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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – Top 20 Prospect Profiles – Organizational Rank #31

1. Owen Pickering

The Pittsburgh Penguins are notorious for trading away their first-round picks. With just their second first-round selection since 2014, the Pens drafted Pickering 21st overall in 2022. The defender was coming off a strong rookie season in the WHL with the Swift Current Broncos and was an impressive presence with Team Canada at the Under-18s. He returned to the Broncos in 2022-23 as the captain of the team, taking a noticeable step forward in his game. At the end of that recent WHL season, he joined the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to finish his year. He’s a very smart, mobile defender. The lightness on his feet and his fluid stride should help carry him to the NHL. He won’t bring a ton of offense but could turn into a reliable two-way defender. It’s still early in his development, but Pickering is on his way to becoming a middle-pairing mainstay.

2. Brayden Yager

Yager is a sturdy two-way pivot and a trustworthy workhorse that a coach can send over the boards and rely on in any situation. He's good on the powerplay, he's good on the penalty kill, he's good at matching up against the opposition’s best players, and he's good in the dying minutes of a game whether you're trying to defend a lead or tie the score up. He's quite strong and compact, which helps him out in various ways, whether that's staying on his feet as he fights through checks or generating a lot of power through his shot. Speaking of his shot, it's a major selling point and is his single best attribute. He can beat goalies clean with his wrister, and he doesn't need to reach high-danger ice to do so. With so many different things working in his favour it's pretty surprising that he doesn't leave more of a consistent impact. Too many games come and go where he just isn't enough of a factor, so learning how to leave more of a stamp on the game is key. At minimum, he is a safe prospect with a very high floor.

3. Samuel Poulin

Another rare first-round pick for the Penguins, they drafted Poulin in 2019, also 21st overall. He already had two strong QMJHL seasons under his belt at that time and returned to the Sherbrooke Phoenix as the captain post-draft continue his strong QMJHL career. He made the move to the AHL in 2021-22 with the WBS-Pens, looking like he was adjusting well in his first season. This year, he struggled out of the gate and took an extended leave of absence for personal reasons, which he later disclosed were related to mental health. Poulin has NHL size and the strength to match, combined with soft hands and good skating ability. It seems as though he’s lost some confidence, which he can hopefully recapture. His ceiling may have dropped slightly since his QMJHL days, and he looks like a bottom nine asset at this point.

4. Valterri Puustinen

A late pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, the Penguins called Puustinen’s name 203rd overall. He was coming off his rookie season in the Liiga, where he remained for two more years, playing for HPK. He made the jump to the AHL in 2021-22, even playing in his first NHL game, and adjusted seamlessly to the North American game. He looked even better last season, as the most productive player on the WBS-Penguins. The Finnish winger is quick and he shines in his playmaking ability although he also has a hard, accurate shot to surprise goaltenders. He’s competitive, always looking to get himself in the mix and make things happen. With how late of a pick he was, you could call Puustinen a success already with how his development has gone. He’s not done yet though and should continue to improve until he makes the NHL as a bottom nine winger.

5. Filip Hallander

It seems like Hallander has been around forever at this point, mainly due to how often his name has come up in news. Drafted 58th overall in 2018 by the Penguins, he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2020 Kasperi Kapanen trade, just to be traded back to the Penguins in 2021 in the Jared McCann deal. Hallander spent the three seasons following the draft in the SHL, playing as a secondary scoring option. In the last two years, he’s moved to North America and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he has appeared to be developing well. He’s a jack-of-all-trades that can be plugged anywhere in the lineup and be impactful. He has a very nice wrist shot and low-key playmaking ability. He could be a bottom six, depth forward that could play up the lineup when needed. He’s currently unsigned and heading back to Sweden in 2023-24, putting his NHL future in question.

6. Joel Blomqvist

Blomqvist heard his name called 52nd overall in the 2020 Draft. He was coming off a strong season in the U20 SM-liiga for Karpat U20 where he was named Best Goaltender in the league. He stayed in Finland for the 2020-21 season, playing mostly in the Mestis, the Finnish tier-two league, before making the successful jump to the Liiga in 2021-22. He spent last season there as well, signing his entry-level deal with the Penguins at the end of the campaign, and heading overseas. He’s an aggressive netminder who plays far out of the crease to cut down angles and shows capable of moving fluidly in the crease as well. He plays a good technical game although can get a bit lost in high-pressure scrambles. He could challenge Lindberg for a future backup role after spending some time in the AHL.

7. Tristan Broz

The Penguins drafted Broz 58th overall in 2021 after two good seasons in the USHL where he was quite productive, especially in the playoffs. In 2021-22, he made the jump to the NCAA with the University of Minnesota but struggled to adjust his game to the harder, faster league. Given how deep the Golden Gophers were, Broz decided to switch to the University of Denver last season where he saw better production but was still a depth option. The forward has the ability to attack hard, is reliable as a playmaker, and can create space for himself although he is unfortunately too inconsistent in his effort level. He can disappear in games or show some delays in his processing. He still has time to work out the kinks, but at this point, he looks more like an AHLer and potential call-up option.

