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Prospects Challenge: Players to Watch

by Jeff Carpenter / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh's 24-man roster that is set to take the stage in the 2017 Prospects Challenge at the Harbor Center in Buffalo from Sep. 8-11 took the ice for a final practice on Thursday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex before getting on the bus and hitting the road.

"I think the biggest thing is for these guys to make an impact in their own way," assistant GM Bill Guerin said of the tournament. "Every player is different, and they all have the way they play and their own strengths. Make an impact, get out there and do something. We really like the group of kids we have here, and we're expecting that from each and every one of them. It's always a fun tournament, it's a great opportunity for these guys that they've earned, and we're excited."

 

 

Alongside the rookies at Thursday's practice was Sidney Crosby, who skated and participated in drills, helping elevate the pace and competition and leaving an impression on the youngsters.

 

"It was awesome," Guerin said. "Somebody actually asked and called for permission to do it. I was like yeah, he can do it (laughs). Third-line center. But it was great. I think it was a great opportunity for our young players to skate with the best player in the world and see what it takes, see how he handles himself, how he works and that's just a great opportunity for those guys."

A couple of quick notes about this weekend…

  • The Pens will play three games. They open with Boston on Friday at 3:30 p.m. The Pens will then face off against New Jersey on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. before concluding the tournament with a night contest against Buffalo on Monday at 7:00 p.m.
  • All three contests will be broadcast live on penguins.nhl.com with Josh Getzoff handling play-by-play duties. Michelle Crechiolo and the Pens' social media team will be on hand to provide coverage all weekend.
  • Behind the bench will be Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Clark Donatelli, alongside his assistants, J.D. Forrest and Tim Army.
  • Of the 24 players participating, 17 took part in the Penguins development camp back in July.

With 11 members of Pittsburgh's 2017 Stanley Cup-winning team playing in a rookie tournament at some point over the past four years, it serves as a great opportunity for players to showcase what they can bring to the organization. Here are some names to watch for this weekend…

FORWARDS

DANIEL SPRONG

The offensively-gifted winger rebounded from offseason shoulder surgery last year and tore up the QMJHL after returning to Charlottetown in January, registering 32 goals in 31 games. This summer, Sprong was able to build on that success rather than having to focus on rehabbing an injury. "It was good to finally have a full off-season, as opposed to last year where I was just rehabbing the shoulder and couldn't do much. I had a good summer with a good group of guys," Sprong said. The skill and offensive ability is there, so what Sprong has been working on is being responsible defensively and hopes to show that growth in his game this weekend.

On what he wants to show management this weekend: "I'm looking to show my maturity, I've developed a lot in that way since I was an 18-year-old. On the ice, I think they know what I can bring on the offensive side, and on the defensive side, just show I'm more responsible and keep working hard."

ZACH ASTON-REESE

One of the most coveted undrafted college free agents this spring, Aston-Reese joined the Penguins in March and contributed immediately with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, notching eight points (3G-5A) in 10 games. He plays a 200-foot game, is heavy on the puck and thrives at the net-front and down low much like Patric Hornqvist. Aston-Reese's offensive game has grown in recent years, so much that he led the NCAA with 31 goals and tied for first with 63 points in 2016-17.

On what he wants to show management this weekend: "I want to show that every shift I can make something happen, and just being able to make little plays throughout the whole game and showing that consistency."

ADAM JOHNSON

After being invited to Penguins development camp as a free agent this summer, Johnson signed an entry-level contract with the club. He is coming off a Frozen Four appearance with Minnesota-Duluth, ranking second on the Bulldogs with 18 goals and 37 points. Johnson is a converted winger, taking on a pivot role with the Bulldogs and developing his defensive game and positioning in the process. However, his bread and butter is his skill and speed, which was one of the main reasons why UMD coach Scott Sandelin had Johnson make the jump to the middle. "His strength is his skating," Guerin said. "And he has good hockey sense. He had a really good, short career at Minnesota-Duluth where he developed quickly. When he came to development camp, his skating really stood out. He's the type of kid character-wise that we like."

