Although the Pittsburgh Penguins were contenders this season, it doesn’t change the fact that following their early playoff exit, general manager Ron Hextall will be looking to improve the team heading into 2022-23. The Penguins are a veteran team with a lot of battle-tested experience. But the reality is that they are also the fourth-oldest team in the NHL, with an average age of 29.36. Heading into next season, they need to get younger and faster to truly excel in head coach Mike Sullivan’s primarily speed-based system.
Part of what made the Penguins so successful in their back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships was their ability to overwhelm the opposition with their speed and up-tempo style of play. The way their roster is constructed, they are nowhere close to having the same effect. Luckily, they have three talented young players playing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins that are ready to make the jump.
Valtteri Puustinen is a 22-year-old winger who led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season in goals and points, with 42 points in 73 games played. He is crafty, with great hands, and also possesses a lightning-quick release. For a young player, his hockey IQ is also very high, allowing him to create scoring chances for himself and his teammates. Most importantly, he is a finisher, which the Penguins desperately need more of.
Puustinen has also earned praise from Sullivan: “He has a game that could play up and down the lineup. When you look at Puusty’s game his greatest strengths are his offensive instincts,” said Sullivan. “His ability to finish, he can really shoot the puck. But for me, that’s the area of the game where I think Puusty excels.” Using these strengths, he lit up the American Hockey League (AHL) this season and proved to be Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s most dominant scorer.
If Puustinen is capable of showcasing his scoring prowess in the big league, he could be a solid depth option. There is no question that he has NHL-caliber potential, and the Penguins need to give him the chance to prove it next season.
The Penguins have another highly-skilled young winger in the AHL at their disposal in Drew O’Connor. This season, he came as close as it gets to being a point-per-game player, producing 32 points in 33 games. He is listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, but he brings speed and power; he is very mobile and tenacious. The 23-year-old has natural hockey instincts and a noticeable scoring touch that makes him a constant threat in the offensive zone. He also has a strong, two-way game, which is extremely rare in a young player. He has the ability to disrupt plays, cause takeaways, and is excellent on the penalty kill.
With a wide range of versatility to his game, O’Connor would be of great help to the Penguins. He can provide youthful energy and offensive production but also responsible defensive play. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach J.D. Forrest has stated, “He just has a knack for hitting pucks and getting a stick on things and making it hard to make a play out of their zone. He’s doing really well in that area. In-zone, it’s the same. He has that ability to knock pucks down and be in the way. His speed and reach are deceptive. It’s a little bit harder for the opponent to read sometimes if they think he’s coming a little bit slower. They don’t realize how close he is. How fast he gets there.”
He is one of the more well-rounded young players out there, and it would be a no-brainer for the Penguins to give him a full-time role on the team next season.
With a few brief stints in Pittsburgh due to injuries, the 22-year-old Pierre-Olivier Joseph has already shown the Penguins some of what he can provide. For Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, Joseph was the number one defenseman and power-play quarterback. He produced 33 points in 61 games playing a major role in the team’s success from the blue line. He is a two-way defenseman, who can play a shutdown role, but also create offensive scoring chances when joining the rush. Although what separates him from others is his puck-moving ability when making that first pass out of the zone, as well as his tremendous poise for a young player.
With a lot of speculation that some of the Penguins’ defensemen could be moved in the offseason, Joseph would be a great option to fill the void. He already exudes great confidence for a player with little NHL experience. During one of his games with the Penguins last season, he made plays with Sidney Crosby in 3-on-3 overtime, assisting on the game-winning goal to defeat the New York Rangers.
Joseph is more NHL-ready than perhaps anyone else the Penguins have in their minor-league system. He would be a much-needed boost of youth to their blue line and should be brought into the fold as soon as opening night.
In order to remain a prevalent Stanley Cup contender, the Penguins need to get back to their identity as a speedy team that is relentless on the attack. The best way to accomplish that is by injecting young energetic players into their lineup that they haven’t had enough of in recent years. In the past, it was Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, and Tom Kuhnackl filling this role. Bringing up Puustinen, O’Connor, and Joseph for the upcoming season would have that same effect, as well as breathe some much-needed life back into the Penguins’ lineup.
My name is Ray Lindow and I am a recent graduate of Duquesne University. I have spent almost my entire life playing and following hockey. My passion for the game runs deep, and I could not be happier to be writing for The Hockey Writers and covering the Pittsburgh Penguins.