Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
I will link you to those articles; as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2017-18 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a dasprk horse to make the NHL. 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old is the cut-off for prospects. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects
Where do you go after climbing to the top of the mountain? If you are the Pittsburgh Penguins, you do it all again. After winning the 2016 Stanley Cup, the Penguins did it all again in 2017. This time they did it with their best defenceman, Kris Letang, watching from the press box. Captain Sidney Crosby won the Rocket Richard Trophy, and another Conn Smythe Trophy. Jake Guentzel had a coming out party in the playoffs. And Matt Murray won his second Stanley Cup, while still technically an NHL rookie. It does not get any better than this.
The Penguins off-season was tough though. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury went to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. The team lost their third and fourth line centres. Nick Bonino signed with the Nashville Predators, while Matt Cullen returned to the Minnesota Wild. Winger Chris Kunitz signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Meanwhile, defenceman Trevor Daley signed with the Detroit Red Wings, Ron Hainsey with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Mark Streit signed with the Montreal Canadiens.
Major additions for the Penguins included a trade for Ryan Reaves, signing Antti Niemi, and signing Matt Hunwick. They also added depth in Greg McKegg, Jarred Tinordi, Adam Johnson, and Zach Aston-Reese.
Top Prospect: Daniel Sprong
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born March 17th, 1997 — Amsterdam, Netherlands
Height 6’0″ — Weight 180 lbs [183 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the 2nd round, #46 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
It was another injury shortened season for Daniel Sprong. He missed the start of the campaign after shoulder surgery in June 2016. When he did play, Sprong was electric. He scored 32 goals and 59 points in 31 games for the Charlottetown Islanders. He scored nine goals and 20 points in the QMJHL playoffs.
Sprong has great speed and outstanding acceleration coming off the wing. His ability to change speeds while carrying the puck can help him to blow past a flat-footed defender. He also has very good agility, and edge work. Sprong can slip by a a defender with quick cuts. Add to this his stick handling ability, and you have a player who can be a threat to go coast-to-coast at any time.
Defenders must respect his speed, and when they back off he can use the open space to unleash his deadly shot. When working down low, he must get stronger and be better at taking a hit going forward. This is specifically true of his lower body, where some more muscle would help him be more powerful and better balanced to be stronger on the puck.
Sprong is a pure sniper. He has a bullet wrist shot with a deadly release. He is dangerous every time he touches the puck, and loves to shoot. In fact there are times when he might get too focused on taking the shot instead of looking for a teammate. Don’t get the wrong impression though, Sprong also has excellent passing ability and can thread the needle and play the role of play maker if a linemate has an opportunity. He just needs to work on doing it a little more often.
Sprong has excellent stick handling ability and the soft hands to get the puck past defenders or to finish plays in tight. He shows effort in the corners, but Sprong must get stronger to win board battles. He has high hockey IQ and the ability to find open spots in the defence to set himself up to unleash that wrist shot or a strong one-timer.
Defensively Strong’s game is a little up and down. There are times where he shows good instincts, and strong positional play. He helps on the backcheck and supports the defence. However he doesn’t always bring this consistent effort every night. If his Charlottetown Islanders are down a goal or two, he feels that he needs to do it all offensively and start to cheat, looking for a long breakout pass and not always get back hard in the defensive zone. He was a bit better defensively this past season, there is still work to do, but his game has started to show maturity.
Sprong made the Penguins out of training camp two years ago. He hopes to repeat the feat this year. With the Penguins losing some talent up front, there is plenty of opportunity for Sprong. He just needs to seize it in training camp.
#2 Prospect: Tristan Jarry
Goalie — shoots Left
Born April 29th, 1995 — Surrey, British Columbia
Height 6’2″ — Weight 194 lbs [188 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round, #44 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
Jarry took a real step forward in his second AHL season. He put up a 2.15 goals against average and .925 save percentage in 45 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He also got in his first NHL game.
Jarry plays a very athletic, butterfly style. His technique is good and he gets in and out of the butterfly very quickly and does not leave large gaps between his legs or between his arms and body. Jarry has quick legs throwing out his pads to take away the bottom of the net. His glove hand is excellent and takes away the top of the net. He moves around the crease well, with good puck tracking and the ability to go post-to-post with ease. His backwards skating is also solid which allows him to challenge shooters off the rush. While having solid technique, Jarry is also very instinctive and more than just a “puck blocker.” He has great reflexes and can make the odd diving save that one would not expect him to be able to get to.
Jarry likes to leave the crease and play the puck. He can often be found roaming and acts like a third defenceman. Jarry is often able to ease the pressure on his defence, or able to throw the long breakout pass when the other team gets caught on a change. He has improved his rebound control, but needs to do more. He also has a tendency to play a little deep in his crease.
The signing of Niemi indicates that the Penguins feel Jarry needs to play games, and that they do not want him sitting on the bench as Murray’s backup. He goes back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and should be one of the AHL’s best goalies.
