PROSPECT CHALLENGE TITLE A TESTAMENT TO PENGUINS ORGANIZATION STRENGTH

At the 2017 Prospect Challenge, there was only one team without a single player selected in the first round on it’s roster. It was the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team with the most undrafted players on its roster was the Pittsburgh Penguins. Which team had the most points at the end of the tournament? The Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite their opponents boasting arguably more attractive depth charts, the Penguins organization proved its dominance once again with its tremendous showing at the Prospects Challenge. The efforts of the scouts, coaches, and most importantly the players culminated in a 5-3 victory in the final game against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

“This group was pretty special because we didn’t have too many practices,” said coach Clark Donatelli. “We showed them some video, we told them what to do, and they responded. They played really well. I think it gets contagious once they know they have success doing it, they want to do it more.”

Donatelli went on and spoke at length about the organizations philosophy when it comes to not just drafting and signing good players, but “good humans”, as he put it. There is an added emphasis on work ethic, too, and when those personalites all combine in one space, unique things can happen.

“When people come to us, they want to get better,” Donatelli said. “Every single person works so hard on the ice and off the ice. When you’re working in that kind of environment and you have people around you that are willing to pay the price to win and pay attention to details and practice habits, it’s contagious. Fortunately for us right now, that’s our culture. It’s a tribute to the organization and how they draft players.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a first round or a second rounder or undrafted. Once you’re a Penguin, you’re a Penguin. Once you’re part of the family, you’re part of the family.”

New assistant coach Tim Army has only been part of the family for a hot second, being hired by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton one month ago. However, he now has first-hand experience with what the Penguins organization is capable of, even when they have limited resources at the draft.

“I think the evaluation of players and brining in the right group is a credit to all of the scouting staff,” Army said. “You know, they get out there and they watch a lot of games. They’re all over North America and they’re all over Europe. We have some draft picks here, but there are also some unsigned players that are really battling. They bring in the right pieces.”

Those scouts found Teddy Blueger, who wore the “C” as a young leader on this team and was a beacon of light on defense.

Those scouts found Daniel Sprong, whose constant threat of offense kept opposing teams on their heels.

Those scouts found Jordy Bellerive, and undrafted, unsigned 18-year-old who ended up topping the tournament with seven total points (4G-3A) in three games.

Those scouts scoured the globe and found Slovenian Jan Drozg, who unloaded a wicked wrist shot on the rush for what became the game-winning and tournament-winning goal.

And on and on and on.

The Sabres opened the scoring with a first period power play goal by Brendan Guhle. The rowdy crowd at HARBORCenter thought that the hometown Buffalo squad would carry that 1-0 lead into the first intermission until Thomas Di Pauli slammed home a rebound in the waning seconds of the frame.

The second period was a back and forth affair, with the two teams trading goals in quick succession. Zach Aston-Reese made it 2-1 for the Penguins prospects with a goal on a five-on-three man advantage, but Buffalo’s Justin Bailey answered back with another power play marker. Antti Palojärvi, who checked in to the Penguins’ line-up for the first time on Monday, got the black and gold back on top, 3-2, before Buffalo’s third power play goal of the night (this time from C.J. Smith) evened things up again.

Drozg found his game-winner midway through the third, and then Zach Aston-Reese sealed it off with an empty netter.

They didn’t walk away with a trophy or gold medals or anything like that, but with the work put in by everyone with the Penguins this weekend, the organization showed its counterparts why its considered the best there is.

“There’s an expectation of winning here,” Army said. “And we told that to the guys before we bused out. We’re about winning here, so let’s go win a tournament. Well, we won the tournament.”

JAN DROZG WORKING HIS WAY TOWARDS SLOVENIAN DREAM

 There are certain countries that are considered hockey powerhouses. Canada quickly comes to mind for most. So do Russia and the United States. Sweden is always a tough out in international play and Finland has been on a roll lately. Slovenia isn’t in that same pantheon.

Slovenia isn’t thought of as much of a hockey anything, really. In fact, a 2014 survey revealed less than 5% of Americans could even identify Slovenia on a map of Europe. But nestled south of Austria, east of Venice and west of Zagreb is where Penguins prospect Jan Drozg grew up and where he found his love for hockey.

Only three Slovenians have ever played in the NHL: Greg Kuznik, Jan Muršak and Anže Kopitar. Drozg is using the Prospects Showcase in Buffalo as a stepping stone as he tries to climb the ladder and become the fourth name on that list.

“I always looked up to the NHL stars,” he said. “And Anže Kopitar, he’s a very good player. He does a lot of things very well. It’s easy for a Slovenian like him to be a model.”

Drozg was taken by Pittsburgh as a bit of a surprise pick in the fifth round of this past NHL Entry Draft. Not many knew his name, but the Penguins’ European scouts that saw him play for the Leksands U18 junior program in Sweden knew he had a skillset they couldn’t pass up. Through two games in Buffalo at the Prospects Showcase, that offensive flair has been apparent. He’s created scoring chances, shown off some slick hands as well the the kind of straight-ahead speed that the Penguins organization has coveted in recent years.

That isn’t to say Drozg isn’t the perfect player yet. If he wants to become the fourth Slovenian to make it to the NHL, he’s already been made well aware of where he needs to improve.

“I need to get stronger down low, in the corners,” he said. “That’s something the coaches have told me and I’m focused on it.”

The 18-year-old Drozg also recognizes the weight on his shoulders considering Slovenia’s history (or lack thereof) in the NHL and international hockey. He’s the first to admit that hockey doesn’t occupy the national consciousness very often. Frankly, it’s an afterthought compared to other popular European sports like soccer. But at a particular time of year, the country rallies around it’s hockey players.

“Slovenia is not much of a hockey country, but when it’s the Olympics, everyone is paying attention,” he said. “It would be great to play for my country at the Olympics, but that’s not something I’m thinking about now. That could be far away. I’m thinking about what I can do today.”

Today, his efforts are dialed in on improving so that he can make an impression of Penguins coaches and scouts and get himself in good graces for seasons down the line.

Drozg will not play for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Pittsburgh this season, although he will get the opportunity to acclimate himself to the North American game as a member of the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League. Beyond that, Drozg will have the Penguins and his country watching closely to see the steps he takes towards making the NHL.

 

OTHER NOTES:

• Coach Clark Donatelli has been very complimentary of Teddy Blueger’s skating throughout the week, an identified area of improvement after last season. More on this later in the week.

• The Penguins prospects’ last game of the 2017 Prospects Showcase will obstensibly also serve as the Final for the tournament. Both the Penguins and their Monday night opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, have the most points through two games, posting an identical 1-0-1 record. Whoever wins their showdown tonight will be Prospect Showcase Champions.