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.

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.

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.