Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring 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.
What I will be doing is linking 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 2016-17 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 my darkhorse to make the NHL. The cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects
After a busy off-season, and a big trade for Phil Kessel, the Penguins started last season slowly. General manager Jim Rutherford was not happy, and fired coach Mike Johnston. He hired Mike Sullivan in his place. He also traded David Perron for Carl Hagelin and Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley. The wheeling and deadling clearly worked, as the Penguins were one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the second half of the season. They would also win the ultimate prize, taking home the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup. Captain Sidney Crosby, much maligned during the poor start, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
TSP: Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects
Top Prospect: Matt Murray
Goalie — shoots Left — Catches Left
Born May 25, 1994 — Thunder Bay, ONT
Height 6’4″ — Weight 178 lbs [193 cm / 81 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 3, #83 overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
How to recap Matt Murray’s 2015-16 season. It probably is not necessary to say too much here. The world saw Murray as he led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup, as the team’s top goalie after Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion. For a rookie goalie, there is no more perfect scenario.
Murray’ legs are extremely quick and he shuts down the bottom of the net well. He has very good reflexes and he shuts down the five hole rapidly and effectively, avoiding a major problem area for most tall goaltenders. He takes away the top of the net with a strong glove and blocker. Murray has strong rebound control. He has improved this aspect of his game each year. He is strong positionally and comes far out of his net to cut down angles and reduce the amount of net that the shooter has to look at. Murray is almost always square to the shooter and recovers quickly to square up again on rebounds. His side to side movements are very good, but not quite great, this is one area where he still has room to improve in future years.
Like many young goalies today Murray loves to come out of his net and handle the puck. However his skills in this aspect are average. His skating, even for a goaltender isn’t great and this can get him caught at times. He also needs a little bit of work on his puckhandling and passing. He is better than most goalies, but not amongst the elite in this area.
Murray’s mental game is very good. He bounces back nicely from a bad goal or a bad game and doesn’t allow those things to linger. Murray is extremely confident in his net and at his best when he is coming far out of his net to challenge shooters. He showed that he does not falter, no matter how big the moment.
Fleury will look to reclaim the starting position, but the reality is that Murray is the Penguins goalie of the future. The Penguins will likely try to move Fleury rather than losing him for nothing in the expansion draft. Murray and Fluery might be in a time share to start the year, but it will be his team before long.
#2 Prospect: Daniel Sprong
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born Mar 17 1997 — Amsterdam, Netherlands
Height 6’0″ — Weight 180 lbs [183 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 2, #46 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Daniel Sprong surprised many when he made the Penguins roster out of training camp. He played in 18 games. Sprong struggled to get regular ice time. He scored just two goals. Eventually he was returned to his QMJHL club, the Charlottetown Islanders. He put up 46 points in 33 games, and a further 15 points in 12 playoff games after returning to junior.
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, and 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 playmaker 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.
Sprong should return to the Islanders for one more season. He needs time at the junior and AHL levels to work on his game. The Penguins rushed him last year, but likely won’t do that again.
#3 Prospect: Jake Guentzel
Center — shoots Left
Born Oct 6 1994 — Woodbury, MN
Height 5’10” — Weight 175 lbs [178 cm / 79 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 3, #77 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Guentzel finished a strong junior season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha before signing and entry level deal with the Penguins. He scored 19 goals and 46 points in 35 NCAA games. After joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he put up six points in 11 regular season games, and 14 points in 10 playoff games.
Guentzel is a very good skater. He has excellent speed, and excellent acceleration. He can hit his top speed in just a few quick strides. Guentzel takes defencemen wide, and can speed up and cut to thet net. He also has very good agility and edge work.
Guentzel can handle the puck and make plays at top speed. Combined with his skating, this makes him extremely dangerous off the rush. He has excellent vision and passing skills, and can change speeds to open up a passing lane to a teammate. Guentzel is a smart playmaker with high hockey IQ. While more of a set-up man, Guentzel can score with an accurate shot and decent release.
Guentzel works hard in his own end and is a willing backchecker. However, he needs to get stronger. He can be overpowered by big power forwards, and has trouble containing them off the cycle.
Guentzel will be asked to lead the Wilkes-Barre offence this season, as he continues to develop his game. He could see a call-up in case of injury, but will likely not be a full-time NHLer before 2017-18.
