While the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 12, I made my way to Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre to check in on some of the team’s prospects. They did not disappoint.
Jake Guentzel (2013 draft, 3rd round) was everything he has been advertised as and maybe even a little more. He’s noticeably faster than everyone else around him and has fantastic hands. He could literally skate circles around some of the guys out there while carrying the puck and still make it from point A to point B first.
He isn’t the biggest guy, but he knows how to move and his usage of the space available to him is great. Then, if space isn’t available he knows how to make smart plays in the neutral zone that try to neutralize any rushes back. He was targeted for big hits quite a bit due to his size (5′-11″/180 lbs), but he absorbed impact well by keeping his head on a swivel especially on a team that’s bigger overall than the Wilkes Barre Penguins.
His stat line for Saturday was highlighted by an empty net goal that he actually had to fight for and didn’t just throw the puck at from the opposing blue line. He carried the puck in on net from the neutral zone evading defensive players and pressure. He also racked up three shots on goal, tied for the second-most on the team. But this kind of performance wasn’t limited to Saturday. His numbers so far this season are just unreal, his 6 G-7 A-13 P in 13 GP stat line is good for second among all AHL rookies (the leader has 14 points and has one additional game played) and his six goals lead all first year players in the league. His goal total also puts him in a tie for third overall.
But Guentzel wasn’t alone as both Oskar Sundqvist (2012 draft, 3rd round) and Dominik Simon (2015 draft, 5th round) put on the kind of performances you’d expect from prospects of their caliber. Sundqvist led the WBS in shots on goal in the November 12th contest with four, played monster minutes, scored the game winner on touted Providence goalie and Bruins prospect Malcolm Subban, and took home first star honors. He and Guentzel are the two players who stand out, much like Sheary and company last season, as too good for the AHL. It’s pretty well known Sundqvist is only where he is because of the log jam at his position and a pre-season injury.
Sundqvist’s stat line of 5 G-5 A-10 P in 12 GP with 12 penalty minutes shows off his sneaky scoring ability and nasty side, but what he’s really great at is killing penalties. In the game against providence the Bruins went 1-4 on the power play in large part due to the hard work of Sundqvist and the other PK’ers. It’s this dual skill set that has him tabbed as a potential third line center for the Penguins moving forward.
And last but not by any means least is Dominik Simon. The over-aged 5th round selection in the 2015 entry draft from the Czech Republic set the AHL on fire early last year but cooled off later. Early this year his offensive output isn’t gaudy by any means and he left Saturday night’s win with a 0-0-0 stat line and 2 shots on goal. His overall stats in 2016-17 so far don’t jump out as great with just 3 G-2 A-5 P in 13 GP, but that hardly matters right now. Because Simon, in his second season in North America, has shown he’s started to comprehend and think the American game at a high rate. Twice in the game against Providence he did everything in his power to get the puck out of the defensive zone off of a draw. Once, he tied the opposing center up so fully he was able to poke the puck free to an area, allowing a teammate to skate it into the neutral zone. Another time, he lost the draw but went down and sacrificed his body to use his stick and poke the puck out into the neutral zone. He made countless plays like that. Small little movements that don’t score goals but illustrate a deep understanding of the game. Patience will be key with him in his development, but he certainly has both the intelligence and skills to play in the NHL.
On the other side of the ice David Warsofsky (2008 draft, 4th round, Blues, signed as FA in 2016) was far and away the best performer for Wilkes-Barre’s defense. On a blue line where Prow, Di Pauli and Plachta all have little to no pro experience, Warsofsky, Steve Oleksy, Chad Ruhwedel are the elder statesmen. He and Prow play on the top pairing effectively and while Prow has growing to do, his hockey sense is incredible in a way that matches the minds of Letang, Dumoulin, Maatta and the Penguins other young blue liners.