Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column that brings you the next crop of professional hockey players. As we go through the summer of 2023, each day our LWOS Prospects Writers will bring you a look at one NHL team’s top prospects or other topical articles. Be sure to bookmark the site, follow Ben Kerr, Kyle Pereira and Frederik Frandson on Twitter, and spread the word for the site that will bring you analytical and critical profiles and scouting reports! You can find all the articles here as well as our extensive NHL Draft preview. Today, we look at the 2023 Pittsburgh Penguins Top Prospects.
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.
2023 Pittsburgh Penguins Top Prospects
1.) Brayden Yager
The top prospect of the Pittsburgh Penguins is their newest first-round pick, Brayden Yager. The Canadian centre with a wonderful shot and offensive flair is a remarkable talent. Given the space, he can score from anywhere and he plays a smart game with the puck on the stick. In many ways, he has an elite offensive skillset that can change the momentum of a hockey game at any moment. Yager is dynamic and could easily become a regular 25+ goalscorer in the NHL. On top of his elite shot, he is also a great skater although it still needs a few improvements mechanically. Especially in terms of his edges. Another area that needs to see improvements is off the puck. This weakness can lead Yager to become a bit one-dimensional offensively and inconsistent defensively.
If he can iron out this inconsistency and improve his off-the-puck game, there is a bright future ahead for Yager. With the Penguins looking to make an all-in push, they are hoping that they can retool the team after Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Erik Karlsson with players like Yager. His ceiling is good enough to make him a potential top-six centre for the next generation of Penguins. The question will be if he can improve and translate to the NHL.
2.) Owen Pickering
Defensively the Penguins’ top prospect is Owen Pickering, who was selected 21st overall in 2022. The young defenceman had another great season in the WHL with 45 points in 61 games as captain for the Swift Current Broncos. His season even earned him eight games in the AHL. Although he isn’t expected to play in the AHL next season, his season shows the steps and improvements he has made over the season.
While he was always a modern defenceman with a strong mix of size and strong mobility, this season he has found a way to use this on both ends of the ice. Offensively he is far more involved which shows in his point total. He moves the puck smoothly up ice and passes the puck far better than previously. The maturity and his decision-making might be where he has improved the most. He is a more consistent player and it suits his game a lot.
His edges also got better and he isn’t caught flat-footed up ice or in his own zone nearly as much as before. It can still happen, and consistency is still an issue to work on. Especially in his own end where he can get lost and caught napping. However, with some coaching in his off-the-puck movements, a lot of his issues can be resolved. If that happens he could be an heir to Kris Letang in Pittsburgh.
3.) Samuel Poulin
Last year was a turbulent year for Samuel Poulin. After a decent start to the season, he took a leave of absence due to mental health reasons in December. Three months later he returned but the hiatus did limit the hockey he played. The break shouldn’t be criticized and hopefully, his struggles are a thing of the past. Penguins fans will hope that he can regain the form that made him a first-round selection in 2021.
On his day he is one of the better two-way forward prospects in the league, as he plays an extremely polished game. He rarely makes mistakes and his leadership and willingness to compete makes him a perfect option in any situation. Offensively Poulin is creative and skilled enough to create chances for his teammates. His vision and IQ also make him able to find the openings both with and without the puck on his stick. Defensively he is smart and gets into the passing and shot lanes well. Overall he has the potential to be a solid middle-six forward.
The worry will be the slightly awkward development Poulin has had so far. The question is if he can mentally and physically get back to his best or if the pressure or strains from the NHL will get to him. The NHL is a tough league in both areas and hopefully, the break was exactly what Poulin needed to get ready for it.
4.) Joel Blomqvist
While the future of the Penguins’ netminding seems somewhat set for the next couple of years, with Tristan Jarry as the obvious starter, one of the upcoming suiters will be 21-year-old finish netminder, Joel Blomqvist. Without making too much noise, Blomqvist has slowly but surely made a name for himself in Finland with Kärpät. Over the past two seasons, he has steadily become the starter and despite statically taking a dip this season compared to the 2021-22 season, he has been developing well. Despite multiple concussions, he seemed calmer in the net. His style has matured and he uses his positioning far more effectively than previously.
While he did play a game in the AHL, it’s questionable if he will play in North America this season. His contract does allow for him to go back to Finland should he choose. This could be a great option since there are other goalies who are further along in their development but lack the ceiling of Blomqvist. Playing in Finland would allow him to be the starter and truly hone his game before taking the next step into the AHL. The potential for a strong starting NHL goalie is there. However, Blomqvist is still a project that requires patience.
5.) Jonathan Gruden
One of the players to keep an eye on during the Penguins training camp will be left winger, Jonathan Gruden. After three seasons in the AHL with consistent and steady improvements, this could be the year he works his way into the lineup. There is a chance, that with the all-in push which the Penguins are currently attempting, he might have to bide his time with another year in the AHL, but he has made himself known since he came into the Pittsburgh organization.
Stylistically Gruden plays a high-effort game with a ton of energy. He works harder than most and is willing to battle and grind in the dirty areas. Most of his goals and points come from this high work rate, either in front of the net or along the board to keep his position. His shot and ability to find the right position have taken a lot of steps since being drafted. This has elevated him into a strong depth forward who just plays the game the right way. He is a player who can play in most situations without being a liability and can have a lot of value on a potential cup-winning team.
