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Opportunity abounds for Penguins' new homegrown generation

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, July 5, 2018, 7:50 p.m.
Zach Aston-Reese of the Penguins skates against the Flyers in Game 3 on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia.
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Zach Aston-Reese of the Penguins skates against the Flyers in Game 3 on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia.
The Penguins' Dominik Simon celebrates his goal against the Wild in the third period Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Dominik Simon celebrates his goal against the Wild in the third period Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 17, 2018.
Getty Images
Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 17, 2018.

One of the main reasons the Penguins shrugged off six years of playoff frustration and returned to championship glory in 2016 was an infusion of young, homegrown talent.

The arrival of Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray changed the face of the team.

In the last couple of weeks, however, much of that generation of young talent has been whittled away.

Sheary was shipped off to Buffalo to free up salary cap space. Kuhnhackl left for the New York Islanders in free agency. Rust signed a new, four-year contract, making the same transition from new guy to well-paid roster mainstay that Murray made in 2016.

If the Penguins wish to shrug off last year's playoff frustration and return to the top of the NHL heap, they will need another generation of homegrown newcomers to step in and take their place.

That puts Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon in the spotlight.

“I think it's extremely important for a couple of reasons,” assistant general manager Bill Guerin said. “One, we're in a cap system, so you can only pay so much. You need some of your younger guys who don't make as much to be able to come in and contribute.

“Second of all, you need it for the future of your franchise. You have to keep developing young players. Older players retire. They become free agents. They get traded. Whatever it is, you have to have a continuous flow of players coming in. It's our job to draft well, develop well and time it right where they come in and can contribute.”

The Penguins laid the groundwork for the infusion of new talent at the end of last season.

Aston-Reese, before he suffered a broken jaw and concussion on a hit by Washington's Tom Wilson in the playoffs, was beginning to show signs he could be an effective net-front forward in the near future.

Simon was all over the lineup in the postseason, frequently playing right wing on Sidney Crosby's line. According to a story in a Czech newspaper this week, Simon will spend much of his offseason training with Crosby in Nova Scotia.

Putting young players in prominent spots like those is critical to their development, Guerin said.

“(Coach Mike Sullivan) is going to be open to playing the younger guys and likes it because it pushes the older guys,” Guerin said. “He plays younger guys where they're going to have a chance to succeed.

“For a long time, you'd just bring a young guy up, he plays on the fourth line, he plays eight minutes a game, then he eventually makes his way up. Now, Sully's putting a younger guy on Sid's wing. It might not be for 40 games. It might be for two games or two periods or 10 games, but he's putting him in positions where he's going to have success.

“Dom Simon, for instance. Dom is completely capable of playing with our top lines. In the past, because of his inexperience and youth, a coach might not put him up there. That can't be the case anymore. If that's the type of player he is, that's where he should go.”

While Sullivan's confidence in Simon and Aston-Reese is evident, his willingness to give Sprong reps in key spots could be one of the more intriguing storylines next season.

The Penguins have handled Sprong's development in a painstaking fashion, leaving him in Wilkes-Barre to work on his all-around game well past the point where his offensive game looked NHL ready.

The time has come for the rubber to meet the road.

“He's a guy that we're excited about,” Sullivan said. “We believe he's an NHL-caliber player. I think training camp will be very important for all our players, Daniel included, to try to help us decide who the best players are that are going to help us win games.

“We certainly have high expectations of Daniel because we think he's a real good player. We think his game has evolved. Certainly we think he's a guy, moving forward, that can help this organization win.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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