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McKeen’s 2020-21 Hockey Yearbook: Pittsburgh Penguins Top 20 Prospects

McKeen's Top 20 Pittsburgh Penguins prospects for the 2020-21 season. You can read an organizational assessment prior to the draft in Ryan Wagman's article found here. Following the draft we provided a review on each teams performance based on our rankings found here.

  1. Samuel Poulin, RW (21st overall, 2019. Previous ranking: 1)

Poulin is a well-rounded offensive player, who has looked dominant at times in his junior career with Sherbrooke. It is hard to find fault in his game: great skater, great puckhandler, excellent hockey mind, deadly shooter, plays the whole ice and strikes on the counterattack. He plays with intensity and with a strong work ethic to find the seam and attack. His reads are top-notch. He is at home anywhere on the ice because of his great balance and strong physical play. He is already at a solid size at 216 pounds yet can still move quickly. He is a strong forechecker, and finishes his hits, setting an example for his teammates. It is not difficult to foresee a path to the NHL for Poulin, as he has all the tools. The sky is the limit for the winger, who has passed every test in the Q with flying colours. A top line do-it-all forward to carry the torch in the waning years of Crosby and Malkin era is not out of the question, and a very solid middle-six winger is at the very least in his sights. - MS

  1. Pierre-Olivier Joseph, D (Trade: Jun. 29, 2019. Originally: 23rd overall, 2017 (Arizona). Previous ranking: 2)

A prospect who is not nearly as flashy as other top ranked players is the quiet, yet dangerous Joseph, acquired from Arizona in the Phil Kessel trade. In his rookie professional season, he brought poise, calmness, high hockey IQ, and strong skating to the blueline for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He is very accurate and smart when it comes to passing and is a good two-way defenseman, offering dependable coverage in the defensive zone and strong puck carrying abilities and passing in the offensive zone. Still a lightweight, Joseph will have to keep working on getting bigger and stronger in order to be able to move opponents off the puck and win important battles as well as avoiding being easily separated from the puck himself. Overall, there is nothing wrong with the way Joseph plays and he has much to offer in terms of smarts and individual composure and skill. Look to see him earn his first NHL call up next year and add depth to Pittsburgh’s bottom four. – SC

  1. Joel Blomqvist, G (52nd overall, 2020. Previous ranking: NA)

With the possible exception of his ability to harness rebounds, there is no one trait in which Blomqvist stands out among goaltending prospects. He has an uncanny ability to push shots with his blocker, pads, or stick to the corners. Thankfully, there are no major chinks in his armor, which made him one of the top netminders in the 2020 draft class after Yaroslav Askarov. In every aspect you could look in a goalie, he grades out well. He is a good skater and is steady on his feet. He is calm and patient in the paint, not changing his demeanor in traffic or when staring down a breakaway. He tracks the puck well and does a good job of reading the shooters. He does a good job of knowing when to stay tall and when to drop into a butterfly. He can even handle the puck as needed. He is set to play against men this season in Finland. With skaters, we generally preach upside. With goalies, the risk is high enough that there is merit looking for steadiness. Blomqvist has it. – RW

  1. Anthony Angello, C (145th overall, 2014. Previous ranking: 3)

At 6-5”, Angello is one of the bigger forwards in the pro ranks and he carries himself well, finding ways to get to the net with ease. He uses his size to win battles and clean up garbage around the net, although he needs to also be careful of penalties when he throws his body around. Angello is a good puck handler and a good skater but he needs to be more aware in the neutral and defensive zones, and he cannot afford to turn the puck over or make bad passes, because he recovery ability is not the greatest. He could see NHL powerplay action in time, but he will have to earn another call up and capitalize on that opportunity as a bottom six forward first before being considered for regular special teams’ duties. He is an asset based on size alone and once considering his skills it will be safe to say that he will be receiving additional NHL opportunities, with a good chance of staying up for good. - SC