#4 Prospect: Oskar Sundqvist
Centre — Shoots Right NC
Born Mar 23 1994 — Boden, Sweden
Height 6’3″ — Weight 209 lbs [191 cm/95 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 3, 81st overall in the 2012 NHL Draft
Sundqvist played his first full season in North America last year. He scored five goals and 17 points with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. He also played in 18 NHL games scoring his first career goal. Sundqvist even got in a couple of playoff games.
Sundqvist has decent overall speed, but could stand to work on his first step quickness and his acceleration. His agility could also be a bit better. Its not that these areas are bad, its just that they won’t really stand out at the NHL level. One area that is above average is his strength and balance on his skates. This allows him to win battles on the boards or drive to the net.
Sundqvist will likely top out as a bottom six player. His offensive game just is not there. He has decent skills, but nothing really stands out. Sundqvist has decent vision and passing skills. His balance and puck protection allow him to extend plays in the cycle game and wait for a teammate to get open. Sundqivst controls the puck down below the circles and uses his long reach and his big body to shield the puck from defenders. He has a decent shot, it is accurate and has an adequate release.
Sundqvist is a well developped two-way player and can be used to kill penalties. His long reach and excellent positioning help him to cut down passing lanes in the defensive zone. He is very good at reading the play and anticipating plays. Sundqvist may need to get better in the faceoff circle to be a true shutdown centre, though this is something that can be improved with hard work.
Sundqvist will battle for a fourth line role on the Penguins this season. With the team recently re-signing Matt Cullen, and most of the other bottom six players returning, there may not be a spot for him. He likely will have to bide his time for an injury. Sundqvist is close to NHL ready, and would be in the NHL if he was part of a number of other teams.
#5 Prospect: Tristan Jarry
Goalie — shoots Left
Born Apr 29 1995 — Delta, BC
Height 6’2″ — Weight 185 lbs [188 cm /84 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 2, #44 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
After an outstanding junior career, Tristan Jarry joined the pro ranks last season. He was the back-up to Matt Murray, but got plenty of playing time when Murray was up with the Penguins. His season was up and down, with some good moments that showed his potential. However he also struggled at times and finished with a .905 save percentage.
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 corners. 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 should allow him to challenge shooters off the rush. While having solid technique, Jarry is also very instinctive and more than just a “puck blocker” as he has great reflexes and can make the odd diving save that wouldn’t 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. He is often successful at doing so and 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’s a bit of a project and will take time to be ready for the NHL due to the fact he must get more experience in the net. He can stand to work on his rebound control, as well as his tendency to play a little deep in his crease. He needs to get better at cutting down angles and reducing the amount of space a shooter can see.
Jarry is a bit of a long-term project. He spends the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton again this year.
#6 Prospect: Teddy Blueger
Center — shoots Left
Born Aug 15 1994 — Riga, Latvia
Height 6’0″ — Weight 185 lbs [183 cm / 84 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 2, #52 overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Teddy Blueger finished his college career with a strong senior season, scoring career highs across the board. He put up 11 goals and 35 points in 41 games. When the season ended he signed with the Penguins, and got in 20 combined regular season and playoff games. Blueger struggled, picking up just one assist.
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 gonna be needed before he can take such a role.
Sleeper Prospect: Dominick Simon
Center — shoots Right
Born Aug 8 1994 — Prague, Czech Rep.
Height 5’11” — Weight 175 lbs [180 cm / 79 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 5, #137 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
After being passed over in three NHL Drafts, the Penguins selected Dominik Simon in the 2015 Draft. The pick paid immediate dividends with Simon having an excellent season in the AHL. He scored 25 goals and 48 points in 68 games as a rookie. He got a short call-up to the Penguins, playing three games and getting his first career point.
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 stickhandler. 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 is a better play maker than scorer though with very good vision and passing skills. Simon also is 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 backchecks 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 is progressing nicely and may push for a spot on the Penguins in 2017, but the team has plenty of competition up front.
The Penguins are very deep in goal. To go along with Murray and Jarry, the Penguins surprisingly used their first draft pick on Filip Gustavsson this year. Given the riches they already have, this pick is extremely curious. The defence features free agent signees Lukas Bengtsson, Ethan Prow, and newly drafted Connor Hall are the most notable players in a group that has graduated a number of players in the last couple of years. Up front there is also a lack of depth. Kasper Björkqvist, Anthony Angello, Josh Archibald, and the newly signed Thomas Di Pauli are darkhorses to make the NHL.