The Pittsburgh Penguins have some emerging players to watch next year as they try to claim a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Here’s a short list of some players who’s development might be key for the next championship run.
Second Year Rookies
It was marvelous to watch our rookie starting goalie win his second Stanley Cup. So it would be great to see Jake Guentzel win his second cup as a rookie next season. Unfortunately, that won’t happen. Since he played more than 25 games last season, Guentzel loses the rookie moniker. However, I still peg him as the #1 most intriguing player to watch next year.
As with most emerging players that burst on the scene in mid-season, there will be legitimate questions to answer. First, how will his scoring be affected by changes in lineup during the season? How will he handle the grind of a full 82-plus game season? Will he show the season-long consistency of an NHL star?
I will go on a short limb here and predict he will have a few scoring slumps, and may tail off a bit at the end of the season. However, I expect to see flashes of brilliance on the ice, especially in the early part of the season. We saw enough of Jake last season to prove he is ready.
Almost Ready to Pop
If Jake Guentzel is ready, then Daniel Sprong is the next one in line. I visited the Penguin’s Prospect camp this year and Sprong looks like the real deal. Sure, he was on the ice with a bunch of prospects beneath him in pecking order, but he was easily noticeable. One thing really stood out – that kid can shoot. If he gets his chance to play with the big club this year, almost nothing he accomplishes would surprise me.
Seems like each year we are hoping it is the breakout year for Olli Maatta, and wondering if Derrick Pouliot will start to fulfill the enormous promise he initially showed. I believe this is the big year for both defensemen. Each one must take a step forward, or the Penguins may look to turn the page on one or both. For Maatta, he is an established at the NHL level, but he must be more physical in his own end. He is starting to develop a penchant for avoiding hits and getting out-stick-handled when facing the rush and around our net. With that limitation, he will struggle to rise above a bottom-paring this year.
You can’t talk about emerging players these days without mentioning Derrick Pouliot. The Penguins have shown great patience with Pouliot, and by some accounts it is paying off. Development of an NHL defenseman takes more time than a forward, but Pouliot must show that he can play in the majors. I think he will get one or two chances to prove himself this season, or become trade bait.
The Penguins may have finally cracked the code when it comes to what kind of players thrive on Sidney Crosby’s wing. Instead of star wingers, the Captain works best with players a bit like himself. Young and fast, with great skates and a bit of an arrogant style. Last year, not-so-newly emerging players like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary fit this mold perfectly. Inexplicably, Sheary struggled a bit in the playoffs. He seemed to lose the scoring touch, then the swagger (then his place on 87’s wing). The Penguins are deep enough at wing that Sheary could quickly find himself expendable if he doesn’t get it together. His problem seemed more mental than physical (to me) so here’s hoping the coaches can help put him back on his skates. When he is playing his best, Sheary is a big-time asset.
Not Your Same Old Same Old
So I don’t talk about any ‘core’ players or veterans here. The Penguins are lucky enough to have a proven nucleus of talent without question marks. The only topics of conversation there involve possible trades, but it is my opinion that GM Jim Rutherford is not about to consider trading a core veteran (yes, that includes Phil Kessel) until the season starts to unfold.
Each season is new, and the staff has to figure out where the 2017-2018 Penguins need the most help. One thing is certain at this point – if anyone knows how to guide a team to a Stanley Cup, it’s the coaches and front office of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The summer has too much talk – drop the puck already!