8. Filip Lindberg

Another late draft pick from 2019, it was actually the Minnesota Wild who drafted Lindberg as an overager, 197th overall. The Finnish netminder was coming off a very strong rookie season NCAA University of Massachusetts when he was drafted. He continued that collegiate success for two more seasons, leading the team to an NCAA championship in 2020-21. With the goaltender not signing with the Wild, the Penguins swooped in and signed him to an entry-level deal after the conclusion of that successful season. He immediately joined the AHL squad but has played limited games in his two seasons there. He’s an athletic, mobile goaltender that is very strong with his rebound control. Given that he split time at UMass, there is a question of how he would handle a larger load in net. He’s currently unsigned and heading to the Liiga in 2023-24, so there’s another big question mark for his NHL future. He’s still worth keeping an eye on and could become a very reliable backup.

9. Emil Pieniniemi

Pieniniemi is one of those “jack of all trades” defenders who is solid enough at everything but does not have a true standout quality. For a 6- 2” blueliner, he moves quite well, and his strong mobility is the key to his success as a composed two-way player. He plays a generally mistake free game and is solid in coverage with good defensive zone awareness. However, without high end skill or physicality, what’s the upside? Is this a player with a true NHL projection? It would appear that Pieniniemi will continue his development with OHL Kingston this season, where he will receive immediate top four ice time. It will be a great place to nurture his offensive game. At this point, the most likely scenario sees him become a potential bottom pairing defender who could provide solid depth at some point. However, Pittsburgh will gain more feedback about his upside based on his performance this season.

10. Jonathan Gruden

Gruden’s upside at the NHL level is likely capped, but he has worked hard to make himself a viable bottom six option for the Penguins. He’s coming off his best season yet as a pro and could push for a fourth line spot in 2023-24. The former London Knights standout is the son of former NHL assistant and current Toronto Marlies (AHL) coach John Gruden. Jonathan’s game has always been about the energy he brings away from the puck and his ability to create through hard work and perseverance in the offensive end. He’s a relentless forechecker and he’s finally strong enough to consistently win board battles against men at the pro level. He has also worked hard to improve his skating, allowing him to be more elusive and dangerous in the offensive end. Gruden is not a high skill or highly creative player. He keeps things simple and operates best as a complementary piece on the wing. He isn’t very likely to develop into a top nine option at the NHL level, however his tenacious approach could make him a valuable role player and penalty killer.

11. Emil Jarventie

It was fairly shocking to see Jarventie drop to the seventh round this year; we had him ranked 100th. He can be very dangerous in transition with his speed and skill. Improving his play off the puck is going to be the focus.

12. Sergey Murashov

What do the Pens have in Murashov? That’s probably still a mystery given the unpredictable nature of the MHL, especially for netminders. But his athleticism and play tracking stand out as positives, especially because he’s not the biggest goalie.

13. Taylor Gauthier

The Penguins signed Gauthier as a free agent out of the WHL last year and he ended up splitting the year between the AHL and ECHL, not uncommon for first year netminders. The crease is going to be crowded in Wilkes-Barre this year, but Gauthier has shown that he deserves playing time.

14. Raivis Ansons

A Memorial Cup champion with Saint John two years ago, Ansons’ first pro season did not go according to plan. The Latvian winger really struggled to be an impact player. The Penguins still have high hopes for him, but they may need to be patient.

15. Lukas Svejkovsky

Svejkovsky’s final WHL season was a major success, earning him a contract with Pittsburgh. Like Ansons, his first pro season last year was a disappointment that saw him limited to a depth role. Can Svejkovsky’s skating progress to the point that it needs to?

16. Isaac Belliveau

While there are questions as to whether Belliveau is a good enough athlete to be an NHL defender, there is no denying his positive development with Gatineau the last two seasons. He turns pro this year and his performance will be telling about his ultimate upside and chances.

17. Corey Andonovski

There is a bit of a trend with many of Pittsburgh’s listed forward prospects and Andonovski fits right in. He is an intelligent two-way player, but his offensive skills are limited. He could end up a good fourth line, penalty killing option.

18. Zam Plante

Even if Plante’s post draft year in the USHL was a disappointment, his long-term potential remains intriguing. Attending Minnesota-Duluth this fall, the focus will be on improving his strength and quickness to help him overcome his lack of stature.

19. Chase Yoder

Another forward in the Pens’ system with the skill set to develop into a bottom six player. Yoder skates well and can kill penalties. He’ll probably need a big offensive senior season at Providence College to earn a contract following graduation.

20. Ty Glover

Former Western Michigan forward had a tough first year in Wilkes-Barre, but there's still upside for him to develop into an NHL player. Glover is an intriguing athlete who blends size, speed, and strength away from the puck. However, his play on the puck will need to improve if he wants to be an NHL player, even in a checking line role.