2018 PROSPECTS CHALLENGE PREVIEW


WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – The long, sweltering summer is almost over. Another hockey season is on the horizon, and just before the dawn of training camp comes the annual prospects tournament that the Pittsburgh Penguins like to participate in. Before the Bills Mafia starts jumping through flaming tables in the parking lot of New Era Field, Buffalo sports fans will converge on Harborcenter for the 2018 Prospects Challenge.

Like last season, this year’s Prospects Challenge will be played between the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, and Pittsburgh. For the most part, the mini-tournament acts as a tune-up for young players going into their NHL club’s camp, but it has demonstrated in the past to be a showcase for things like the arrival of Jake Guentzel two years ago, or intimated the progress of Teddy Blueger prior to his huge season last year. The Penguins roster has a bit of a different look than that of the 2017 Prospects Challenge (no more Blueger, Daniel Sprong, Thomas Di Pauli, Ethan Prow or Zach Aston-Reese,) but there’s still plenty worth keeping an eye on this weekend.

The Penguins’ full roster can be seen here, headlined by Adam Johnson, Anthony Angello and Jordy Bellerive.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans are already well-versed in what Johnson brings to the table. He posted 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points in his rookie AHL season last year, he’s fast, he’s shrewd, and he is expected to take a big step forward this upcoming season. Johnson went into the summer with plans to bulk up and add muscle to his slender frame to assist him in excelling in the grittier side of the pro game as well as introducing even more explosiveness to his fleet-footed stride. Buffalo’s 2018 Prospects Challenge provides an early look at what kind of progress Johnson made, plus he’ll have plenty of opportunity to make an impact as he’ll likely be allocated top-six ice time over the weekend.

Anthony Angello left a lasting impression with his two-goal outing in the Penguins’ final game of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Though it was far from the desired team result for the fans leaving Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, Angello’s performance rightfully stuck out in a lot of people’s minds. They’ll want more of the same from Angello this season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and he can start his season off on the right foot this weekend. Look for the big power forward to impose himself physically on the forecheck and generate countless scoring chances at the net-front for the Penguins prospects.

Jordy Bellerive was the breakout star for the Penguins at last year’s Prospect Challenge, leading the team in points despite playing in a fourth-line role. The undrafted, 1999-born forward earned a contract from Pittsburgh thanks to his performance, but his career hit a bit of a speed bump earlier this summer. An accident at a campfire gathering resulted in Bellerive and several of his friends ending up in a hospital after sustaining severe burns. What was surely the most frightening moment of Bellerive’s life briefly brought his hockey future into question, but he has since healed and will take the ice for the Penguins in Buffalo once again. He’s still a year away from AHL eligibility, but he’ll be leaned on by Clark Donatelli to contribute on the forecheck, penalty kill and maybe chip in a few goals along the way, too.

Other players to keep an eye on for the Penguins are two more guys expected to be with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season: Linus Ölund and Freddie Tiffels. Ölund joined the Penguins late in their most recent playoff appearance and had coaches excited based on what he showed in practice, but he never got in a game. He flashed similar instances of intrigue earlier this summer at development camp, and now this weekend serves as his black and gold game-action debut. Tiffels went back and forth between Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year. If the speedy German wants to graduate to more full-time duty in the AHL, he has an early chance to stamp an impression with his coaching staff this weekend.

The Penguins prospects’ order of operations this weekend is as follows…
Friday, Sept. 7 – Pittsburgh vs. Boston, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 8 – Pittsburgh vs. New Jersey, 3:30 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 10 – Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo, 12:30 p.m.

 

OPPONENTS TO WATCH

BOSTON: Ryan Donato

After scoring more than 20 goals and eclipsing 40 points for the second year in a row for Harvard University, Ryan Donato left college and played 12 games in the NHL for the Boston Bruins at the end of last season. He also managed to find the back of the net five times in those 12 contests and racked up a goal and two assists for three points for quite an impressive NHL debut.

The son of long-time NHLer and Harvard head coach Ted Donato, Ryan is ready to embark on his first full professional season. Based on his offensive production in college as well as the show, he could prove to be a key piece if Boston can improve upon its 2017-18 and win a crowded Atlantic Division.


NEW JERSEY: Marian Studenič

Those in the New Jersey Devils organization are excited about their 2017 mid-draft grab because of his incredible sniping ability. Marian Studenič provided reliable depth scoring for the OHL Champion Hamilton Bulldogs, using his twisted wrister to pot 20 goals. He also tied for the team lead with two goals during the most-recent Memorial Cup tournament.

