Welcome to the 2018 Top Shelf Prospects series. As we go through the Summer of 2018 LWOH will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. We will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, we will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2018 draft, as there have been no games since then, and our reports on them will not have changed.
What we 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 2018-19 roster of the NHL team in question. We will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who we pick as our dark horse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects
The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2017-18 season as two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. The three-peat was not to be, as the team fell in the second round of the Playoffs to the eventual Cup Champions, the Washington Capitals. Meanwhile, the team watched as their former goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, went to the Stanley Cup Final with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
The off-season brought some changes as the Penguins wrestle with the NHL salary cap. The team added defenceman Jack Johnson to strengthen on the backend, but Conor Sheary was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in order to make cap room. Derek Grant and Matt Cullen were low-cost additions down the middle, while Jimmy Hayes was added to the wing. The Penguins also used a number of young players over the course of the year, but none reached the 50 games played mark to be considered graduated. As a result, some familiar names fill this list.
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
Sprong had an excellent season as an AHL rookie. He scored 32 goals and 33 assists for 65 points in 65 games. He also added a goal in three AHL playoff games. The season led all AHL rookies in goals and placed Sprong on the AHL All-Rookie Team. Sprong was called up for eight games with the Penguins. He scored two goals and an assist for three points.
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 edgework. Sprong can slip by 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. He has added a lot of strength to his frame in recent years. This helps Sprong when working down low as it helps him to be more powerful and better balanced and 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 the playmaker if a linemate has an opportunity. He just needs to work on doing it a little more often. He has taken steps in this regard but sometimes falls into old habits.
Sprong has excellent stickhandling ability and the soft hands to get the puck past defenders or to finish plays in tight. He shows effort in the corners and with his improved strength Sprong is better than he was in 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, Sprong’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 team is 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 heads to training camp looking to win a full-time job on the Penguins roster. His time is now as he already shows the ability to dominate at the AHL level and he should make the team. Even if Sprong has a bad camp and is sent back to Wilkes-Barre, he should receive plenty of callups when injuries hit.
#2 Prospect: Tristan Jarry
Goalie — shoots Left — catches 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
The plan was to keep Jarry in the minors last season. However, Antti Niemi‘s struggles and some time missed by Matt Murray meant that Jarry played 26 NHL games. He put up a respectable 2.77 goals-against average and 0.908 save percentage. He also played in 16 AHL games with a 0.901 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 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.
Jarry is still a young goaltender who needs to play games. He should not sit on the bench as a backup. Expect him to start the season in Wilkes-Barre, and the Penguins to use Casey DeSmith as Matt Murray‘s backup. If injuries hit, Jarry will be just a phone call away.
#3 Prospect: Jordy Bellerive
Centre — shoots Left
Born May 2nd, 1999 — North Vancouver, British Columbia
Height 5’10” — Weight 196 lbs [178 cm / 89 kg]
Signed with the Penguins as an undrafted free agent in September 2017
After being undrafted in 2017, Bellerive attended Penguins training camp and earned an entry-level contract. He would have a big WHL season as he scored 46 goals and 92 points in 71 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. He also added nine goals and 25 points in 16 playoff games. Bellerive was injured in a campfire incident this summer but is expected to make a full recovery.
Bellerive is an excellent skater. He has a lightning quick first step and very good acceleration. His top-end speed is excellent. Bellerive is very difficult to handle off the rush. He can take a defender wide and cut to the net. He also has very good agility and edgework. Bellerive can beat defenders with his quick movements and changes of direction. At just 5-foot-10, Bellerive is undersized. However, he has good muscle on his frame and a low centre of gravity. This gives him good balance and allows him to be strong on the puck.
Bellerive combines his skating with great puck handling skill. He has soft hands and can create plays at top speed. He combines his skating and puck skills to create space, opening up passing and shooting lanes. Bellerive is at his best as a playmaker. He sees the ice extremely well and has the skill to make passes to teammates through tight openings. Bellerive might have picked up even more assists if he played for a more talented WHL club.
Bellerive has really developed his goal scoring in the past year. He always had a very good wrist shot with a quick release but is now more willing to use it. If defenders back off to respect his speed off the rush, he will fire a shot on net, using the defender as a screen. Bellerive is willing to play a gritty game and gets to the front of the net both with and without the puck. He has the soft hands to finish in close. Bellerive is not afraid to battle for loose pucks in the corners as well.
Bellerive brings his tenacity to the defensive end. He gets under opponents skin and is always in the middle of the action. He backchecks hard and supports the defence down low. Bellerive uses his quickness and strong hockey IQ to create turnovers and transition them back into offence. He cuts down passing lanes and is effective on the penalty kill.
Bellerive likely heads back to Lethbridge this year. If the Hurricanes do not take the jump to become WHL contenders, it is likely that he is moved to another junior club at the WHL trade deadline. He is also in consideration for Team Canada at the World Juniors. Playing high-pressure games would help his development.
#4 Prospect: Calen Addison
The Penguins drafted Addison with the 53rd overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Addison. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#5 Prospect: Zach Aston-Reese
Left 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
Aston-Reese spent time at both the AHL and NHL levels last year. He put up four goals and six points in 16 games with the Penguins. He also put up one assist in nine playoff games. Aston-Reese had nine goals and 29 points in 41 AHL games.
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 his position in front of the net. Aston-Reese’s agility and edgework are above average.
Aston-Reese gets in quickly and is hard on the forecheck. He pressures defenders and forces turnovers. He creates offence through hard work added to his skill. When a turnover is created, Aston-Reese can quickly turn it into offence. 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 led to his goal-scoring prowess at the NCAA level. 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 offence. He is also not afraid to block shots.
Aston-Reese will also fight for a spot in training camp. He looked like an NHL player at the end of last season and the Penguins will need to find room for him. Aston-Reese is best as a winger, but also has some experience at centre.
#6 Prospect: Filip Hallander
The Penguins drafted Hallander with the 58th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Hallander. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#7 Prospect: Dominik Simon
Center/Wing — shoots Left
Born August 8th, 1994 — Prague, Czech Republic
Height 5’11” — Weight 176 lbs [180 cm / 80 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 5th round, #137 overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft
Simon was up and down between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year. In 33 games with the big club, he scored four goals and 12 points. He also added three points in eight playoff games. In the AHL, he picked up four goals and 17 points in 21 games.
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 edgework. 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 puck handler. He has soft hands and a wide variety of moves that he can use 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 playmaker than scorer though with good vision and passing skills. Simon is also a smart player, who has a 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 in the AHL. The lack of strength has limited his effectiveness in the NHL though.
Simon is strong defensively in the AHL. He backchecks effectively and supports the defence 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 offence in transition. A lack of size and strength has been a bit exposed at the NHL level though, and Simon must improve these areas to be a better defensive player.
Simon looks like an NHL player at this point in his career. He should make the Penguins out of camp. However, his upside may be limited. Simon looks like he tops out as a third line type of player. He might find himself on Sidney Crosby‘s line or Evgeni Malkin‘s line from time-to-time but this does not change the fact that he will not be the one driving play at the NHL level.
#8 Prospect: Teddy Blueger
Center/Left Wing — 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
After a rough first AHL season, Blueger improved in his second year with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, scoring 21 goals and 45 points in 70 games. He also added two points in three playoff games. Following the baby Penguins elimination, he went to play for Latvia at the World Championships, scoring one goal and two assists in five games.
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 he could use work on his first step quickness and his acceleration. His agility is also decent, but not great. Overall Blueger’s skating is simply adequate and will not stand out in a good or bad way at the NHL level.
Blueger creates the majority of his offence off the forecheck. He looks to create turnovers and pressure opposing defencemen into mistakes. 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 the defensive end of the ice. Blueger backchecks extremely well and works to support the defence down low and contain the cycle game. He has become an effective penalty killer. He also has worked at developing in the face-off circle.
Blueger has another year of being waiver exempt. Expect to see him back in the AHL looking to develop his game and add some offensive punch. He could see his first NHL games with a callup if injuries hit. It is up to Blueger to make an impact now. He will be 24 before the NHL season starts and the Penguins will have to make a decision on him before the 2019-20 season when he again becomes a restricted free agent and also will need to clear waivers to go to the AHL. This year is very important for Blueger.
#9 Prospect: Kasper Bjorkqvist
Right Wing — shoots Left
Born July 10th, 1997 — Espoo, Finland
Height 6’1″ — Weight 198 lbs [185 cm / 90 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round, #61 overall, at the 2016 NHL Draft
In his second season at Providence, Bjorkqvist greatly improved his production. He put up 16 goals and 23 points in 40 games. He also played two games for Finland’s men’s team on the European Hockey Tour.
