With the Pirates calling up top prospects Endy Rodriguez and Quinn Priester for last night’s game and their first tastes at the top level, we got to wondering if the Penguins would follow suit with any candidates next season. (Hey, in mid-July you gotta take inspiration where you can get it).
We’ve done this before for the 2020 season, but this year’s exercise goes to show how thin the pipeline is. Decisions made on prospects and draft picks by NHL teams can take a handful of years to translate into NHL readiness, it’s a slow and long pipeline in most cases to turn prospects into NHL players. Given that Pittsburgh didn’t have first round picks in 2020 and 2021, it’s no surprise that they don’t have a very NHL-ready pipeline in 2023.
Last season, Sam Poulin (a 2019 first round pick) and Jonathan Gruden (a 2018 fourth rounder by Ottawa, acquired in the Matt Murray trade) made their NHL debuts for Pittsburgh. Both only appeared in three games a piece, and as a result of injuries necessitating their presence.
This upcoming year, well, there’s not much there. 2022 first round pick Owen Pickering is signed to an NHL contract, but due to his age will have to play again in the Western Hockey League if he doesn’t make the NHL. Given that he doesn’t seem particularly ready for even a brief tryout (players can appear in nine or less NHL games and not have their contract burn a season), and the fact the Pens’ blueline is very crowded - that probably isn’t in the cards.
Beyond that, the NHL readiness is a bleak picture. 2023 first round pick Brayden Yager is going to take a while yet to develop. 2019 draft pick Nathan Legare has failed to make much of an AHL impact. 2020 second rounder Tristan Broz remains unsigned and is still working at becoming one of the better players at the NCAA level.
The rest of Pittsburgh’s 2019, 2020 and 2021 draft classes are either low-hope, long-shot type of prospects who are either unsigned, have been traded or are out of the organization all together.
The exceptions are Valtteri Puustinen (who made his NHL debut in 2021-22 with a single game and hasn’t been seen since) and 2021 fifth rounder Isaac Belliveau, who will make his pro debut this year. Wilkes-Barre’s depth chart is very full after new signingse Ryan Shea, Will Butcher join holdovers in Taylor Fedun, Jack St. Ivany and Xavier Oullet and Thimo Nickl (AHL contract) and possibly a player like Mark Friedman who might not have room on the NHL roster. That adds up to Belliveau being closer to the ECHL than NHL in the immediate future.
With that in mind, as the organization stands today, the Pens don’t have any real candidates to play their first NHL game next season. There could always be a trade to bring in a young player still to be made this summer, or less like a John Marino situation where the Pens might find an August free agent who cuts the line to the show, but there are no truly known candidates to fit that rare build as of the moment.
The Penguins are and will remain the NHL’s oldest teams, with perhaps as many as 15 players over the age of 30. Help isn’t coming any time soon from brand new players — Pittsburgh will have to look to younger players like Drew O’Connor, Alex Nylander, Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Ty Smith to provide some of the youthful energy to their lineup.