Studenič will have to round out his game a bit more to each full-time NHL duty some day, but in the interim, he’ll likely be handed a similar depth scoring role for the Binghamton Devils this season. Depending on how quickly he can adjust to the pro game, the Slovakian’s shooting talent will be a welcome addition to a Binghamton team that scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference last season (193). That adjustment process starts in Buffalo.


BUFFALO: Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt

The Buffalo Sabres are the hosts of the 2018 Prospects Challenge, so they were going to have big crowds at Harborcenter regardless of what the team looked like. Once they released their roster, they were almost guaranteed sellouts thanks to the names Dahlin and Mittelstadt.

Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt are being heralded along with Jack Eichel as the future of the Sabres. Dahlin was this past year’s No. 1 overall pick, and they hype surrounding him has had the young man spoken in the same breath as fellow Swedes Nicklas Lidström and Erik Karlsson. Mittelstadt was the Sabres’ first round selection the year before, and the former Minnesota high school hockey prodigy made a name for himself as a dominant offensive force for the United States at the 2018 World Juniors.

Dahlin and Mittelstadt are both likely to go straight to the NHL this season, making this tournament an early taste of perhaps what’s to come in Buffalo as well as a unique opportunity for Penguins prospects to see how they stack up against players of Dahlin and Mittelstadt’s caliber.

THE NEW PENGUINS – 2018 NHL DRAFT RECAP


The 2018 NHL Entry Draft took place this weekend in Dallas, Texas. The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the draft without a first round pick, but based on the talent in this year’s prospect pool, team scouts and pundits agreed there would be plenty of promising young players available for the Penguins.

Below are Pittsburgh’s 2018 selections listed in sequential order. Every player has a quick profile and scouting report included in this draft recap so that you can get to know a little more about the newest members of the organization before they likely end up taking the ice for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the future!

 

53rd – CALEN ADDISON: Defenseman, Lethbridge Hurricanes…

With Pittsburgh’s first selection in this year’s draft, they get an elite skater that fell right into its lap in Calen Addison. He has the ability to change directions on a dime, and he covers so much ground in any direction in an instant. Owns some offensive upside too thanks to his shooting ability. Addison has a quick wrister from the blue line that always gets past the first level. Always. This young man is an ace on the power play, as well. He’s a little undersized, but he competes enough to make up several inches in wall battles. However, doesn’t expect him to throw his weight around. Like a lot of young defensemen, his awareness on the defensive side of the game wanes, but he has time to remedy that before he’ll be called upon in Pittsburgh. They likely fell in love with him while keeping tabs on Jordy Bellerive, a Hurricanes teammate that the Penguins added to their prospect pool last year.

 

58th – FILIP HÅLLANDER: Right Wing, Timrå IK…

Pittsburgh traded up to take this player, and you could hear a tinge of excitement in director of scouting Patrik Allvin’s voice when he announced the selection of his fellow Swede. This is an energetic forward who can play wing or center. Filip Hållander relishes the forecheck and crashes the net. Acts as a fearless net-front presence. The Penguins have grown rather fond of Swedish players that play that style over the past few years, haven’t they? (Think Hörnqvist, Hagelin.) He’s a shifty skater skating and owns the puck abilities to possibly become more than a grind-it-out type player. His stride could use some refinement, it can look clunky at times, but he gets long extension from his powerful legs to generate deceptive speed. He shines in the east-west game, too, because of his skills and great edgework. Hållander shouldn’t be relied on to be a particularly creative playmaker, but he won’t make brainless mistakes either. No players were exchanged in the trade with Colorado to move up and take Hållander, by the way. It was only a pick swap.

 

129th – JUSTIN ALMEIDA: Centerman, Moose Jaw Warriors…

Quite some time passed between Pittsburgh’s second and third selections here, but the Penguins hope it was worth the wait as they grab the speedy and skilled Justin Almeida. Pittsburgh continues its trend of drafting over-age players, as Almeida was passed over in last year’s draft. A big reason why he wasn’t selected was his size. He’s thin as a rail and measures five-foot-nine, but his offensive output this season was too tantalizing to pass up. A great way for smaller players to make up for their diminutive size is by being a good skater, and Almeida can skate like the wind. He’s capable of making plays while operating at top speed, and his head can keep up with his feet. The 1999-born centerman possesses good puckhandling ability, but will grab your attention with a devastating shot. That pro-level release is a big reason why he jumped from 11 goals last season to 43 this year.