  1. Valtteri Puustinen, RW/LW (203rd overall, 2019. Previous ranking: 4)

Puustinen is a very crafty and skilled winger. He can be unpredictable with the puck and pull off great plays to surprise opposing defensemen and goalies. He has some nice creativity to his game. He reads the game at a high level and sees the ice well. He does not try to force plays. His skating is an asset – with quick first few strides and he is light on his skates. He is quick to pucks. If he improves his shot and finishing ability, he will be even more dangerous offensively, particularly on the power play. He is dependable without the puck and does not leak defensively, but his puck play has impressed me the most. Puustinen has improved significantly over the last few seasons and has developed from a promising junior player into a solid NHL prospect. Assuming he keeps improving, it won't be too long until he moves to North America. Eventually, he could become a versatile middle-six NHL winger, one who can contribute in a lot of ways. Whether he manages to become one is far from a sure thing, but he has a chance. – MB

  1. Jonathan Gruden, RW (95th overall, 2018. Pre-season: 18)

A former NTDP member, Gruden left Miami University after his freshman season in order to join the London Knights this year. Gruden operates well as an offensive support player. He controls the wall well, keeps his feet moving in the offensive zone, and possesses the vision and awareness to find those soft spots in coverage. While his skating ability, skill level, and physical skill set would be deemed average, he is successful at the OHL level due to his high-end IQ. As such, Gruden projects best as a bottom six forward at the NHL level. At the pro level, there may certainly be an adjustment period as his skating and strength improve to the level that they need to in order for him to succeed in a “grind it out” role against men. - BO

  1. Nathan Legare, RW (74th overall, 2019. Previous ranking: 5)

Légaré has potential to truly establish himself as a power forward in the pro game, but his skating is not yet good enough to ensure success. The bulky bruiser has good size for the next level and finishes his checks when he gets there. He can be a strong forechecker on a defense that does not move the puck quickly. He also has an excellent shot, including both a booming slapshot and a wrist shot from closer range. His effort is never questioned, and his feet stay moving, but his skating is only average for the junior level. As a positive, Légaré plays well with talented linemates, especially ones that can time his skating with their playstyle. He needs to be put in a position to use his shot effectively, and he is a strong player in the half-court offense when speed isn’t as much of a factor as are awareness and positioning. He will need to continue to develop an elite-level hockey sense and the awareness to be able to compete with his skating deficits. With improvements, he could be a power forward who can score, but his skating will need to take a few strides to get there.  - MS

  1. Jordan Bellerive, C (Undrafted Free Agent, signed Sep. 16, 2017. Previous ranking: 6)

After a scary fire-related accident had the Penguins concerned for their prospect’s health, as of the beginning of last season, Bellerive managed to come back in good shape and perform well in his professional rookie season in the AHL. As a player with a stocky build, he is solid on the puck and carries it well, he can win battles and knows how to use his body when protecting the puck. As his points were nearly evenly divided for goals and assists in major junior, his points this past season in the AHL saw no changes in breakdown, proving that he is capable of making the right plays, seeing the ice well and contributing with good individual efforts as part of his transition to the professional ranks. With his work ethic he should be able to find the extra speed needed to keep up at times for next season in order to earn some time up as part of Pittsburgh’s bottom six. - SC

  1. Will Reilly, D (217th overall, 2018. Previous ranking: 7)

The Pittsburgh draft pick spent four years at RPI maturing his game after playing a few seasons of junior hockey in the OJHL and the BCHL. The seventh-round draft pick has proven that he can contribute offensively. He was named the OJHL top prospect in 2014-15 as a 17-year-old. He isn’t the fastest defenseman, but he can still skate with smooth strides and can join the rush as a winger, allowing him to create opportunities for his teammates. He served as a captain during his senior season and played on the second penalty kill unit. Reilly is a steady defensive presence and knows when to join the rush and when to hang back. He can be physical, blocks shots and has a quick defensive stick. His passes are crisp and clean. At 22 years old, there is still some room for Reilly to grow. - JS

  1. Kasper Bjorkqvist, RW (61st overall, 2016. Previous ranking: 8)

Despite having only played six games this past season in the AHL, former Providence College captain Bjorkvist had strong showings when he was able to play. He managed to handle a good amount of ice time, including time of the penalty kill, and even earned one goal. He stands out as a good skater, a good two-way player with plus awareness on the ice due to his constant motion and ways of finding open ice. He still needs to work on his passing and his puck movement while in the attacking end, as turnovers need to be eliminated which have been a consequence of poor passing decisions and accuracy. Hopefully, Bjorkvist can work towards completing a full season next year, coming back healthy and ready to play in order to make an impact in the AHL before a call up to Pittsburgh as a positionally sound and physically ready-to-play forward capable of handling a bottom six role at the highest level. - SC