#3 Prospect: Filip Gustavsson
Goalie — Shoots Left — Catches Left
Born June 7th, 1998 — Skelleftea, Sweden
Height 6’1″ — Weight 179 lbs [185 cm / 81 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round, #55 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Gustavsson got in 15 games for Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League this season, putting up a 912 save percentage. He also got in six games for the J20 team, dominating at that level. Gustavsson was the back-up goalie for Sweden at the World Juniors.
Gustavsson has strong reflexes and plays a solid butterfly technique. He stays square to the shooter and gets in and out of his stance quickly and efficently. Quick legs take away the bottom of the net. He has a very good glove and blocker as well. For such a young goaltender, Gustavsson’s rebound control is very good. That is not to say he does not need continued work, just that he is ahead of where most goaltenders are at 18-years-old. Gustavsson has powerful legs, and gets side-to-side in his net extremely quickly. He tracks the puck well, though he does occasionally over-commit when moving from post-to-post. This is an area that should be fixable though.
Coming in at 6’2″ tall, Filip Gustavsson is a decent size, but at the lower end in terms of the goaltenders we see drafted highly in the NHL right now. What makes this a little bit more problematic though is that Gustavsson plays very deep in his crease. He prefers to stay back to defend against cross-ice passes, and dekes, but this means that shooters do see a bit more of the net coming down on him. He could also stand to fill out his frame, as he’s a bit skinny right now.
Gustavsson shows poise and leadership in the face of adversity. He remains calm in the face of an onslaught of shots, something that regularly happened during the Under 17, and the Hlinka tournaments. The other quality teams in those tournaments were regularly out shooting the Swedes, but Gustavsson remained calm, and his teammates fed off of it as the tournaments went on. While every goalie will allow the occasional bad goal, he doesn’t let getting scored on bother him, and bounces back quickly to his normal high level of play.
Gustavsson will spend another season in Sweden, and the Penguins hope he can get more action this year. He should also play a key role for the Swedes at the World Juniors. The Penguins could try to bring him to North America next summer.
#4 Prospect: Zach Aston-Reese
Left Wing/Right Wing — shoots Left
Born August 10th, 1994 — Staten Island, New York
Height 6’0″ — Weight 204 lbs [183 cm / 93 kg]
Signed as an Undrafted College Free Agent in March 2017
The Penguins signed the top forward available in college free agency this year in Zach Aston-Reese. He absolutely lit up the college ranks with 31 goals and 63 points in just 38 games for Northeastern University. This comes on the heels of a junior season where he had 43 points in 41 games. Aston-Reese scored three goals and eight points in 10 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to finish the season.
Aston-Reese is a decent skater. He has good speed and acceleration. His biggest asset is his lower body strength and balance though. He is tough to knock off the puck, and protects it extremely well down low on the cycle game. He also uses his balance to win battles on the boards and establish position in front of the net. Aston-Reese’s agility and edge work are above average.
Aston-Reese gets in quickly and is hard on the forecheck. He pressures defenders and forces turnovers. He creates offense through hard work added to his skill. When a turnover is created, Aston-Reese can quickly turn it into offense. He is strong in retrieving loose pucks and getting them to the front of the net. Aston-Reese is also strong on the puck and protects it well in the cycle game. He maintains possession, extends plays, and gives his linemates time to get open.
Aston-Reese has an excellent wrist shot and extremely quick release which has led to his goal scoring prowess this year. He goes to the front of the net, where he has the quick hands to pounce on rebounds, and to tip in shots. He also is quick to one-time passes into the back of the net.
Aston-Reese is a solid player in all three zones. He is strong positionally in his own end of the rink. Aston-Reese cuts down passing lanes, and creates turnovers which he then transitions into offense. The Huskies even used Aston-Reese on the penalty kill. He is also not afraid to block shots.
Aston-Reese will also fight for a spot in training camp. There are openings on the Penguins. However, it seems more likely that he needs a little bit of AHL time. He could be used as a call-up if injuries hit. Aston-Reese is best as a winger, but also has some experience at centre.
#5 Prospect: Dominik Simon
Center — shoots Right
Born August 8th, 1994 — Prague, Czech Republic
Height 5’11” — Weight 175 lbs [180 cm / 79 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 5th round, #137 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Simon had another decent season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in his second season in North America. He scored 15 goals and 46 points in 70 games. He also added three assists in five playoff games. Simon tied for third on the team in scoring. When Guentzel was called up, he took over as the team’s top centre.
Simon is a good skater. His top end speed is decent, however he excels when it comes to first step quickness and acceleration. He also has very good agility and edge work. This makes him tough for defenders to handle one-on-one. Simon can work on improving his balance and being stronger on the puck.
Simon is an extremely good stick handler. He has soft hands and a wide variety of moves that he uses to beat defenders one-on-one. He protects the puck well, and uses his shiftiness and moves to open up an opportunity to take the puck to the net; to make a pass to a teammate; or to get off a shot on net. His wrist shot has decent power, but an excellent release. It can fool goaltenders, and be on them before they know it. He does not always use it often enough.
