Here are some notes from from the Penguins’ annual development, which wrapped up with a three-on-three tournament this afternoon. Let’s start with three stars for the entire week:
1. JAKE GUENTZEL
He’s quick, crafty, skilled and makes players around him better. That’s one thing when he’s setting up established pros like Carter Rowney and Tom Kostopoulos like he did in a late-season stint with WBS. It’s even more impressive when he’s setting up lesser-known development camp teammates for goals, like he did with Connor Lemirande in today’s scrimmage.
Assistant general manager Bill Guerin’s thoughts on Guentzel:
“He’s gotta focus on having a good summer. You can’t rest on something you did a couple of months ago because there’s always next year. The biggest thing for Jake is that (after) he came in and played so well and did so well, he’s not going to be a secret anymore. He’s going to have to come in and earn it all over again. We’re going to have to manage our expectations as a management group to make sure we’re giving Jake a lot of support and pushing him in the right direction.”
2. ANTHONY ANGELLO
The Penguins had a lot of big guys in this camp, a few 6-foot-7 kids, a handful of others between 6-3 and 6-5. Most of them skate and move like big guys. Angello doesn’t, even though he’s 6-4. He’s skilled and athletic. Lots of potential in this kid, who just finished his freshman year at Cornell. More on him later.
3. ETHAN PROW
He’s got four years of college under his belt, so when he looked more polished than most of the other players in camp, it wasn’t a surprise. But there was more to his successful showing in camp than that. He has legit puck-handling skills and a big-time shot.
Now, some other thoughts:
— C.J. Yakimowicz had 22 goals and 267 penalty minutes in 148 OHL games with the London Knights, so it’s no secret what kind of game he plays. But in the tournament final today, he roofed a backhand shot on a breakaway, sending the water bottle flying. Silky mitts, as the kids say. “Three on three just brings it out in me. I’m a 3v3 specialist, I guess,” he joked. More on him later.
— When the Penguins drafted Connor Hall last weekend, I think the perception of hockey Twitter was that he was a knuckle-dragging, face-punching Neanderthal who went against everything the Penguins were trying to build on defense. Not the case. At all. Hall scored two goals in the first scrimmage of the day, then netted the decisive shootout goal on a hard, accurate wrister blocker side in off the post. “At the start of junior, I just saw myself as a shutdown defenseman. I only had two goals this year. But to add some offensive ability and get more comfortable with the puck, it’s going to help my game going forward,” Hall said.
— Nikita Pavlychev, a 6-7 center who will attend Penn State in the fall, is an interesting prospect. He’s so big that your first instinct is to say he’s slow, but then you watch him in skating drills and see the way he turns and uses his edges and you think he’s actually a pretty good skater. He’s a long-term prospect to keep an eye on.
— Cameron Hebig and James McEwan were the two 19-year-old junior kids in camp and they both showed exceptional puck skills.
— Niclas Almari has a sneaky skill level to his game. Smooth.
— Freddie Tiffels is an outstanding skater.
— Lukas Bengtsson had a quiet scrimmage today until all of a sudden, he found a loose puck in the slot and scored off the crossbar on a bomb of a slapshot. All those defensemen the Penguins signed yesterday to two-way contracts may have pushed Bengtsson down the depth chart for now, but I don’t know how long he’ll stay down. He’s talented.
— Guerin’s thoughts on the defensive depth acquired on July 1: “Very happy with it. Very happy. We were able to land targeted guys. We’re very happy with what each individual guy brings to the table. For us, especially in those positions, the character we brought in we think is very, very high. I think our depth is back. We have guys that can come up and give us games, for sure. You have guys that are going to challenge for a spot on the big team. We’re very happy.”
Beyond that, when it comes to an event like development camp, there are more stories to tell than there are available column inches in a newspaper. So here are 3,000 words worth of some of the untold tales from this week.
JUNIOR HOCKEY SNIPER LOOKING FOR A CONTRACT
For the majority of players in Cranberry this week, Penguins development camp was more a learning experience more than a job interview.
Of the 35 players who were in attendance, 13 were unsigned draft picks, six were signed to NHL contracts and two have inked AHL deals. That left 14 players in camp on tryouts, but most of them will return to their college or junior teams in the fall.
So only a few young players were actually skating with their professional careers hanging in the balance.
Reid Gardiner was one of them.
A 20-year-old winger, Gardiner has been passed over in the draft process, likely because his skating isn’t a strong point.