Valtteri Puustinen is another prospect who after spending a few years in the AHL is hoping to make that a good training camp can put him into the NHL. Similar to Gruden, Puustinen has steadily improved season by season since being drafted. Last season Puustinen had 59 points in 72 games, with 24 goals. Major improvements from the finish forward, who back in 2019 was a seventh-round pick. Four years later, he could be on the cusp of making an NHL opening night roster.
His greatest weapon is his speed and offensive awareness. The speed gives him options on the rush to blow past defenders on the outside. Combined with a strong playmaking sense, he uses the space he gets with his skating to open up passing lanes in the defence which he can hit with pinpoint accuracy. He is also a strong powerplay option where he plays an effective game. His shot has seen improvements as well since being drafted making him far more dynamic. His defensive abilities do require some work. It is quite inconsistent and in order to make the NHL this season he will need to show improvements defensively as his role would be in a middle-six spot.
7.) Sergei Murashov
Sergei Murashov is the second goaltending option for the Penguins in the future. The Russian had a strong first season since getting drafted, being named the goalie of the year in the MHL. His season was incredible. In 42 games he posted a .946 save percentage and a 1.58 GAA. His side-to-side athleticism is great and his footwork and skating are excellent. He is able to generate a lot of power into his pushes, which makes him able to cover a lot of distance in no time. Murashov isn’t the biggest goalie in the world although he isn’t the smallest either. He also uses his body well and is intelligent in terms of tracking and anticipating the puck, letting it come to him, rather than relying on reflexes.
The major weakness comes in his overall athleticism. While he moves across the crease quickly, he isn’t the most agile goalie in the world. He is aggressive, but if he is caught can be beaten since he simply can’t get back in time due to his lack of high-end athleticism and agility. There is also the Russian geopolitical situation to take into account when talking about the projectability of Murashov. Russian goalies tend to take longer before going to the NHL, and while waiting six years might not be ideal for the Penguins, it has proven worth it for divisional rivals New York Islanders and New York Rangers in the past few years.
8.) Tristan Broz
One of the steady raisers in the Penguins system is Tristan Broz, who had a great first season at the University of Denver. Having made the switch from Minnesota to Denver, Broz found himself more than doubling his point total and found himself in a much greater role. His exciting and well-rounded offensive flair returned and he established a more consistent presence in the NCAA. He still needs to do more, as he can be a bit too stationary offensively being a perimeter player with a slightly one-dimensional style. He needs to find his way into the open areas, and his off-the-puck movement still leaves something to be desired.
However, improvements were made and with decent coaching could develop into a scoring depth forward in the NHL. Especially since his skating is decent and he plays a very responsible 200-foot game. With continued work on his off-the-puck movement and consistency, Broz might be a player to notice throughout the season as a breakout player in the NCAA.
9.) Isaac Belliveau
Isaac Belliveau is a player who is hoping to make a strong impression in his first pro season. After having enjoyed a successful few seasons in the QMJHL with the Gatineau Olympiques, Belliveau should be in the AHL next season. It will be a major test to see if he is able to translate some of the areas that have made him able to produce at a strong level in the juniors.
In the juniors he was able to utilize his strong vision and movement with the puck to create chances, while also not being punished for his slightly weak acceleration and questionable decision-making. In the NHL he will be, so it will be important that he is willing to learn and improve in those areas throughout his season in the AHL. The skill is there to become a modern middle-pair defender in the NHL, but it needs refinement.
1o.) Lukas Svejkovsky
The last player in the top ten for the Penguins is Lukas Svejkovsky. After a couple of good seasons in the WHL, the 21-year-old had an okay first professional season in the AHL. While he didn’t exactly light the world on fire, he did improve and learn a lot throughout it. It wasn’t a smooth season and the translation to the pros showcased the limitations of his game. Especially in terms of his strength and size as he was facing off against bigger players than in the WHL.
His skating is still a great weapon and as he learns to play against bigger and stronger opponents hope will be that he knows to use it more consistently as he matures his game. In flashes, Svejkovsky was brilliant, with skill and speed, but it was limited a lot. Watch for the youngster speedster to have a breakout year with the lessons he learned through his first season in the AHL.
HM (Round 4 or Later): Emil Järventie
Emil Järventie was one of the 2023 draft selections from the Penguins and was in terms of value one of the more interesting ones they made. Järventie had a very turbulent season in Finland with team changes and he never really got a chance to settle down and find his groove. Giving him a full season at Ilves could be exactly what he needs to unlock his huge potential. His offensive upside is great with a brilliant shot. The understanding of the game needs improvements in order to become more than a pure shooter. The same goes with his physicality and skating he would do well to get a few refined. He is a gamble and a raw offensive talent, but given his turbulent season, he could be a player who suddenly shines on a stable team.
In The System
Let’s not beat around the bush and sugarcoat things. The Pittsburgh Penguins have one of the shallowest and weakest prospect pools in the NHL. Outside the eleven names on this list, there aren’t many others who have a realistic shot at the NHL. The success they have enjoyed for over a decade has been costly when looking at the prospect pool. It’s worrisome just how many D-prospects there are in the system, where a shot in the NHL is next to impossible.
One of the few players that has a somewhat realistic shot is Mikhail Ye. Ilyin. However, this would be in a limited role in the NHL. While he plays a smart game in both zones the ceiling is also extremely limited being around a bottom-six grinder. Outside Ilyin the only other player who might have a future in the league is Filip Lindberg. In flashes, he can be excellent but will need a major recovery this upcoming season to get back into the depth chart of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Main Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports