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Monday Musings: How much will Puljujarvi help; rise of Ilyin

Reilly Smith is back at practice, which gives some very interesting middle lines of forwards for the Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Random thoughts on a Monday while we wait for Penguins hockey to pick back up with a game tomorrow...

Puljujarvi a boost or more of the same?

The Penguins signed Jesse Puljujarvi yesterday.

This quote from Kyle Dubas was interesting:

“I’m not looking at him to come in and provide massive offense,” Dubas said. “He’s shown that he can play up with top players - particularly in Edmonton in the past. But for me, it’s his ability to get on the forecheck, get to the net, disrupt the defense of the other team when they’re going back on the puck, and then get to the net and really start to get under the skin of people. I think that’s when he’s at his best.”

In a sense, Puljujarvi is another piece of the misfit toys Dubas has been collecting around the bottom of the roster. Grab John Ludvig and Jansen Harkins off waivers to get a look at a relatively young player without having to pay any sort of acquisition price to see how it goes. Hell, even the Valtteri Puustinen experiment has seen the Penguins give a chance to a player who was buried in their organization as nothing beyond depth, save an appearance in one singular NHL game back in March 2022. Puljujarvi doesn’t come much differently from some of those cases in the theory to try and dig up and give a low-risk chance to a new face, and that’s not meant derisively.

The reason Dubas isn’t expecting a lot of offense is because even with two good hips, Puljujarvi wasn’t good at generating it. For a team known for piling up chances and not having the scoring touch and ability to finish, as the Pens have been for a while, unfortunately Puljujarvi fits in.

So far this season, the Penguins have generated 166.24 expected goals according to Moneypuck, but only scored 136 actual goals. That -30 difference in expected to actual is the second worst number in the league this season (Florida has -31). Last season, Pittsburgh generated almost 300 expected goals to 261 actual, a -39 difference that again ranked second worst in the NHL.

Puljujarvi might hail from Finland but he’s “all Swedish and no finish” in terms of ability to hit the back of the net. Unfortunately, he’s going to fit into his new team just fine in that regard.

Speaking of Puustinen, his NHL time might be at its end (at least for right now). Based off the lines the team trotted out yesterday as they got back from their break, Puljujarvi has usurped Puustinen’s spot in the NHL lineup. Puustinen was sent down prior to the All Star break. With limited cap room, Puljujarvi factoring into the big club might mean Puustinen is pushed back to Wilkes until circumstances change.

A piece of good news is that Reilly Smith (out since January 11th) was back on the ice with his teammates and lining up in a normal spot.

This alignment makes for some interesting middle lines. One gets the sense that Mike Sullivan has been making a concerted effort lately to separate Rickard Rakell and Evgeni Malkin. Neither are particularly strong defensive players, and both have been fairly cool offensively together as well (Rakell had 0G+2A in six recent games before being moved away from Malkin permanently; Malkin himself only had scored one goal in the last seven games).

Regardless of what line they’re on, the Pens need production out of Smith and Rakell and for Malkin to get going more too. And then, curiously, the new right wings on the third lines are younger players to add some fresh legs, forechecking and hopefully be able to pitch in a little bit in their own rights.

We’ll see how long these exact configurations last, but it’s been a rarity that the Pens have had all of their top-nine forwards healthy at the same time this year. Between Rust -> Rakell -> Smith having cascading stints on the injury list, a key forward has been missing from November on more than all being available.

For the time being, he’s got the services of all the important players at the start of this stretch run.

Scott Wheeler is in the process of ranking all the NHL team’s prospect pools. He got around to the Penguins in the early going at 27th.

Some good stuff there with updated notes on players out of the organization, and perhaps none more interesting than the growing train of support for everyone’s new favorite prospect, Mikhail Ilyin.

“Suddenly he profiles more like a player with medium odds of becoming a complementary winger than the long shot I thought he was a year ago,” Wheeler wrote.

Ilyin has flown up the ranks from the MHL last year to suddenly and unexpectedly becoming the most productive young players in the KHL in 2023-24. It’s a massive step and looking like a very intriguing fifth round pick by the Penguins last year.

The scouts said that under Dubas they were instructed to prioritize high-end skill and to be bold to take big swings at potential - and the immediate aftermath of picking a little-known Russian player lands high on the “risk/reward” graph. So far, so good.

Danny Shirey wrote a little more about Ilyin:

There’s still a long way to go, but other than Brayden Yager, Pittsburgh hasn’t had a high-end skilled forward prospect to get excited about in a long time (Daniel Sprong maybe? And who else?). Ilyin’s not likely to pop up in the organization in the near, near future but a positive development story (even from afar) is welcome news for the Pens at this point.