The 2023 version of the Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 countdown list continues with the first entry from Kyle Dubas’ drafting, in the form of a Finnish defender the Penguins will hope continues to grow and develop.
2023 Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25: Graduates and Departed
#25: Daniel Laatsch
#24: Cooper Foster
#23: Thimo Nickl
#22: Dillon Hamaliuk
#21 Mikhail Ilyin
#20: Jack St. Ivany
#19: Chase Yoder
#18: Emil Jarventie
#17: Nolan Collins
#16: Raivis Ansons
#15: Ty Glover
#14: Taylor Gauthier
#13: Isaac Belliveau
#12: Lukas Svejkovsky
#11: Tristan Broz
#10: Sergei Murashov
#9: Emil Pieniniemi
#8: Sam Poulin
#7: Jonathan Gruden, C/LW
2022 Ranking: #23
Age: 23 (May 24, 2000)
Acquired Via: Trade with Ottawa, October 2020 (with a second round pick for Matt Murray)
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 172 pounds
The Penguins haven’t had a lot of arrows pointing upwards lately when it comes to young pro level players developing, but quietly Jonathan Gruden has been standing out as a player that is bucking that trend.
Gruden completed a very successful age-22 season by increasing his AHL output to 31 points in 54 games and making his first appearance in NHL regular season games last year as a call-up.
Gruden profiles as a hard-working lower line player at the NHL level. He can and was put in a center role in Pittsburgh in his three games but can also work from the wing as well. His game is the classic type of energy, forechecking type of role - though he was heavily shielded (to the tune of only a couple shifts per game and an average of just 5:20 in icetime) he was credited with four hits, one blocked shot and one takeaway in his very limited introduction to NHL action.
A season-ending profile on WBSPenguins.com went into detail about the tenacity and determination of Gruden’s game:
“He gets a lot of his points around the net,” said Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest, before adding, “A lot of that is just pure determination.”
That determination is exactly what makes Gruden such an effective player for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He’s in the fight for every puck. He’s never backing down from blocking a shot, nor will he shy away from a scrum at the net-front (whether that’s backing up a teammate or providing the spark that starts the skirmish.) Frankly, Gruden’s dogged style is emblematic of the way Forrest likes his entire team to play.
This unceasing drive not only garners the trust of his coaching staff, but also the admiration of his teammates, both young and old.
“He kind of reminds me of myself when I was that age,” said Drake Caggiula. “Just a little pit bull running around, not afraid of anything.
“I hadn’t seen him play, obviously, prior to this (season), but I had a blast playing with him. Every time I was in a battle, I could look over my shoulder, and I knew he was right there with me.”
Beyond the effort and willingness to mix it up and compete, Gruden has started to stand out with the puck as well.
“I wanted the puck on my stick a lot more this year,” he said in the above WBS article. “I think I’ve just gotten a lot more comfortable with the puck. You know, carrying it, making plays.”
That was shown in his stat-line. Despite not appearing in 18 AHL games last year, he still finished fourth on the team in goals and sixth in points and fifth among forwards in points/game.
Becoming one of the better forwards on the team at the AHL level is a huge stride forward that opens some eyes and puts Gruden squarely in the hunt for organizational depth to be a call-up to Pittsburgh again in 2023-24. Since he can play center or wing and plays a perfect style for a fourth line, he checks a lot of boxes for what the Pens might be comfortable with in that situation. The fact he carries an NHL league minimum salary can only help too, since it won’t be an impediment to fit him in, assuming the team can fit anyone into their cap situation.
As such, Gruden makes the biggest leap from a player who appeared on the Pensburgh 2022 T25U25 to 2023. Last year he was deep organizational depth, this year he should be at the very least a key player for Wilkes and a realistic option to get more NHL games if he keeps displaying the form he showed last season.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have too many encouraging stories about positive development for youngsters at the AHL level in recent years, and while Gruden’s ceiling deserves a measured response for just how great it is, for him personally it’s nice to see him becoming a bigger piece of the puzzle and working his way up the ladder.