  1. Santeri Airola, D (211th overall, 2019. Previous ranking: 9)

Airola is a mobile defenseman with very good acceleration. He can carry the puck up the ice and skate away from pressure – the puck does not slow him down. He is an effective puck transporter and can gain the offensive zone with speed. He makes a firm first pass, and both his short and long-range passes are accurate. He is very active in the offensive zone, both with and without the puck. His shot lacks power, but it is accurate, and he is not afraid to use it. He needs to add velocity to be able to score more goals, though. He handles the puck well and plays with his head up. He has work to do on his defensive game. He can be a bit inconsistent with his defensive zone coverage. He also needs to improve his defending in small spaces and get much stronger. He will compete for ice-time on Ilves' Liiga team next season. - MB

  1. Drew O’Connor, LW (Undrafted Free Agent, signed Mar. 10, 2019. Previous ranking: 10)

O’Connor was one of the biggest free agent signings of the year. An undrafted player, he epitomized late bloomer development, leaving school after playing his sophomore season at 22 years of age. He played prep school hockey in New Jersey followed by the T1 elite hockey league and went to the NCDC before finally heading to Dartmouth. After being named to the All-Ivy Second Team as a freshman, he was named the Ivy League player of the year this year. O’Connor is always a scoring threat and appears all over the ice. He earned first unit power play time and led the Big Green in scoring. He has a big frame and moves well for a skater of his size, using his speed to blow past opposing defenders. He was able to score this year despite teams often double teaming him to neutralize the threat. He needs to work on protecting the puck better before he will have a chance at the NHL. – JS

  1. Chase Yoder, C (170th overall, 2020. Previous ranking: NA)

Yoder has never been a big scorer, even playing U16 hockey in the Dallas area, but he has proven himself to be a viable and important member of the USNTDP in his two years in the program. For starters, he is an excellent skater, with plus edges and great acceleration. Most of the scoring chances he manages to work his way into come from that skating power. Another plus feature of his game is his aggressiveness. He is slight but plays a very feisty brand of hockey. The third trait that helped convince the Penguins to draft him was his brain. The Providence commit is a very good defensive forward and can play the tough minutes. His hands aren’t bad, but they aren’t what will help push him to the NHL in time. Yoder reads the game well and that maturity will help him adapt to the next level, even if his ceiling will remain low for the duration of his development due to the lack of offensive tools. – RW

  1. Sam Miletic, LW/C (Undrafted Free Agent, signed Sep. 25, 2017. Previous ranking: 11)

Passed over in the draft despite having played a key role for one of the top ranked teams in the CHL with the London Knights, where the bulk of that team was drafted and some now play in the NHL, the work Miletic has put up to keep his level of competition up high enough to attract the eye of the Pittsburgh Penguins is impressive. Finishing fourth in points last season with the Baby Penguins in the AHL, it is clear to see that he was a good signing choice with a strong presence on the left wing. Playing on both special teams units, Miletic was given more responsibility last season and has proven that his skating ability as well as the quick and methodical way he moves the puck is more than enough to prove himself at the AHL level. Look for him to earn his first call up to Pittsburgh to fill a bottom six spot in the coming season. - SC

  1. Cam Lee, D (Undrafted Free Agent, signed Mar. 17, 2020. Previous ranking: 12)

A Nova Scotian who played prep hockey in New York State before moving on to the USHL, Lee was a potential NHL draft pick by his second year of eligibility, when his power play strength had him finish the year as a third-team All-Star in the league. He went unselected and instead spent the previous four seasons doing the same thing for Andy Murray’s Western Michigan. In those four years, Lee has developed a more robust two-way game, capable of contributing on both special teams’ units. He lacks any one standout tool, but does everything well enough, and occasionally even above average. He skates well and is comfortable carrying the puck up the ice. He has a hammer of a one-timer. He reads and recognizes the play well, allowing him to protect the puck. Should he make another quick transition to the pro game, Lee could soon be vying for third pairing minutes in the NHL. - RW