Bjorkqvist is a strong skater. He has a powerful skating stride. He can fight through checks and keep going, driving hard to the front of the net. Bjorkqvist also has good balance and uses his size and leverage to win battles on the boards and establish his position in front of the net. He has a quick first step and good acceleration which allows him to beat defenders once he gets a step. His speed is good, but not elite.
Bjorkqvist plays a simple but effective game. He has a hard wrist shot and quick release which can fool goaltenders. He is also willing to go to the dirty areas of the ice, battling for pucks on the boards, or banging in rebounds from the front of the net. Bjorkqvist uses his body to protect the puck in the cycle game and extend plays. He is not very creative though, looking for a simple pass to keep things moving rather than trying to create a scoring chance.
Bjorkqvist does not seem to have the on-ice vision to be an elite playmaker. He does not try many passes cross-ice and through traffic. He is quick to get in on the forecheck and force defenders into mistakes and turnovers. Bjorkqvist is physical and willing to finish his checks.
Bjorkqvist is effective on the backcheck. He supplies good backpressure and is willing to play a physical game. He brings his willingness to battle on the boards in all three zones. Bjorkqvist is not afraid to block shots or do what it takes to win. In the past, he could be over-aggressive physically and get himself into penalty trouble but seems to be more disciplined in his game today. He is an effective penalty killer, who creates turnovers by cutting off passing lanes.
Bjorqvist heads back to Providence University for his junior season. The Penguins hope that he can take another step forward in his offensive game. Right now, he projects as a bottom-six forward at the NHL level but there is still some hope that he might have a bit more offence to his game. He’s at least two years from being NHL ready though.
#10 Prospect: Clayton Phillips
Defence — shoots Left
Born September 9th, 1999 — Edina, Minnesota
Height 5’10” — Weight 182 lbs [178 cm / 83 kg]
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 3rd round, #93 overall, at the 2017 NHL Draft
Phillips spent some time in the USHL, putting up five goals and 12 points in 16 games for Fargo and Muskegon. He also got in 11 games of for the University of Minnesota. Phillips represented Team USA at the World Junior A Challenge, picking up a pair of assists.
Phillips has decent acceleration and top-end speed, but the other aspects of his skating are better. He has very good edgework and agility, allowing him to walk the line in the offensive zone, stay in front of attackers in the defensive zone, and make quick cuts and changes of direction. He is also very strong on his skates. Phillips has excellent balance and is hard to knock off the puck, helping him in battling for loose pucks in the corners.
A classic puck-mover, Phillips can start the transition game in a variety of ways. He skates well with the puck, moving it out of danger and up the ice. He is a very good stickhandler who can lead the rush. Phillips also makes good passes in transition, getting the puck up to a forward and joining in as a trailer, or making the long homerun pass if available. He is also able to quarterback things on the powerplay. His agility opens up passing lanes and he spots teammates and moves the puck well. Phillips needs some work on his slap shot to be a real offensive force though.
Phillips is good at defending against the rush, staying in front of his man and forcing him to the outside. His quick stick also helps to poke check the puck away from an opponent. Phillips does not play a physical enough game though. While he will never be a big hitter, he needs to use his physical tools better in front of the net. He also has some issues with his positioning that need to be worked out.
Phillips should play at least a couple of more seasons with the Gophers. A former forward who recently converted to defence and is still learning the position, he is a bit of a project going forward. There is some skill here though, so its a project that is worth waiting on.
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, 2017 adding another top college free agent to the prospect pool. He scored 11 goals and 31 points in 70 games in his first season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 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 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 stickhandling 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 playmaking 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 backchecks 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 for another 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.
Sprong is an excellent prospect, but beyond him, the Penguins lack true blue-chip talent. It remains to be seen what levels the rest of their pool can reach. Can Jarry be a starting goalie or is he destined to be a backup? Can Bellerive go from undrafted player to top-six centre? What is the upside for Simon and Aston-Reese? What will Addison and Hallander do in their post-draft years? Overall this pool has many question marks and lacks depth.
Some notable names at forward who were not profiled include Anthony Angelo, Sam Miletic, Linus Olund, Sam Lafferty, Justin Almeida, and Jean-Sebastian Dea.
On defence, the Penguins also have Niclas Almari, Antti Palojarvi, Juuso Riikola, Zach Lauzon, and Jan Drozg.
Alex D’Orio is further down the goaltending depth chart.