Whether general manager Jim Rutherford’s offseason moves have improved the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chances of returning to championship contention is a matter for debate.
This isn’t: Rutherford’s summer has dramatically improved the team’s prospect pool.
On defense, the Penguins picked up first-round draft pick Pierre-Olivier Joseph in the Phil Kessel trade and dealt with Edmonton to add Harvard product John Marino. At forward, Rutherford resisted the temptation to trade away draft picks and chose exciting goal-scoring prospects Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare instead.
All four players are scheduled to play for the Penguins in the annual four-team rookie tournament in Buffalo next weekend.
The Penguins will face Boston prospects at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, New Jersey prospects at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7 and Buffalo rookies at 12:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9.
The Penguins were trounced in last year’s tournament, which might have been an indication of the lack of depth in the prospect pool. Even though there isn’t a single player on the roster who has yet to make his NHL debut, they should fare better this time around due to the offseason uptick in talent level.
Mike Vellucci, hired as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach in June, will be behind a Penguins bench for the first time in the tournament.
Here’s a look at all 24 players the Penguins invited to the tournament.
• Calen Addison (5-10, 180, 19): Right-handed puck-moving whiz should be one of junior hockey’s top-scoring defensemen this season and is a candidate for World Junior Championships duty.
• Niclas Almari (6-1, 180, 21): Under-the-radar prospect is smart, smooth and plays bigger than he’s listed. He’s ticketed for Wilkes-Barre.
• Pierre-Olivier Joseph (6-2, 185, 20): Prospect acquired in the Phil Kessel deal is set to make his pro debut in the AHL. He’s an excellent skater. The question is how high his offensive upside will be.
• Michael Kim (5-11, 200, 24): Part of a big crop of college free agents who arrived in Wilkes-Barre late last season. Signed to an AHL deal.
• Zach Lauzon (6-1, 187, 20): The Penguins elected not to sign their 2017 second-round pick after his injury riddled junior career ended, but they continue to keep tabs on him. He’s attending the tournament as a tryout.
• Jon Lizotte (6-0, 210, 24): Undrafted rookie out of St. Cloud State is a solid, physical defender signed to an AHL contract.
• John Marino (6-1, 181, 22): Penguins sent a sixth-round pick to Edmonton for Marino’s rights, then convinced him to forego his senior season at Harvard and sign an NHL deal earlier this season. He’s a two-way right-handed shooter with a mature game.
• Liam Ross (6-2, 198, 18): Penguins keeping an eye on this undrafted defender from Sudbury of the OHL who attended their development camp in June. He’s got good size and skating ability and had a solid junior season as a 17-year-old.
• Anthony Angello (6-5, 210, 23): Power forward should be in the call-up conversation after a solid rookie year in Wilkes-Barre last season.
• Jordy Bellerive (5-10, 195, 20): After a successful junior career and a serious hand injury suffered in a campfire explosion, it’s time for Bellerive to see how his goal-scoring ability translates to the pro game.
• Chase Berger (6-0, 194, 24): Talented college player at Penn State could be an important two-way player for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season.
• Chris Brown (6-0, 179, 23): Undrafted Boston College product on an AHL deal will look to fill a role in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s bottom six.
• Jan Drozg (6-2, 174, 20): Because he hails from Slovenia and played for a low-profile junior club, Drozg remains a bit of a wild-card prospect. It will be interesting to see how his puck skills translate at the AHL level.
• Brandon Hawkins (5-10, 198, 25): Undrafted rookie out of Northeastern was one of the most advanced players at development camp in June.
• Renars Krastenbergs (6-0, 185, 20): Latvia winger had a pretty good rookie season for the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers last year.
• Sam Lafferty (6-1, 195, 24): Hollidaysburg native passed his first pro test with flying colors, emerging as a consistent contributor for Wilkes-Barre last season. He must keep climbing the ladder this year.
• Nathan Legare (6-0, 205, 18): Based on his junior hockey accomplishments as a 17-year-old and a strong showing at development camp, Legare looks like a real-deal goal-scoring prospect and perhaps a steal of a third-round pick.
• Jake Lucchini (5-11, 183, 24): Michigan Tech product has a leg up on the other undrafted college players in the Penguins system because he earned an NHL contract. He plays a mature, two-way game.
• Sam Miletic (6-0, 197, 22): Power forward used the development camp and rookie tournament process to secure an NHL deal with the Penguins in 2017. Coming off a pretty good rookie season in the AHL.
• Billy Moskal (6-0, 190, 19): Good skater and faceoff man from London of the OHL who attended Penguins development camp as a tryout.
• Sam Poulin (6-1, 208, 18): Dynamic first-round pick has answered questions about his skating in a favorable way in juniors and in development camp. The rookie tournament will be another test.
• Josh Williams (6-1, 185, 18): Penguins taking another look at this talented forward who hasn’t quite put it all together at the major junior level yet.
• Alex D’Orio (6-2, 109, 20): This season will go a long way toward seeing what the Penguins actually have in the undrafted D’Orio. In juniors, he played on a bad team in Saint John and a really good team in Baie-Comeau, so it’s hard to isolate his individual contributions.
• Emil Larmi (6-0, 185, 22): Personable Finn was one of the stars of development camp. The rookie tournament is the next step in the development process. He has a high ceiling.