Penguins turn to college all-stars to replenish prospect pool
In the latter stages last season, any time the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins took the ice, it looked like hockey’s version of football’s Senior Bowl.
No fewer than six college free agents reported to the AHL team for their first taste of pro hockey, representing schools such as Boston College, Penn State, Michigan Tech, St. Cloud State and Northeastern.
This wasn’t an accident. It was a planned-out player-acquisition strategy the Penguins organization has been using for years.
As a result of multiple trades, the Penguins have made 25 picks in the past five drafts. That’s 10 fewer than the normal allotment. They have to make up the difference somewhere, and the college free agent route is their preferred avenue.
“It’s big. We try to get the best college free agents we can,” scout Kevin Stevens said. “We’re trying to win now, and when you’re trying to win now, we have to make trades to get guys and you don’t have all the picks. You try to do the best you can to get guys in here that believe this is the best place for them.”
It’s a process that turns scouts and assistant general managers into recruiters.
Players who weren’t selected as 18-year-olds in their typical draft year and go on to have success in the college game suddenly become popular as the end of their senior year approaches.
Take defenseman Jon Lizotte, who will play for the Penguins on an AHL contract next season. His defense partner at St. Cloud State, Jimmy Schuldt, was a coveted offensive defenseman who eventually signed with Vegas.
NHL teams flocked to Schuldt, and scouts who came to see him also paid some attention to Lizotte.
“Seeing that around the locker room, it feels like you’re coming out of the junior leagues, having coaches talk to you all the time,” Lizotte said. “It’s different than freshman or sophomore year.”
When the Penguins make their recruiting pitch, they use their recent history as a selling point. Conor Sheary, Zach Aston-Reese and Casey DeSmith are examples of college free agents who moved into the NHL lineup in short order.
“We play young guys,” Stevens said. “Young guys don’t look at it and say, ‘Guys aren’t getting a shot.’ (Coach Mike Sullivan), he plays the guys that are playing well. Guys see that. They see they’re getting opportunities.”
The college free agent process occasionally will turn out a big-time scoring-line forward — Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis from Vermont being the most prominent example — but in general, it tends to produce bottom-six forwards and tons of defensemen.
Newly signed Penguins winger Brandon Tanev, for instance, was a college free agent out of Providence in 2016. A virtual all-star team of defensemen have taken that route to the NHL in recent years, including Boston’s Torey Krug (Michigan State) and Vegas’ Nate Schmidt (Minnesota).
The current crop of Penguins prospects includes Lizotte and Michael Kim (Boston College) on defense and two-way forwards Jake Lucchini (Michigan Tech), Chase Berger (Penn State), Brandon Hawkins (Northeastern) and Christopher Brown (Boston College).
Lucchini is probably the headliner of the group. A 5-foot-11 forward who skates well and can play all over the lineup in all situations, he netted six goals in a brief 15-game AHL stint at the end of last season. He should see his name in call-up conversations in the near future.
He was the lottery winner of the group of Penguins college free agents in another sense. The Penguins signed him to an NHL contract at the end of last season. The others got AHL deals.
“It was cool,” Lucchini said. “When the year ends, then you make a commitment and they say they’ll send the contract over, but then when you get it and look at it, it’s kind of surreal. It’s really humbling. It’s awesome.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .