally got NHL debut with six games in 2021-22 with Pens, only to opt to sign in Finland for next season after future path looked closed|
|16||Anthony Angello||Ended up playing 31 career NHL games with PIT, but never quite made the full step up..Signed with STL this summer|
|15||Sam Lafferty||Revived career with new contract and 11 points in 46 games with CHI after losing momentum and getting traded from Pens in Jan 2022|
|14||Adam Johnson||Appeared in 13 NHL games with PIT pre-pandemic, has bounced around AHL and other organizations ever since|
|13||Dominik Simon||Two polarizing stints with PIT as good but unproductive forward ended in 2022, currently a free agent|
|12||J.S. Dea||Undrafted player the Pens helped get to near NHL quality (33 career games, 9 with PIT), now a very good AHL veteran/fringe NHLer in AZ org.|
|11||Zachary Lauzon||Concussions caused end of playing career for former second round pick (2017) in 2018|
|10||Josh Archibald||Left Pittsburgh in 2017 to find he could fill NHL niche in AZ and EDM saw multi-10+ goal seasons, now back with Pens as free agent signing for 2022-23|
|9||Teddy Blueger||Long, steady development path took a lot of patience, but has paid off with a very solid NHL caliber center|
|8||Filip Gustavsson||Involved in Brassard trade to OTT, up and down career with Sens ended with trade to MIN this summer (to his old pal Bill Guerin). A case study in not counting goalie prospects til they hatch|
|7||Derrick Pouliot||Has been more an AHL player than NHL player since 2019, but keeps popping up in NHL in various cameos in strange places (VGK for two games, SEA for nine in 2021-22)|
|6||Zach Aston-Reese||Undrafted player gave 213 NHL games to Pens (but only 29 goals)�Now a free agent and analytic darling, but with frustrating baggage offensively|
|5||Tristan Jarry||Has served as Pens' top goalie last two years, with promise but still awaiting post-season success|
|4||Daniel Sprong||Very real offensive talent hasn't totally translated on ice, 25-year old has been in and out four organizations (PIT, ANA, WSH, SEA) and now is free agent|
|3||Olli Maatta||Quietly revived career in LA, signed with DET for 2022-23. Never quite the same after injuries, but does have 534 NHL games under his belt|
|2||Jake Guentzel||Two-time 40 goal scorer in a season is a legit All-Star, franchise center-piece as a top line forward who can be counted on to produce goals, points|
|1||Matt Murray||An up and mostly down Ottawa stint ends with trade to Toronto, where pressure will be on to finally live up to his 2016 and 2017 days|
The peaks were short for Maatta and Murray as elite youngsters, but coincidentally both are hanging around and on new teams for 2022-23. (And in Murray’s case, some super-high hopes and expectations as Toronto’s top goalie). Both of those players can tend to draw a negative reaction for what happened after 2017, perhaps unfairly considering Murray posted a .919 save% in 50 games in 2018-19. It wasn’t totally over for him by that point.
That summer the Penguins had to say goodbye to Marc-Andre Fleury via the expansion draft, and with Murray and Tristan Jarry as young options coming up through the ranks, most figured they would be in good hands. Turns out they ended being OK with a young goalie taking over — it probably just wasn’t the goalie that most would have expected in 2017 (Murray) becoming the long-term answer in Pittsburgh.
As mentioned above, while the goalie rises and falls are attention-worthy, it’s the forwards that really draw my eye in. In 2017 it was apparent Guentzel was on a star path but even for Jake it wasn’t a smooth, straight line of progression to the top — lest we forget , he “only” scored 22G+28A in 82 games in 2017-18 in his first full NHL season. That was not as good as his debut in 2016-17 or as much as he would improve shortly thereafter.
The cases of Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese speak to the “moment in time” area of these rankings. Sprong was finishing up his Quebec junior career, Aston-Reese had just turned pro and scored eight points in 10 AHL games. Sprong had the higher ceiling, by far, but Aston-Reese was the better bet to be an NHL contributor in a lower capacity.
In essence, Sprong was a bust (traded for Marcus Pettersson as his most lasting value to the Pens) and Aston-Reese did become that NHL regular for years to come. But in 2017, Sprong carried more promise and the potential to make a bigger impact, if not already some questions about whether he could live up to it. Such is always the debate in a list like this, with only the future that’s still to play out to give the answers.
As usual, players who are in the No. 15-25 range don’t usually end up anywhere close to the NHL beyond training camps, Mostly they’re can even be more on the ECHL side than advancing to the AHL level for very long. That’s something to keep in mind for a trend that will almost surely hold for the Pens’ recent lists when it comes to look back on them in a few years, given the state of still how few high draft picks have been around.
There is also the sobering realization that only four players who appeared on the summer 2017 list will be in Pittsburgh in 2022-23: Guentzel, Jarry, Blueger and Archibald. Even then Archibald, he went away from Pittsburgh for the majority of the last five years, and only signed as a fourth line level free agent on a relatively cheap deal.
That also goes to show the flurry of activity and volatility of being a young hockey player — to steal the football saying, it’s typically “not for long” to stay in one place for an extended time, unless the best case scenarios hit of players like Guentzel and Jarry (or Bryan Rust and Brian Dumoulin before them).
With results like that, it’s clear the attrition rate of prospects becoming NHL mainstays is very high. It’s a small needle to thread for a prospect to be good enough to continue advancing up the ranks, and also not happen to be traded or waived. Then again, for players like Archibald and Sam Lafferty (and even J.S. Dea) — sometimes moving organizations is the exact best thing to happen to get a fresh start and new opportunity.
Projecting prospects’ futures is almost as challenging as drafting them in the first place, but the fun along the way is seeing the journey of which player’s stocks rise and witnessing the other many more that invariably fall.