Penguins could use push from next generation of prospects
When Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and a generation of young players burst onto the NHL scene a couple of years ago, they helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win back-to-back championships.
But that’s not all they did.
They also set the bar incredibly high for future crops of prospects.
As the Penguins opened development camp Wednesday afternoon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, a handful of intriguing players took the ice.
Jordy Bellerive is a decorated sniper from the Western Hockey League. Defenseman Calen Addison is one of the niftiest skaters in junior hockey. Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare are high-end power forwards from Quebec added to the prospect pool at last weekend’s draft in Vancouver.
Kasper Bjorkqvist isn’t skating as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, but his physical maturity makes him a candidate to press for NHL work in the near future.
Those prospects saw what their predecessors did. They watched them on TV, lifting the Stanley Cup in 2016-17. They know the heights that are possible if everything breaks right.
“Those guys are very inspirational, their story, how they came in and were impact players,” Bellerive said. “That would be very cool for me to be a guy like that. I’m doing everything I can to make that possible sooner or later.”
But is it fair to expect them to step up and make the kind of contribution the golden generation did?
Absolutely, assistant general manager Bill Guerin said.
“That’s what we’re shooting for,” Guerin said. “That’s what we’re encouraging because we do believe we still have the guys that can do that. For the guys that did it, when the opportunity came, they jumped on it. That’s what it’s all about. Opportunity’s going to come. There are trades. There are injuries. There’s a whole bunch of different things that can happen. But when your opportunity comes, you better be ready.”
The young players currently penciled into the Penguins lineup — including Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon and Teddy Blueger, three forwards with growth potential — haven’t experienced the same kind of success the wave before them did.
They’re still young, so there’s time for them to continue to build their careers on a positive trajectory.
The hopefuls behind them are even younger, though, and there’s nothing they’d rather do than take their jobs.
“Glen Sather said he used to always tell his teams in Edmonton, ‘If you can take Wayne Gretzky’s job, I’ll give it to you,’ ” Guerin said. “Nobody could, but that’s the name of the game.”
It might be premature to expect the players on the development camp roster to shove aside NHL regulars this season. Some, such as Poulin and Legare, are only 18.
There’s a crop of players who spent last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton who are closer to knocking at the door.
Hollidaysburg native Sam Lafferty had an unexpectedly prolific rookie year. Adam Johnson has speed to burn. Anthony Angello and Sam Miletic were Penguins power forward prospects before being a Penguins power forward prospect was cool.
For the Penguins to climb their way back into title contention, they’re going to need to see change at the top end of the roster. That much is clear. But if a few members of the next wave of prospects can wedge their way into the picture as well, it could make a world of difference.
“That’s what we want to strive for,” player development coach Tom Kostopoulos said. “I think it’s a good goal to set. They’re great examples. Those guys were in Wilkes-Barre. They put in the work. They put in the time, and they came up and did a great job. I feel like there’s guys that can do it, and we’re trying to help them any way we can.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .