A lot can be said about the Pittsburgh Penguins and their prospect pool. Not a lot of it is good as the Pens have regularly ranked last, if not close to last, in league-wide prospect rankings. But after the 2021 Prospect Development Camp, the future may be brighter than anticipated. It’s not top of the league by any stretch of the imagination, but there is some real promise.
A list of the top prospects in the Penguins organization has some new blood and familiar faces, but they all have the same goal: to reach the NHL. For right now, certain prospects have the skill to reach the NHL and even be difference makers with the Penguins. Only time will tell when they get their chance.
With a development camp come and gone, a brighter light has been shed on Penguins’ prospects and where they stand. Let’s run down the top 10 prospects currently in Pittsburgh’s organization and see where they stand in terms of reaching the NHL.
10: Will Reilly
Here’s a player who caught some well-deserved attention at development camp. The final pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Reilly has been working harder than anyone to get where he is now. In four seasons in the NCAA with RPI, he showed to be a great puck mover with 46 career assists. Now in the Penguins organization, there’s reason to believe he can be a complete, 200-foot blueliner.
Standing 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds, Reilly is a big-bodied defender with a surprisingly good shot to go along with his smart stick work on defense. He played in 26 games in 2020-21 with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and picked up six points (3-3). Not quite Norris Trophy numbers, but respectable for a guy in his first professional season.
Reilly is a player that could see some NHL time in the 2021-22 season. He’s older, has a little extra organization experience, and can fill in nicely if injuries strike the d-core. He’ isn’t the next top defenseman but should be a valuable tool in the future.
9: Lukas Svejkovsky
Drafted in the fourth round (108th overall) in 2020, Lukas Svejkovsky has found himself rising the ranks in the Penguins organization. His speed and illusiveness have been the main reason for his impressive spot. A speed-based prospect is something the Penguins have lacked until now. His exact style of play is still hard to grasp, but speed is his biggest asset so far. If the Penguins improve another skill with this kid, he could be a valuable threat to the team.
Obviously, a major upside to Svejkovsky’s game is his quickness. He looked like one of the fastest forwards at development camp and he skated with a purpose. One downside, however, is his size. Only 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, he would have to gain some muscle mass to reach his full potential and stand out in the prospect pool.
Svejkovsky’s potential is there, without a doubt. He may take some time to grow, both physically and with his game, but he could be a speedy playmaker in time. For 2021-22 he will be heading back to the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
8: Cam Lee
Get to know this name, Pens fans. Lee should make some noise with the team someday. That day may not come tomorrow, but soon enough. Through development camp, he showed flashes of every tool needed to be an effective defenseman: good footwork, smart passing, and an effective shot. All these skills still need to be honed to perfection, but there’s an excellent base to grow on.
Lee has the added benefit of already playing professional hockey, even before joining the WBS Penguins. During the wait for the 2020-21 NHL season, he went to Slovakia to play with HC Slovan Bratislava. He scored two goals and nine assists for 11 points in 14 games. In time, back on North American ice, he should fully find his complete game. A tremendous puck mover who can help out both offensively and defensively.
Lee finds himself in a similar position as Reilly for the moment. A guy that will start in the AHL, and rightfully so, but may crack an NHL spot if the injury bug plays a factor in the Penguins’ season.
7: Calle Clang/Joel Blomqvist
Let me cheat here for a second. Clumping both Clang and Blomqvist into one spot makes the most sense because they are both in the same boat. Goalie prospects who are yet to play in North America but have an incredibly bright future.
Blomqvist and Clang were taken in the second (52nd overall) and third round (77th overall) respectively in 2020. When they were picked, it was known they would be longer-term projects, but that’s how all goalie draft picks are. They will take time to earn their stripes. They currently don’t stand on the goalie depth chart, but eventually, they will have their shot.
Clang in Sweden joins Rogle BK and the Swedish U20 National Team for 2021-22; Blomqvist in Finland will split time between Karpat and the Finnish U20 National Team. While both are still some time away from coming overseas, they are important to keep an eye on. If one or both of them pan out, they could be the future of the Penguins’ goaltending core.
6: Drew O’Connor
The small stint in the NHL may have been slightly disappointing for O’Connor, but that doesn’t discount that he made the team out of camp for 2020-21. What may have hurt his play during the season is that there was no preseason in 2020-21. There was no time for a first-time NHL player to get a feel for game speed and play style. He had to jump from college to practice to the NHL. That’s not an ideal transition.
An entire training camp and preseason should be beneficial to O’Connor’s chances of again reaching the NHL. Last year he suffered thanks to no preseason action. Now in 2021, he will have a whole training camp to compete for a spot and a preseason to catch up with the speed. He is someone to keep an eye on through the 2021 camp and preseason. He has the talent to cut it and has gained a step in speed to cut it at the most competitive level.
