PENGUINS 2023 NHL ENTRY DRAFT WRAP UP
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – In the first draft of the Kyle Dubas era, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quite busy.
The club owned its highest first-round pick in over a decade, plus the Penguins had five more picks on day two to further round out their prospect pool.
If you weren’t tuned in to the two days of draft festivities from Nashville, Tennessee, do not fret! We’ve got you covered with a full recap of each pick the Penguins made at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
FIRST ROUND, 14TH OVERALL – (C) BRAYDEN YAGER
On night one of the draft, Pittsburgh used its first-round pick to select centerman Brayden Yager.
Playing out of the Western Hockey League, Yager led the Moose Jaw Warriors with 50 assists as an 18-year-old. He also ranked second on the team with 78 points. He racked up 16 points (6G-10A) in 10 postseason games, too.
A right-handed shot who primarily plays center, the native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is a smart playmaker who put together quite a highlight reel of pretty passes in the second half of this past season. His skating ability is rooted in power, as he gallops in open ice. He boasts quick-twitch explosiveness, which he uses on both sides of the puck.
His hard and accurate shot wows scouts, as well. Yager can find the soft spots to unload or combine his speed and shooting for lethal shots on the rush. The 5-foot-11 forward produced an impressive 34 goals in his rookie season with the Warriors, but took a slight step back to 28 tallies this year.
There was a time when Yager was considered a bonafide Top 10 talent in this draft class. His production stalled a bit this season and other players’ performances pushed them up various draft boards, but that allowed Yager’s raw talent to fall into Pittsburgh’s lap.
Yager will be full-time AHL eligible starting in 2025-26.
THIRD ROUND, 91st OVERALL – (D) EMIL PIENINIEMI
Dubas traded back one (1) spot from 90 to 91 and drafted left-handed Finnish defenseman Emil Pieniniemi.
Listed as 6-foot-2 by NHL Central Scouting, Pieniniemi is a well-rounded, do-it-all defenseman with a game predicated on taking care of business in his own zone. He used his reach to his advantage, thinks the game well, and won’t shirk his defensive responsibilities. He has some budding offensive tools that could develop, but he still has a slick and efficient first pass to move the puck up ice.
Pieniniemi posted one goal and 12 assists for 13 points in 31 games with Kärpät’s junior program. He also made his pro debut in the Finnish Liiga for Kärpät this season, as well.
As a European prospect, he would be eligible to play in the AHL as soon as he signs a contract with Pittsburgh. However, it’s more likely that he spends another year or two cutting his chops against grown men in his homeland before making the transition to North America.
FIFTH ROUND, 146th OVERALL – (RW) MIKHAIL ILYIN
Power-forward Mikhail Ilyin became the Penguins’ fifth-round pick, and an intriguing one at that.
He played 21 games in the KHL, Russia’s top league and perhaps the most competitive European league overall. He didn’t produce any goals and potted two assists in those games, but he tore it up at a near-point-per-game pace in the Russian junior league. Even though he plays heavy and is hard to knock off his skates, he generates more as a playmaker than a net-front bully. He had four goals and 22 assists for 26 points in 28 games for Cherepovets’ developmental club.
Ilyin will return to Cherepovets this season.
SIXTH ROUND, 174th OVERALL – (C) COOPER FOSTER
In round six, the Penguins added speed and smarts to their pipeline with Cooper Foster, centerman for the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League.
Every scouting report for Foster comes back raving about his abilities off the puck. He’s sharp defensively, knows where to be and when, and he’ll go the extra mile to make sure opponents don’t get an easy scoring opportunity. Most reports mention his skating ability as well, as he can really take flight in open space.
The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario produced 19 goals and 36 points as a rookie this year with the 67’s.
Before entering the OHL, Foster was a standout in the NOJHL, a junior A hockey league that allows Canadian players to maintain their college eligibility (unlike the major junior leagues.) As a 17-year-old, he was named NOJHL Most Valuable Player while helping the Soo Thunderbirds win the league championship.
Foster will not be full-time AHL eligible until the 2025-26 season.
SEVENTH ROUND, 217th OVERALL – (LW) EMIL JÄRVENTIE
With their first of two seventh-round picks, the Penguins not only went back to Finland, but they took their second Emil of the draft, as well.
Emil Järventie was well-traveled this season, playing in the Finnish junior ranks, the Liiga and the Mestis (the second level of professional hockey in Finland.) He ultimately totaled 34 pro games between the Liiga and Mestis as a 17-year-old, and Järventie registered five points (3G-2A) in nine playoff games for KOOVEE.
He has an unrelenting motor and very good speed in open ice. Even if he’s not home free for a break, he’ll still keep his legs churning and fight through traffic. Scouts like his projection as a P.K. specialist because of hockey sense, compete level and footspeed. Whether or not these tools translate to offense at the pro level in North America is yet to be seen, but it’s no surprise the Penguins were attracted to Järventie’s speed and tenacity at this stage of the draft.
SEVENTH ROUND, 223rd OVERALL – (D) KALLE KANGAS
And if you already have two Finns, why not make it a third? Left-handed rearguard Kalle Kangas proved to be Pittsburgh’s final pick of this draft and the penultimate pick overall.
Measuring in at 6-foot-4, 205-lbs., Kangas plays a reliable, stay-at-home game. He appears to be well aware of his strengths as well as his weaknesses, and he knows not to play outside of his limitations. He will sell out to block shots, and when the game is on the line, he’ll compete like a menace in the dirty areas to make sure his team is the one that ends up on top.
Kangas doesn’t produce much offense, but that has never been his role. That role is unlikely to change if he climbs the Penguins’ organizational ladder through the AHL to the NHL.
All three of Kangas, Järventie and Pieniniemi were teammates on Finland’s bronze medal-winning entry at this past year’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. Just like Pieniniemi, Kangas and Järventie would be AHL-eligible upon signing with Pittsburgh, but they’ll likely stay in Europe for several seasons before coming to North America.