This draft brought back memories when, not so long ago, another group of young, versatile, and eager young hockey players were welcomed into the organization. These young men are now Stanley Cup Champions. Talk about a childhood dream coming true and not in to slow a fashion either.
No one could have or would have predicted just how important the Penguins rookies would become this season. While some have landed themselves a full one-way contract, others are waiting in the wings just a phone call away. Now well into the offseason (however short it may be), here is a final "grading" of our "Baby Penguins".
Tom Kuhnackl- Right Wing
It's amazing what a little time playing with the "Bad Boys of the Wheel" (the Wheeling Nailers) can do to change a players style. That time spent in the ECHL made all the difference for Tom Kuhnackl. He is now one of the Penguins best defensive forwards and the least afraid to block a shot (well, except for maybe Hornqvist but he isn't a rookie).
Kuhnackl has developed into a strong, heavy fore-checking, two-way hockey player. He is a staple on the penalty kill and has a knack for shorthanded goals. In fact, he made history this season. When Kuhnackl scored the game winning goal in Game 1 versus the New York Rangers, he became the only other active NHL player to score both his first regular season goal and first playoff goal while being shorthanded (Fedor Tyutin being the second per Elias Sports Bureau). Finishing the season with 7 total goals and 13 assists (not to mention countless blocked shots), Tom Kuhnackl is a driving force on the fourth line and will be giving defensemen fits for years to come.
Pros: Heavy fore-check, great on the penalty kill, blocks shots
Cons: Not many shots on goal when at even strength, can cycle puck a little too much
Final Grade: Low B-/ High C+
Daniel Sprong- Right Wing
The new Penguins identity focuses around speed. Daniel Sprong, the hot new kid out of the Netherlands, is what really gave fans an idea of where the team wanted to go with their style of play. Unfortunately, that style never got off the ground with former head coach Mike Johnston. By the time Mike Sullivan took over the reigns, the decision to send Sprong back down to Juniors had been made.
Although hindered by a coaching/ play style not suited for this Penguins team, Spring had a great start to the season. He scored his first NHL goal soon after the start of the 2015-2016 regular season against Ottowa on October 15, 2015. That goal also made for one of the best goal celebrations ever by a Penguin (in my humble opinion anyhow). Both the goal and a replay of the celebration are below.
He quickly regained dominance in the QMJHL (Quebeck Major Junior Hockey League) when he was sent back down, and all eyes are on his return to the AHL, and soon, the NHL. Fans are anxious to see what he can do now that a true team identity has been set in place.
Pros: Fast, smart, great hockey IQ, personality
Cons: Has to get used to playing at the higher levels again and settle into the new system, over-zealous at times
Final Grade (not much to go on but still): B
Other AHL rookie call-ups that aided in the Penguins Stanley Cup victory include Oskar Sundqvist and Derrick Pouliot.
Oskar Sundqvist (Center) was a surprise glimpse into what the Penguins organization still have "in reserve" back in Wilkes-Barre. He was called in to fill a slot on the fourth line when needed and stepped up to the role well. Should Matt Cullen not resign with the Penguins, I look to Sundqvist to be brought in to take over full time. If not, he will continue to fine tune his game another year with the Baby Penguins.
Sundqvist did earn his first NHL goal while on a stint here in Pittsburgh what came on a short-handed shot against the New York Islanders. He read and capitalized on a (huge) mistake by the Islanders net-minder and what a beauty of a goal it was. Take a look for yourself and understand why fans are foaming at the mouth for his inclusion on the top level team.
Pros: Speed, hockey smarts, good eye, a lot of grit
Cons: Not alot of NHL playing time, will need time to build chemistry should be take over as 4th-line center
Final Grade: a solid B/ B-
Derrick Pouliot (Defense)....oh Derrick Pouliot. Drafted and touted as the next star defensemen and possessing all the potential in the world, he just cannot seem to find his niche. Although playing well in the NHL, his abilities have not been carried over when called up. Finding chemistry with a anyone has not been an issue though that may be due to his lack of consistent ice time. He is only 22- years old so he does have a little bit of time to "grow up" but the question is this: will he remain a member of the Penguins if he doesn't step up during camp/ during the early season?
His poor decision making and timing lead to multiple turnovers when on ice but he has an incredible shot when he gets an opportunity to let one fly. I want to see him live up to his potential, fans want to see him live up to his potential, but CAN he rise to the occasion? The decision, and his career, lies only with him.
Pros: Heavy potential, good shot, plays physical
Cons: Turnovers, play reading ability is lack luster, diva attitude, poor work ethic according to insiders
Final Grade: C-/ D+
Rookies come and go. Some never make even a splash. This group made a tidal wave. They answered the call when their team need it most and it paid dividends come early June. The draft picks soon after the Final added speed, girt, and depth to a team with renewed vision. Add those to other names to watch such as Jake Guetzel, Dominic Simon and Jean-Sebastian Dea, and the Penguins continue to set themselves up for years of success and, hopefully, more victory parades.