“Every player wants to improve on the little things, stick position and body position, things like that, but the big thing for me has got to be skating,” Gardiner said. “I always have to try to be faster and quicker and more explosive on my skates.”
Skating concerns haven’t stopped Gardiner from being one of the top scorers in the Western Hockey League, however. He’s racked up 99 goals in 208 games over the past three seasons, numbers sure to open some eyes.
Gardiner has been to development camps before, once with Minnesota and once with Vancouver, but now it’s getting serious.
“It’s not really about experience now. It’s about earning a spot in an organization,” he said earlier this week. “Coming in here, that’s one of my goals. I’m very excited to be here. They showed a lot of interest in me and I’m excited for the future.”
Pittsburgh has become a coveted destination for prospects who don’t have flashy pedigrees because several players who fit that description played key roles for the Penguins in their run to the Stanley Cup.
Gardiner would like to add his name to that list.
“I think it’s a good camp to come to,” he said. “Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray, their names have been tossed around here the last couple days. It’s exciting to come here and look at people on the team who have been late picks and free agents and realize it’s not just a dream. It could be a reality.”
Because the Penguins won a Stanley Cup less than a month ago with a group of defensemen who are much better at moving the puck that clearing the crease, the organization has become a beacon of hope for a particular brand of prospect.
The undersized but swift-skating offensive defenseman.
Lukas Bengtsson and Ethan Prow, undrafted free agents who signed with the Penguins in the spring, certainly fit the mold. So does 5-foot-10, 174-pound defenseman Dylan Zink, who attended development camp as a tryout.
“The last probably five, 10 years, the game has really changed,” Zink said. “Not all your defensemen are 6-foot-4 bangers. You’ve got guys who can join the play, get back to pucks, move the puck well, think the game as well as play physical too. I’m not going to be the biggest force out there on the ice, so I’ve got to use my brains and a little bit more skill.”
Zink has been successful in that quest over the past two seasons, hitting double digits in goals as both a sophomore and junior at UMass-Lowell. He is planning to return to school for his senior year in the fall, but his is a name to remember moving forward.
“I like to play a fast game, move the puck, kind of get up in the play a little bit,” Zink said. “You watch all playoffs how fast these guys play. The commentators talked about it all the time, how fast. At Lowell, we try to play fast too. I think the styles probably meshed a little bit.”
NOT FAR FROM HIS NHL DEBUT
Of the 18 forwards on the ice at development camp, Jake Guentzel is the closest to being ready for NHL duty. Teddy Blueger is probably second.
A 6-foot, 185-pound second-round pick from the 2012 draft, Blueger joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of his senior season in the spring and carved out a spot for himself as a fourth-line center and penalty killer.
“I was trying to come in and learn as much as I can,” Blueger said. “It was a lot of fun, just watching some of the older guys and the great players they had like (Tom Kostopoulos) and Dustin Jeffrey and those guys and trying to learn from them, seeing what they do in practice and their off-ice habits. I think it was a little bit tough coming into a team where everybody has their roles established. It was tougher in terms of seeing how you fit in and how you can help the team. I was glad I could be a part of it.”
Blueger’s NHL future may indeed be as a fourth-line center. He’s known more for using his smarts in all three zones than breaking games open with his offensive creativity.
“Those details are huge,” Blueger said. “It’s great to be able to play both ends of the rink. That way you’re versatile and the coach can trust you more and put you out there in all situations, special teams and stuff. That’s one of the biggest things my college coach taught me. You’ve got to be able to defend. That’s going to give you a lot more playing time.”
For now, though, Blueger is intent on showing another side of his game in the AHL. Blueger was, after all, Minnesota-Mankato’s leading scorer with 35 points in 41 games last season.
“I think I’m a complete player,” he said. “I have more offense and more skill that I can show. At that time when I came in, that was the role I found myself in and I kind of embraced it. Whatever I can do to help the team.”
Center is a spot on the depth chart where the Penguins are a bit thin. After Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino, there’s a drop-off to Oskar Sundqvist, Kevin Porter, Carter Rowney, Jean-Sebastien Dea and Blueger.
For that reason, Blueger might be closer to the NHL than even he realizes.
“On the one hand, it’s kind of close. On the other hand, it’s still very far,” he said. “Everyone here is a great player. Everyone has a shot to make it. I try not to take that approach. I try to focus on controlling what I can control, and that’s my game and my work ethic and my attitude.”
Anthony Angello has probably seen his prospect stock soar more than anyone else on the development camp roster in the last 12 months.