 

177th – LIAM GORMAN: Centerman, St. Sebastian’s School…

This is a strong young man that plays a gritty game. Every time you watch Liam Gorman, you’re going to see him driving to the front of the net. He scores a lot of his goals in that area around the crease, too. He has explosiveness to his stride, but needs to work on his overall speed. When he’s on top of his game, he excels at digging in the corners, gaining body leverage on opponents and winning possession for his team in the trenches. Gorman will go the collegiate route and is committed to attend Boston University, which surely will endear him to former Terriers Mike Sullivan and Clark Donatelli.

BELLERIVE MAKING WAVES AS PENGUINS NAB FIRST WIN OF 2017 PROSPECTS SHOWCASE

Pick after pick went by at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in Chicago back in June, 86, 87, 89… it kept going. 154, 155, 156… and so on and so on until 215, 216, 217. The draft was over.

Jordy Bellerive never heard his name.

After an impressive year with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, not one of the 31 NHL clubs felt that Bellerive could help their team advance in the future. Even though he was at first understandably rocked by going undrafted, he’s looking on the brighter side.

“It’s something you look forward to your whole life,” Bellerive said. “You try and battle throughout the whole year trying to get that opportunity for a team to take you, then to not get drafted, obviously that was disappointing. But some things happens for a reason. I really think it turned out well for me. It really motivated me for the summer. I put a lot of hard work in, which I think is paying off. So I’m okay with it now.”

bellerive tweet

With the chip still freshly engraved on his shoulder, Bellerive is using it to leave a big time impression as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2017 Prospects Showcase. The 18-year-old forward now leads the tournament with four goals on the heels of tallying a hat trick in the Penguins first win of the weekend, a 6-2 triumph over the New Jersey Devils.

Just over one minutes into the contest, Bellerive notched slid a rebound across the goal line. As the Devils caught fire early in the third period and started forging a comeback, Bellerive poured cold water on them with yet another tally, and later added a third score to complete the hat trick.

Bellerive gave partial credit to his offensive outburst to the confidence he gained by scrounging up a goal in the Pittsburgh prospects’ first game on Friday.

“To get that first one out of the way quick, it showed, hey, I can play. I belong here. I got some confidence and tried to do it again today. It worked out for me again, I guess.”

Bellerive isn’t the only one believing in himself at this point either. His performance has coach Clark Donatelli singing his praises, as well.

“I don’t know his whole body of work and what he’s done before this, but so far so good,” Donatelli said. “If you’re going off this, then yes he definitely should have been drafted.”

What’s particularly impressed Donatelli and other Penguins brass has been Bellerive’s ability to contribute in this fashion offensively despite limited ice time. Most of the minutes through two games have been dedicated to Penguins prospects already under contract, like Zach Aston-Reese, Daniel Sprong, Teddy Blueger, Thomas Di Pauli, etc. But every time Bellerive has stepped onto the ice, one can’t help but notice.

“Coming in being a fourth line guy, I expected to not get the most ice time. So I told myself whatever ice time I got, that was an opportunity to do something special.”

He’s been exactly that so far. Special. Now there’s more than enough reason for him to hope this weekend is just the start to a lengthy pro career.

“Hockey’s a long run. I’m not too worried about [going undrafted] anymore.”

 

OTHER NOTES:

In addition to Bellerive’s hat trick, the Penguins got their fair share of puck luck in their victory over the Devils prospects, too. First period goals by Teddy Blueger and Thomas Di Pauli both redirecting off of Devils defensemen and in.

Much like Friday, Sprong continued to be snakebitten despite a bevy of scoring chances. When the puck finally fell right for him, it was on a one-timer that left his stick with such velocity, it went rocketing right through the equipment of Devils goalie Ken Appleby and across the goal line. It was quite a shot, but the kind of delivery we’ve come to expect from Sprong.

The Devils’ two goals that beat Penguins goalie Alex D’Orio both went bar-down. Otherwise, it was an impressive showing from the 18-year-old tender when New Jersey had its chances.

Zach Aston-Reese dropped the gloves and fought Devils D-man Steve Santini late in the third period. Aston-Reese got into a scuffle by the Devs’ bench and Santini stepped in with less than diplomatic intentions to solve the conflict. Both players got good punches in, but Aston-Reese ended up with the takedown.

The Penguins have a practice scheduled for Sunday afternoon, then they face the host Buffalo Sabres in the final game of the tourney at 7:35 p.m. on Monday.