NHL Draft: Penguins' biggest needs, top prospects

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NHL Draft: Penguins' biggest needs, top prospects
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It’s been 15 years of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The team won multiple Stanley Cups and remained in contention throughout that span, but youth took a backseat. With the Crosby-Malkin era conceivably coming to an end, the prospect pool for the Penguins also appears to be at an all-time low.

In the past seven seasons, the Penguins have selected only once in the first round, choosing Samuel Poulin 21st overall in 2019. For five of those seasons, the Penguins didn’t pick until the 50s. It was the cost of winning, and the balance is coming due.

In fact, The Hockey News ranked Pittsburgh’s prospect pool the worst of all 32 NHL teams…and it’s an accurate depiction of their status. Drew O’Connor was the youngest player to dress for the Penguins this season in the NHL. He’s 23 and scored only five points in 22 games.

Like Wile E. Coyote, the Penguins have already stepped out beyond the cliff. When they realize it, the franchise is in for a drop to the NHL’s basement and a long and deep rebuild.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins left wing Sam Poulin (22). (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins left wing Sam Poulin (22). (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Top Prospects

Sam Poulin - It was not a dream season in the American Hockey League for Poulin. In fact, he was a healthy scratch at times. Poulin is a natural center, and after returning to that position, his play improved, and he finished with 16 goals and 37 points in 79 games as an AHL rookie.

Telling was the fact Poulin did not receive an NHL call-up. To call him NHL-ready is a stretch, although depending on who re-signs with Pittsburgh, and who explores free agency, he may get a longer look at camp, but would be better served to start the season back in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The 2019 first-round pick for Pittsburgh has big expectations as the highest selection the Penguins have made since 2012.

Joel Blomqvist - Heading into this season, goaltending was an organizational point of depth for the Penguins. They used that depth to trade away Calle Clang, who was Blomqvist’s challenger for the future of Pittsburgh’s crease. With that trade, Blomqvist has become the rightful heir.

Luckily, he was spectacular in 20 appearances in Liiga for Karpat this season, posting a 1.32 GAA and .946 save percentage. When it really mattered in the playoffs, those numbers improved to 1.10 GAA and .950.

The 6-foot-2 goaltender is known for having a calm demeanour and controlled movements in the net, making saves look easy. He was slowed by a concussion this season, but is healthy and should start the season as the number one netminder with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. Don’t expect Pittsburgh to rush their potential goalie of the future, as tempting as his talent might be.

Filip Hallander - Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2018 finally came to North America last season after three seasons with Lulea of the SHL. Hallander looked more comfortable in the AHL as the year progressed and projects as a responsible two-way forward who is positionally strong.

He arrived intent on earning an NHL job out of training camp, but only managed a single NHL game. This year, a bottom-six role is his for the taking as the Penguins must start integrating youth into their lineup.

One To Watch

When it comes to late bloomers, Jordan Frasca fits the definition. A seventh-round pick of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, Frasca started his Junior career playing Junior B. A trade to Kingston a year later changed his fate, and when he returned from the OHL’s pandemic lost season, it was like a new player had emerged.

Frasca’s all-around game and ability to score complemented Kingston phenom Shane Wright. He notched 42 goals this season and will look to translate that game to the AHL to open the 2022-23 campaign.

Nathan Legare arrived at camp this year considerably quicker, but his transition to the AHL was not without challenges. Returning to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season will be his opportunity to take the lessons learned from Year 1 in the AHL and prove he’s still on track to join the Penguins at some point.

Ready To Step In

P.O. Joseph plays a tight gap and controls lanes with an active stick. He could have been a full-time member of the Penguins this season, but as mentioned, youth has not been a priority.

Joseph plays under control and has a smooth stride. What he lacks is offensive upside. He will not be the next coming of Kris Letang, but he will be a capable third-pairing defender who can play into the second pair when needed.

Needs At The Draft

Aside from Joseph, who looks ready to join the NHL roster, the Penguins don’t have a blueliner inside their top five, perhaps top 10, prospects. It’s an organizational need that will be compounded when Letang leaves.

Pittsburgh also needs to take a swing in the opening rounds at adding a skilled center. Poulin is unlikely to be a No. 1 pivot in the NHL, and time is running out for the Penguins.

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