At this time last year, he was a lanky 6-foot-4 center coming off two solid but unspectacular seasons with Omaha of the USHL. He was considered more of a long-term project.
He burst onto the prospect radar with a superb freshman season at Cornell, leading the team with 11 goals and finishing second in scoring with 24 points in 34 games.
Angello is from Manlius, N.Y., which is only about an hour from Cornell’s campus, so he knew what to expect when he arrived on campus.
“It was pretty close to my expectations,” he said. “Growing up, I got to go to a lot of Cornell games. I got to see the speed and the size of the guys. It was nice because I had guys like Christian (Hilbrich) and Jeff Kubiak who checked in with me in the summer and made sure things were going well. Between talking to them and being able to get down there because I was so close to home, it made the adjustment a little bit easier.”
What he didn’t expect was his role. Cornell’s coaching staff asked him to play in a more offensive capacity.
“It was a little different than what I was used to playing juniors,” Angello said. “In juniors, I was more a third or fourth-line guy, kind of a two-way forward, more energy and physical play. They expected the same thing at Cornell, but they also expected more of a goal-scoring role. I just tried to do my best in the role and look for little things to work on along the way.”
TAKING THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Defenseman Matt Petgrave stands out at Penguins development camp because of the unusual route he took to get there.
Petgrave, 24, was one of the top defensemen in the Ontario Hockey League a few years back, but when it was time to turn pro in 2013, he took a left turn. The contract offers he received didn’t blow him away and he took education very seriously, so instead of signing with a minor-league team, he enrolled at the University of New Brunswick.
In the three years since, Petgrave has learned a lot, both in his business classes – he’s an accounting major – and about hockey. The University of New Brunswick, he found, isn’t a place for young players to forget about being prospects for a while. It’s a place that helps them on their way.
“It’s a really good program, so they focus on trying to get guys to the next level while also focusing on academics,” he said. “It was a big decision for me, but it was an easy one, to be honest, because UNB has a great history of developing guys, turning them into pros and also getting their degrees.
“I thought it was a little bit of a different route, a longer route. Some guys take a step off the treadmill and go to school, but out east, college hockey is really good. It’s not a step off the treadmill.”
Petgrave stands out in camp for another reason. Unlike many of the puck-moving defensemen on the roster, there’s another part of the game he likes better.
“I like open-ice hitting,” he said, “and after that, getting pucks up to the forwards and letting them do the work.”
GETTING BACK TO WORK AFTER A WILD SPRING
It’s easy to forget now, what with the playoff twists and turns and Stanley Cup celebrations that followed, but at the start of the recently completed postseason, 21-year-old Tristan Jarry was one errant shot to Jeff Zatkoff’s collarbone away from being thrust into the biggest spotlight a goalie can occupy in the game.
Jarry backed up Zatkoff while Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray were out with concussions for the first two games of the playoffs.
He’ll never forget the playoff cloak and dagger he was thrown into.
“It was pretty crazy,” Jarry said. “I was something I’ll never forget and something that was different. Coming out of the locker room whenever the cameras were in the room just so they didn’t know who was backing up and who was starting, it’s always something different here I guess you could say.”
He’ll also never forget the atmosphere at Consol Energy Center.
“You see the fans wearing their gold to every game, how much they’re behind their team, it’s amazing to see,” Jarry said. “To be around throughout the whole playoffs, you see the fans were even better every game.”
Playoff drama aside, Jarry’s first pro season was a mixed bag. Overall, he was pretty good, going 17-13-3 with a .905 save percentage in the regular season. But he also lost his starting spot to undrafted Casey DeSmith by the end of the AHL playoffs.
“It’s a lot of ups and downs and a lot of getting used to different things,” Jarry said. “I started out as the back-up and ended as the starter with Matt getting called up. It’s one of those things you have to keep working on and get better every day.”
With 2016 second-round draft pick Filip Gustavsson now hot on his trail on the goaltending depth chart, Jarry needs to keep progressing to maintain his spot in line. The best way for him to do that is to have a quiet, hard-working second season in the AHL.
“I think every year I like to think I’m growing as a player and a person,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is to grow every camp and do a little bit better each year.”
USING CONOR SHEARY AS A ROLE MODEL
With his success in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Conor Sheary has become a patron saint to undersized, undrafted scoring wingers everywhere.
Austin Ortega is no different.
A 5-foot-8, 174-pound right wing from Nebraska-Omaha, Ortega is in development camp with the Penguins, trying to show he can follow Sheary’s lead.