He is a better play maker than scorer though with very good vision and passing skills. Simon is also a smart player, who has a very high hockey IQ and makes smart plays with and without the puck. Despite his smaller stature, Simon is not afraid to fight for the puck down low, and in the corners. He gets to the tough areas of the ice and scores points.
Simon is strong defensively in the AHL. He back checks effectively and supports the defense down low. His hockey IQ translates into his own end as he reads the play well and cuts down passing and shooting lanes. When he creates a turnover, he moves it up the ice quickly, creating offense in transition.
Simon looks set for another year in the AHL. He could surprise with a strong training camp, especially with the Penguins looking for depth at centre. Simon is getting close to NHL ready, and continues to show improvements in his game. He projects as a bottom six player though.
#6 Prospect: Teddy Blueger
Center — shoots Left
Born August 15th, 1994 — Riga, Latvia
Height 6’0″ — Weight 185 lbs [183 cm / 84 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round, #52 overall at the 2012 NHL Draft
Blueger played his first full season as a professional, scoring seven goals and 31 points in 54 games. He added just one goal in five playoff games. He also scored one goal in seven games for Latvia at the World Championships. It was not exactly the season that Blueger or the Penguins were looking for, but he can bounce back this year.
Blueger has good lower body strength. This allows him to be strong on the puck and to win battles on the boards. His speed is decent, but could use work on his first step quickness and his acceleration. His agility is also decent, but not great.
Blueger creates his offense off the forecheck. He looks to create turnovers, and pressure defencemen. He also does very well at winning battles along the boards. Once he gets the puck, he looks to set up a teammate and has good vision and passing skills. Blueger has a decent wrist shot, but his release is a little slow and limits his effectiveness as a result.
The best aspect of Blueger’s game is his work in his own end of the ice. He is willing to play his gritty and physical style in his own end of the rink. Blueger back checks extremely well and works to contain the cycle game. He has become and effective penalty killer. He also has worked at developing in the face-off circle.
Blueger will spend the year in the AHL, where he will look to find a bit more offense. His career path likely puts his ceiling as a bottom six NHLer, however a little bit more scoring in his game is still needed before he can take such a role.
Sleeper Prospect: Adam Johnson
Center/Right Wing/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born June 22nd, 1994 — Hibbing, Minnesota
Height 6’0″ — Weight 175 lbs [183 cm / 79 kg]
Signed as a free agent in July 2017
The Penguins signed University of Minnesota-Duluth sophomore Adam Johnson in July, adding another top college free agent to the prospect pool. He scored 18 goals and 37 points in 42 games with the Bulldogs last season.
An outstanding skater, Johnson is very fast. He has a very smooth stride and reaches top speed quickly. He also has very good edge work and agility. Johnson is very elusive in the offensive zone. He the ability to make cuts and change directions on a dime. Johnson can fight through checks and has good balance.
A versatile forward, Johnson has spent some time at all three forward positions during his two years with the Bulldogs. He seems best suited to the wing, with a good wrist shot and one-timer. His release is very quick and can fool goaltenders. He can beat defenders on the rush with good stick handling and skating ability. If he gets a step on a defender he cuts hard to the net and has the soft hands to finish in close. His vision and play making skill are decent, but he is more of a scorer than a passer.
Johnson’s speed allows him to play a solid defensive game. He can cut down passing and shooting lanes. He also back checks effectively and supports his defenders down low. Johnson can continue to get stronger, which will help him to contain bigger forwards in the cycle game.
Johnson heads to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton next year. Only finishing two years of college, he is still relatively young and has time to develop. He is a bit of a project at this point, but a talented one. His addition to the system was important for Pittsburgh.
The Penguins made some additions to a shallow system in the 2017 draft. Zachary Lauzon is a defensive defenceman, who is willing to block shots and play physical. Clayton Phillips converted from forward to defence a couple of years ago. He has made a very good transtion, but still needs to work on his defensive game. Phillips skates well and handles the puck efficiently. Jan Drozg is a winger with good vision and playmaking skill. Linus Olund is a third year eligible, who plays as a two-way centre.
Also in the system is Frederik Tiffels a left wing with great speed. He is at Western Michigan University, and unfortunately that speed is not translating into points. Winger Kasper Björkqvist is a hard worker who was part of Finland’s World Junior team but has struggled to score for Providence. Niclas Almari is a two way defender in the SM-Liiga. Centre Thomas di Pauli suffered some injuries and struggled to put up offense in the AHL.
Overall, the system is really shallow right now. That happens for a team that has been amongst the top teams in the NHL for several years, and won the last two Stanley Cups. Finding ways to bring in prospects like Aston-Reese and Johnson, and getting mid-round steals like Guentzel continues to be important for general manager Jim Rutherford.
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