A newcomer steps right in and right to the top of the annual Pensburgh Top 25 Under 25 listing of the top young players right now in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. It’s in part necessity due to the Penguins not having a very talented or deep pool of young players. When they stepped to the podium with the 14th overall pick this June, whoever it was probably figured to be the most valuable youngster in the organization based solely on the fact the Pens haven’t drafted so high in over a decade. It’s been even longer since Pittsburgh selected a player in the first round who profiled as a center-capable player (2007, Angelo Esposito).
So enter Brayden Yager, who now carries a bit more weight and burden to pan out, being as he’s the best hope for an impact player given his draft area in a very long time and since he’s skating into a pro pipeline that other than himself is currently almost completely devoid of high-end talent as a forward.
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
#6: Joel Blomqvist
#5: Valtteri Puustinen
#4: Ty Smith
#3: Owen Pickering
#2: Pierre-Olivier Joseph
#1: Brayden Yager, C
2022 Ranking: N/A
Age: 18 (Jan. 3, 2005)
Height/Weight: 6’0”/170 lbs.
Acquired Via: 2023 Entry Draft (Round 1, pick 14)
Yager was a player who turned heads in his pre-draft rookie WHL year by scoring 34 goals in 63 games as a 16/17 year old player. That type of goal-scoring ability stands out. Strangely enough, in the lead-up to his draft year, he found the net less (28 in 67 games), though did vastly improve and focus on his playmaking by doubling his assists from the previous year.
Yager was able to finish strong with six goals and 16 points in 10 WHL playoff games to end his year on an upward note to show he is among the best players in his league at what he does best.
After a first glimpse at Pittsburgh’s summer prospect camp, Director of Development Tom Kostpoulous was a believer in what he saw out of Yager:
“I was impressed,” Kostopoulos said. “First of all, just to get to know him. We got to know his family in Nashville and I think he had the whole town of Saskatoon there (laughs). But a great kid. Great family… He’s a special kid and to watch him out there I think he moves well and skates well… He’s got the hockey IQ.”
Here was Corey Pronman’s assessment of Yager in August 2023. Pronman also rated Yager as the top Penguin prospect at this time:
Yager is a player with a pro-style game. He plays with a lot of speed and energy and has the ability to carry pucks up the ice and make skilled plays with pace. He’s not the biggest center, but Yager plays hard, showing a commitment to making plays without the puck and winning a lot of battles even though he’s not overly physical. His main offensive weapon is his shot, which is high-end due to his great technique and accuracy, but he does have the slick hands and vision to beat defenses in other ways. He didn’t score goals this season like I thought he would with his shot, but I believe he will in future seasons. At his size, there will be questions about whether he’s an actual NHL center despite his skating and effort. I can see him as a quality top six forward though whether at center or the wing.
That scouting report likely fits closely to what the Pens saw and were seeking at No. 14. Per the strategy stated by Kyle Dubas, the scouts were hoping to roll the dice on a player with high-end skill, who could end up as a top-six forward in the best case scenario.
Yager offers that (and possibly was the pick over other options still on the table) with his shot and competitive drive. Yager can snap the puck and is a threat to score from distance, like in this clip below.
It hasn't been the demonstrably strong draft year we had hoped for from Brayden Yager. But the kid can still absolutely rip it.— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) March 23, 2023
He has 8 points in his last 4 games and 78 in 66 on the season. pic.twitter.com/paETYVaURY
The question now is how fast Yager can make his way up the ranks. A return to Moose Jaw for this season is almost assured, and the crew at The Athletic that tracks prospects closely figures that Yager should be in the mix to make Team Canada’s U20 World Junior team this winter. That makes 2023-24 a year of pure development in the near-term.
Publicly, Dubas and the Pens preached patience with the 2023 first round pick - even before it was made. Development and growth takes time. However, with the way the NHL is trending younger and younger, it doesn’t usually take a lot of time.
For instance, 12 of the first 14 picks from the 2021 draft have already played at least one NHL regular season game within two years of drafting. Five of those 12 have played less than 17 games - which is an important note to establish that these youngsters can be far from entrenched and established NHL players — but high picks do typically have the talent and opportunity to make moves quickly.
Go back to the 2020 draft and all 14 of the top-14 picks made have made their NHL debut at this point by draft+3. And with an extra season, 11 of those 14 players have appeared in 50+ games for their respective teams.
So while Pittsburgh won’t be in a rush and can’t push a player fast than he is ready up the ranks, if they made the pick in June that they hope they did, it could be a fast ticket through the ranks for Yager. Yager has been solid on faceoffs but is small for an NHL center, a shift to the wing at the pro level makes some sense at surface level to help fast track him for what he might be best able to supply via offense with the skilled centers the team should have in the next handful of years in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin days. Talent like what is on display in this highlight film speaks for itself.
Going by NHL drafts, it’s been since 2013 (Jake Guentzel) that Pittsburgh has drafted and developed a true top-six forward for themselves. That is way overdue for a course correction, and addressing that was Dubas’ first move as the general manager. Time will tell if the pick was the optimal one, but there is finally decent reason for actual excitement that the Pens have added an 18-year old forward who can put pucks in the net regularly at the highest level.