A spotlight on the stand-out prospects at the Penguins' 2023 Development Camp.
Heading into the finale of development camp on Monday, many things were on the minds o Pittsburgh Penguins’ fans: that Tristian Jarry contract, newcomer Ryan Graves, Kyle Dubas’s first free agency as boss, and the big buzz about an Erik Karlsson trade!
The very last topic of conversation was likely the team’s annual prospect junket. But it was at the forefront of my mind as one of the Penguins’ more intriguing mysteries: what, if anything, does the team have there in this very lean group of prospects? Is it a batch that’s as weak as analysts say it is? Aren’t there any gems to be mined? Surely, it can’t be that bad, right!?
I came to Cranberry to see for myself. My observations on the players of note are below.
-PART 1: STAND OUT PROSPECTS-
JOEL BLOMQVIST [G, Karpat (Finland)]
His positioning is excellent, already pro-level. His movements in the crease were crisp. He made great saves in a variety of situations and never looked rattled. My gut reaction to seeing him play was that the Penguins nearly have five NHL-level goalies right now. He has all the qualities you want in a goalie prospect. The Pens just need to get him regular starting goalie minutes in the AHL to see how quickly he’ll be a factor at the NHL level and where exactly his ceiling is. But from an early look at him, there is no reason he couldn’t develop into a starter or incredible back-up.
TRISTAN BROZ [C, Denver (NCAA)]
Broz stood out offensively in a way I hadn’t known he was capable of before. He has a tremendous shot and shows bursts of high-skill offense. But he's completely focused on sniping to the detriment of other aspects of his game which is not ideal for a centerman. He could overextend himself in spots by getting too set on pushing things offensively causing him to abdicate his defensive responsibilities. Puck protection was not a priority for him. That combined with his preference to buzz around the zone and snipe makes me think his future might be as a winger.
LUKE DEVLIN [C, West Kelowna (BCHL)]
Luke Devlin was an unexpected stand-out. He has size and speed and some decent offensive upside too. He showed that off in flashes throughout the day but also played a consistently sustained game in between where he kept pace well and defended in a more pro-level manner. It will be interesting to see what he does when he steps up to the NCAA level this year. It’s a much bigger stage that he seems ready for and that will give us some more context on his pro chances.
COOPER FOSTER [C, Ottawa (OHL)]
Foster is an interesting player coming from the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s which is a team loaded with premium NHL prospects. He has some scoring ability, hitting nearly 20 goals in his rookie OHL campaign. But he also brings a more holistic game than some of the Penguins’ other forward prospects. He really liked tracking the puck down in the defensive zone and shepherding it up ice. He stayed visible throughout his ice time as well, showing a higher level of gas than other prospects. Overall he looks like a great pick for the sixth round and like another quality name to watch for among the Pens' youngsters. He's more near a finished product too. I really like him as a prospect and think he could turn out to be one of their better ones in the coming years.
EMIL JARVENTIE [F, Ilves U20 (Finland)]
Jarventie was one of the biggest stars of the day, especially considering he was such a deep-round draft pick. Both newly drafted Finns, Jarventie and Emil Pieniniemi, were noticeably more poised than their peers. They were more relaxed and confident with the puck and in controlling the game pace than the North American prospects who tend to push the play with a hurried mindset. When they got the puck on their sticks they were very comfortable slowing the game down to take their time to scan their options to select the best play available. Jarventie also adds some nice offensive prowess. And he’s smart about picking his spots so he never puts himself in a bad position to make a scoring impact. All of this puts him in an unexpectedly high spot among the Pens' prospects for me. He shows the savvy of a much older player. And Jarventie's still very new to men's league play with only 15 senior games under his belt. He’s another name to get to know better for the future.
DANIEL LAATSCH [D, Wisconsin (NCAA)]
Laatsch made a terrific trio with Sam Poulin and Brayden Yager in the Pens’ 3v3 tournament. They put together several fantastic, high-level scoring opportunities off the rush from the defensive zone. Laatsch would nab the puck and feed it to the forwards or skate it through the neutral zone efficiently. His skill for his 6’5” height is tremendous. He’s not just a “big man” taking up space out there. And the natural way he fit with Poulin and Yager showed he has a high-quality skill set and is an unexpected find that could pay off for the Penguins. In the meantime, Laatsch will head back to Wisconsin for his third year of NCAA hockey this fall where it looks like he's been getting excellent preparation.
THIMO NICKL [D, AIK (Sweden)]
Nickl was another pleasant surprise at camp after coming to the Pens in a prospect trade with Anaheim just a few months ago without a lot of name recognition. The silky skating Austrian has previous North American experience in the CHL and already plays on men’s teams with AIK in Sweden and internationally for Austria. This background gives him maturity that sets him apart. He’s a well-equipped, speedy defender who can shut down fast forwards and direct the puck out of harm’s way. He can also chip in offensively and shifts well from tracking down the puck in the defensive zone to pushing it forward. He’ll jump into the rush when there’s a safe spot to do so without taking excessive risk. There’s a lot to like about his game. I’m excited to see more of him and think he's ready enough to be brought over to the minor leagues right now.