O’Connor will be starting the 2021-22 season with the AHL Penguins, and that’s a perfect situation. He played productively in 20 games in the AHL last year with 19 points (7-12). Now, he will have to use it as a starting point rather than a fall back.
5: Radim Zohorna
At 25-years-old, it may be a stretch to call Zohorna a prospect, but he falls in that category with only 20 games of experience in North America. Since he isn’t an exact lock for the NHL yet, and should one day be a regular, prospect is the perfect label. His giant frame and high skill level are big reasons he found himself in the NHL for a time last year.
Zohorna was ultra-impressive during his brief NHL stint in 2020-21. In eight games, he scored two goals and two assists for four points. Tack on a game-winning goal for good measure and you suddenly have a high-end prospect. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he is precisely the kind of player general manager Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Ops Brian Burke like to see on their team.
Given last season’s performance and his size, Zohorna will be fighting for a spot on the NHL roster for 2021-22. This upcoming training camp and preseason will be vital to his future, but the AHL isn’t a bad starting spot. The coaching staff and management group like his play, so he will be on the short list of call ups. It’s a win-win for him, either he cracks the NHL or drops to the AHL, where he will be a quick call-up.
4: Filip Hallander
After the first day of Development Camp, Hallander said he’s here to take an NHL spot. Those are big words for a player of his age, but he can back it up. More than just a set of finesse skills, he has been growing as a net-front player. And that’s something the Penguins have lacked since the departure of Patric Hornqvist. Hallander could be the next option.
One thing that stands out about Hallander’s play since rejoining the Penguins organization is how smart he looks on the ice. Doing the little things right and making the smart plays are huge in showing just how skilled a player you are. This is something the Swedish forward has in spades. He has been able to time passes and shots perfectly and create traffic in front of the net. If he can produce the same smart play against NHL-level players, he’ll see plenty of professional ice.
It’s hard to place where Hallander starts his 2021-22 season. Fans should follow the way of the Penguins coaching staff and management and keep a close eye on his play through camp and preseason. His whole year could hinder on his performance in the coming weeks.
3: Nathan Legare
Being 15 pounds lighter and many steps faster, Legare made his presence known at development camp. Showing off his newfound speed along with his still lethal shot power, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in the NHL reasonably soon. He and another certain prospect still to be named have been tied to the future of the Penguins for years now, and that’s for a good reason; they both have real NHL ability.
A downside of having a weak prospect field and rebuilding what a former general manager may have torn apart is finding good players in trade rumors. For some reason, people have been lofting the idea of trading Legare. At this point, that seems pretty preposterous since he looks extremely hungry to take a spot in the near future. He is almost there and he can be a huge factor in the future success of the Penguins.
The AHL is Legare’s most likely starting point for the 2021-22 season, and that’s not a bad thing. He still has to get acquainted with the system, but his growth as a player looks very promising.
2: Pierre-Olivier Joseph
One of the only two prospects to reach The Hockey Writers’ top-100 protects list, Pierre-Olivier Joseph should be nearing the end of his ‘prospect’ status. Currently 22-years-old, Joseph became a household name in Pittsburgh this past season when he appeared in 16 NHL games. Not only did he appear in those games, but he was pretty effective for most of them.
It wasn’t a perfect stint in the NHL for Joseph, injures around the defensive core force him to play on the top line, but it was a good showing. In 16 games, he picked up a goal and four assists for five points. Sure, they’re not staggering numbers, but as a defenseman who was getting his first taste in the NHL, that’s solid. And the underlying numbers supported his positive game, too.
Just like Hallander, Joseph will be heading into camp looking to make the NHL roster right away. Since Joseph already showed he could cut it with the big dogs, there is a good chance he is on the opening night roster.
1: Sam Poulin
Ranked 69th in The Hockey Writers’ top-100 prospects, Sam Poulin holds onto the top spot in the Penguins organization. It seems like an eternity since he first snagged the top spot, but that’s what happens when you’re a team’s only first-round pick in seven years. Ever since going 21st overall in 2019, it’s been all eyes on him in Pittsburgh.
Poulin is more than deserving of this top spot. At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, he is a big kid with a bigger game. He possesses a lights-out shot and good hockey sense to be a playmaker, as well. There’s a reason why he has been the Penguins’ top prospect for so long, and soon enough, everyone will get to see it at the highest level.
The waiting will soon be over, and the highly anticipated No. 1 prospect will eventually be seeing NHL time. Poulin is just about a stone’s throw away from being NHL ready, but a stint in the AHL to start is what should take place. He still has to learn the system and get a feel for professional hockey speed.
These are the stars of tomorrow for Pittsburgh. It may not be the best lineup of prospects the league has to offer, but there is promise. There are names that look to make an impact in the NHL and can do it soon. It may be thin, but Pens fans should be excited about some of these names.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.