  1. Judd Caulfield, RW (145th overall, 2019. Previous ranking: 13)

A big winger who has never been a big point producer, Caulfield has flashed a robust enough total package both in his years with the USNTDP and now at North Dakota, to hold out some hope that he could yet develop into more than a fourth liner at the highest level. Even if he never finds a better use of his soft hands, or his smooth wheels – the latter being rather impressive at his size – he has always more than earned his keep on the roster through his two-way play and particularly his defensive reliability. He is a high IQ, meat-and-potatoes winger who can play a shutdown role. If his lack of offensive production turns out to have been a lack of confidence as opposed to a lack of creativity (although we suspect his issue is the latter), he could produce enough to eventually play higher up the lineup. For now, he is a safe, if unsexy prospect still a few years away from the pros. - RW

  1. Clayton Phillips, D (93rd overall, 2017. Previous ranking: 14)

After Phillips could not get out of the third pairing over a season and a half with the University of Minnesota, he transferred to Penn State where the situation was much the same. The burgeoning two-way defender who made the USHL’s top rookie team in his draft year lacks the big tools to do more than flash the occasional big moment. He reads the play well, is patient with the puck and recognizes opportunities to impact the game in the offensive end. On the other hands, he is small and is not a fleet enough skater to overcome the size deficiency with ease. He can show some cleverness with the puck but falls short of dynamic and his shot is not powerful enough to project as a power play option. There is still some hope that he could carve out a depth role at a higher level, but he needs a big season to be assured of an NHL contract after completing his collegiate eligibility. – RW

  1. Jesper Lindgren, D (Trade: Aug. 25, 2020. Originally: 95th overall, 2015 [Toronto]. Previous ranking: 15)

After playing his first full season in North America as part of the Toronto Marlies blueline squad, Jesper Lindgren has now been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, along with Kasperi Kapanen. For an undersized defenseman, he brings a good skill set with good skating and puck handling. He is solid at starting plays and does well at managing gap control and defending in his own end. Offensively, Lindgren is dependable at getting pucks deep and moving the puck accordingly across the blueline, becoming a more team focused player than a strictly shot-first. He will offer the Penguins organization a lot in the future as he continues to develop, although it is uncertain as to where Lindgren will fall as his development has been so slow to date. Not to say he is bad but rather just in need of a few tweaks to bring his game up a level. At the rate the Penguins are drafting and with the depth of their prospect system, Lindgren should get a chance to play up sometime in the next season (if he remains in North America) as part of the Penguins bottom four. – SC

  1. Calle Clang, G (77th overall, 2020. Previous ranking: NA)

An unorthodox goaltender who plays a hybrid style and is aggressive in challenging shooters, Clang excelled for Sweden internationally last year while playing in the shadow of the more hyped Jesper Wallstedt (2021 eligible). Clang has good size and was one of the top goaltending options out of Europe in the 2020 draft class, albeit not as promising as Joel Blomqvist, who the Penguins drafted in the round before they selected Clang. Clang may be able to rise up this list in future seasons, as he has plus athleticism and mobility, and he always rises to the occasion in tough situations, but he will also need to improve in a number of areas that are currently weak, including his tracking ability, his rebound control, and his ability to play the puck when called upon. To Clang’s credit, he has performed well in limited opportunity so far this year in his first experience of men’s hockey, playing in Sweden’s second pro league.  – Brock Otten

  1. Joshua Maniscalco, D (UFA: Aug. 21, 2020. Previous ranking: NA)

The third member of this top 20 to have been signed as an undrafted free agent out of the college ranks in 2020, Maniscalco’s inclusion in the list is as much a reflection of the utter shallowness of the Penguins’ system as it is a reflection of his own actual prospects to develop into a viable NHL’er. A former depth player with the USNTDP (not unlike Chase Yoder and Judd Caulfield, above), Maniscalco took an extra year in the USHL, with Dubuque, before moving on the Arizona State, where he truly blossomed as one of the better offensive defensemen in college hockey, finishing sixth in NCAA in defenseman scoring. A right-handed shot, he has overcome some of the lack of discipline he demonstrated in his junior days, while showing a full set of decent, if unspectacular tools. The key for hi to improve his stock as a prospect will be to shore up his play away from the puck and prove that he can be reliable. He is definitely a good gamble for a system that rarely uses all of its draft picks. - RW