He’s got two things going for him in that respect. For one, he can fly. His speed was a perfect complement to Jake Guentzel’s skill on a UNO scoring line over the past three seasons. For another, he has produced. Ortega is coming off back-to-back 20-goal seasons.
“The game’s changing. It’s more of a speed game. The smaller guys can make it, but you’ve got to be tough enough and show you can play,” Ortega said. “Conor Sheary is a great example. He shows what can happen for smaller guys, if you work extremely hard and move your feet.”
BALANCING STATS WITH THE EYE TEST
If they gave out a captain’s C at Penguins development camp, it might go to 22-year-old forward Troy Josephs, a seventh-round pick from the 2013 draft. He’s a crusty veteran when it comes to prospect camp experiences.
“It’s been a lot of fun, trying to be the mature guy and help the younger guys get intertwined in Pittsburgh’s culture, taking on that role because I’ve been here a few times now,” Josephs said.
The 6-foot-1, 184-pound Josephs is an interesting prospect because the eye test and his career stats tell different stories.
Watching Josephs in drills, he’s quick and dynamic, hitting holes in the defense with an explosive skating stride.
Looking at his college numbers, though, he hasn’t put up more than five goals or 17 points in any of his three seasons at Clarkson.
Josephs said his stats aren’t indicative of his game.
“I’m a two-way forward. I play a 200-foot game. I like to play strong defensively, taking the body, and transition off that to offense,” he said. “A lot of people, when they focus on points, it doesn’t show my type of game. You have to see me play to acknowledge the good things I do on the ice. It’s hard to go to the NHL and be a top-six guy. I see myself as a third- or fourth-line guy when I make the transition, but I want to be the best I can be at that position.”
RIDING A RISING TIDE IN LONDON
While the Penguins were busy winning the Stanley Cup, the OHL’s London Knights had one of the most memorable playoff runs in recent junior hockey history.
After going to six games with Owen Sound in the first round of the playoffs, they authored three straight sweeps to win the OHL championship. They then went 4-0 in the Memorial Cup final to win that title too. All told, they went 51-14-3 in the regular season and 20-2 in the playoffs.
Afterwards, they had seven players picked in last month’s NHL draft.
CJ Yakimowicz, a 20-year-old forward in Penguins development camp as a tryout, was in the middle of it.
A physical presence who made room on the ice for some of his smaller, skilled teammates, Yakimowicz had six goals, 11 points and 117 penalty minutes in the regular season. He added six points in 18 playoff games.
“It was unbelievable. We had some special players on that team and it was just proven with how many guys got drafted,” Yakimowicz said. “Everyone that got drafted deserved it. We all helped each other out. I helped them get there. They helped me get here. It’s the London family. We all love each other and are glad to help each other.”
A draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2014, he went unsigned and is now looking for a contract. An AHL deal with the Baby Pens might be just what the doctor ordered for Yakimowicz, who grew up across the Susquehanna River from Wilkes-Barre in the town of Kingston.
BLUE MOUNTAIN MAN
The Johnstown area has always been a strong hockey market, which was proven again when the team was named Kraft Hockeyville and hosted a well-received exhibition game between the Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning last fall.
The State College area is an emerging hockey hotbed as well, with the Penn State program on the upswing and Terry Pegula bringing an NHL exhibition game between Buffalo and Minnesota to the University Park campus this fall.
Penguins prospect Sam Lafferty, a Hollidaysbur native, hails from right in the middle of those two towns.
“It’s good to see,” Lafferty said. “I know a lot of my friends went to that exhibition game in Johnstown. What a cool environment that was. I think the game is steadily growing in the area and it’s good to see.”
A fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Lafferty has put up modest numbers in his two seasons at Brown University since being chosen. In his estimation, though, his prospect development is on the right track.
“I think just all-around, just staying on the right path, trying to get a little better,” Lafferty said. “I think that adds up over time. I definitely feel a step faster this year. I feel good.”
These days, Lafferty is fighting a perception problem when he lets people know he plays at Brown. The college’s most famous hockey alumnus, among Penguins fans anyway, is agitating winger Bobby Farnham.
No, Lafferty has to tell people, all Brown forwards don’t spend all their shifts flying around the ice like their hair is on fire like Farnham does.
Lafferty is more of a two-way forward with good athleticism and smarts who can kill penalties and chip in a bit offensively. He doesn’t play like Farnham, but he does look up to him.
“He’s done a great job, fighting to stay in the NHL,” Lafferty said. “He’s a guy I can definitely learn from.”
Bye for now,