OWEN PICKERING [D, Swift Current (WHL)]
Pickering was empathically trying to make a mark in the tournament. But in doing so both his strengths and weaknesses stood out. He's very talented but there are big areas where he still needs significant improvement. Physically he’s a big presence on the ice but he’s thin-framed. He needs to add more bulk to withstand the pro game. He was already able to be pushed off the puck. Pickering's a superb playmaker but for some reason, he doesn’t leverage his size to do so. Instead, he tries to deke or sneak into tight spaces to get to the net. This puts him into spots that don't pay off or can be shut down easier than if he utilized his size for positioning. He's yet to realize he can utilize his big frame to create space more naturally with less effort. Otherwise, he moves very well and is a phenomenal skater. He is also a terrific setup man. You can easily see how he recorded nearly 40 assists in the WHL last year. Another issue for him is that he seems unaware that he is a defenseman, jumping forward in the offensive zone sometimes by himself to charge toward the net. It was not uncommon for him to camp out on the doorstep. It’s clear he fancies himself a Kris Letang type. But he did so at the expense of defensive awareness instead of picking his spots to contribute upfront selectively. He’ll have to learn to play his position in a more well-rounded way before he makes the leap to the minor leagues or enters the NHL conversation. Another year in juniors will do him well to focus on prioritizing his defensive skills because he still has a long way to go.
EMIL PIENINIEMI [D, Karpat U20 (Finland)]
The other half of the duo of sophisticated Finnish Emils, Pieniniemi is a strong all-around defender. He responsibly handles his defensive duties and puck protection first and foremost. This is a crucial player type to have on hand as the Pens' young ranks are dominated by offensive defensemen. He can also jump in and make offensive feeds from the blueline too. It’s a game tailor-made for the NHL and likely what inspired the Pens to select him at #91. Pieniniemi is slated to jump up into the men’s top-tier league Liiga in Finland this year with Karpat. Already coming into the organization with a mature game he should excel quickly once he gets comfortable playing at that new level full-time. This might indicate he could be on a quicker timeline being 18 years old. His poise for his age, readiness, and playing type reminds me of Olli Maatta but with more defensive skill.
SAM POULIN [RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)]
Sam Poulin was easily the best in class by an overwhelming margin. He was so far ahead of his peers it's clear that his inclusion was more about trying to ensure he’s up to his regular fitness and playing speed after stepping away from the game last year. He's heading into a big year for him as a pro. His summer event performances could be the launch pad for him to leap into the NHL full-time at some point in 2023-24. Poulin focused on working on his defensive game at the 3v3 tournament, clearly trying to use it to exhibit his well-rounded skill. When he made offensive pushes he faced little challenge because he was so far ahead of the pack. He has one of the best shots of any prospect (second-best behind Yager). It was very obvious he was working on playing a mindful defensive game without sacrificing offensive flashes. This was very savvy of him for the scenario. It tells me he's thinking the game at a high level and understands situations and expectations for his projected role. Specifically, he knows the Penguins need centermen, defensive forwards, and help in the bottom six where that type of game fits best. He was advertising that he could meet those needs. Still, he was able to exhibit the finer skills he possesses too, as he worked exceedingly well with Brayden Yager and together they put on some of the most impressive plays of the tournament.
LUKAS SVEJKOVSKY [RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)]
Svejkovsky has a year as a farmhand in WBS under his belt and was another stronger player who clearly had pro-level endurance already. He was able to contribute consistently throughout the day. He lacks high-end offensive skills but he repeatedly gets his chances through hard work and knows how to bury them. He’s able to generate well, doesn’t make many judgment lapses, and brings stability overall. He’s a decent playmaker as well. He has the characteristics of a solid, depth player but is just missing the production that will put his name in the conversation for call-up consideration quite yet.
BRAYDEN YAGER [C, Moose Jaw (WHL)]
I’m telling you that we all should be aboard the Brayden Yager train after seeing him in person. He ran away with the tournament sticking out with his scoring, play-driving, maturity, and speed. One word for him was: Wow. He scored a pile of impressive goals and “Oos” filled the stands when he’d sling the puck on net. His shot is a thing of beauty and the best out of any prospect. His drives into the zone were masterful and blew his fellow campers out of the water. They had nothing to stop it or even slow it down. I can’t say enough about Yager. He erased any doubts I had about the Pens picking him. He's as skilled as his near-ranking peers, he just was not as hyped as he should have been. This could be a star in the making. He’s got top-six potential written all over him. He's one of the readier prospects in the system too. It will be exciting to see what he can do at Pens training camp to put his name on the map.
Check back for Part 2 featuring the best of the rest of the prospects in the next few days!
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Owen Robinson is the founder, editor, and lead writer for Pens Report. A resident of the North Hills he’s covered the Penguins as a reporter and photographer for various outlets since 2011, including through two Stanley Cup seasons. In his spare time, he enjoys classic film, concerts, photography, Mac Miller, and hanging out with a good cat. You can follow him on Twitter @itsowenrobinson