On how the playoff run improved him as a player: "The coaches helped me a lot to round my game, work on areas I was weak at, especially defensively, working out of the center role, the coaches helped me a lot to step in there, Johnson said. "They made me a more well-rounded player, and I think it's going to help at the next level."

FREDDIE TIFFELS

Tiffels, drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, signed with the Penguins this summer after three years at Western Michigan. Tiffels posted career-highs in assists (12) and points (21) his junior year before playing in the 2017 World Championship with Germany in his hometown of Cologne. Tiffels impressed with his speed and work ethic, while posting two goals in eight games played in the tournament. The left-winger was regarded as an important piece to that German team thanks to his skating ability, and head coach Marco Sturm praised Tiffels for his ability to "always go all out."

On the World Championship experience: "It gave me a ton of confidence. It was awesome to play for Team Germany and also to play against men, and how to play against those guys."

THOMAS DI PAULI

After signing as a free agent with Pittsburgh following a four-year career at Notre Dame, Di Pauli was limited to 21 games in the AHL last season after being hampered by various injuries throughout the year. He chipped in two goals with WBS a year after being named Notre Dame's offensive MVP following his senior season, where he chipped in 14 goals. Di Pauli compares himself to former Fighting Irish teammate Bryan Rust in that they possess the same speed and grit to their game. He's strong on the forecheck and has a net-front presence while also being an asset on the penalty kill.

On rebounding from an injury-filled year: "It's in the past. I learned from it, and think I'm a stronger person and a better hockey player [because of it]. It made me focus more and I'm excited for a new year, a fresh start."

DEFENSEMEN

ZACHARY LAUZON

Lauzon will be taking the ice for the first time in a Penguins jersey after he had to sit out development camp due to injury this summer. Lauzon, selected in the second round (51st overall) was the Penguins' top draft pick in 2017. Lauzon is heralded for his play in his own zone, earning the Kevin Lowe Trophy as best defensive defenseman in the QMJHL last season as a member of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. However, his offensive ability is underrated, as he's a good skater with great vision.

On what he is looking to show this weekend: "Pittsburgh drafted me for a reason. I'll just try to bring my A-game, be physical, move the puck well like I can do. Just be reliable in my d-zone, but also jump in the rush and create offensively. I know that my bread and butter is my defensive game, so just be physical, be great in my 1-on-1 battles and compete."

LUKAS BENGTSSON

Despite being limited to 16 games in the AHL due to dealing with POTS Syndrome, a rare disease that affects blood flow, Bengtsson had a good showing, posting a plus-14 with WBS. While he admitted his health is something that needs to be taken day-to-day, the Swede is also excited about what his future holds. After establishing himself with Frolunda of the Swedish League, Bengtsson has developed into a skilled, puck-moving, right-handed defenseman that plays with a calm to his game. After making a good first impression this past season, he should only improve more as he gets more comfortable with the smaller North American rinks. "I have it in my thoughts that If I played well in the season without knowing [I had POTS], how well can I play now that I know [how to manage it]," Bengtsson said.

Guerin on Bengtsson: "He's worked so hard to get to this point. I think he's got himself in really good shape. We're interested to see what his recovery period is going to be like. Hockey-wise, there's no concern for us, it's just that we want to monitor his health and recovery and make sure he's getting what he needs."

ETHAN PROW

Prow was a staple of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's defense for 59 games last season, contributing 16 points (1G-15A). The Penguins signed him in March of 2016 after he burst onto the scene with St. Cloud State, being tabbed as a Hobey Baker finalist in 2015-16 after posting 38 points (8G-30A) as captain for the Huskies. The right-handed rearguard is a skilled puck-moving defenseman, similar to Bengtsson. Prow took it upon himself to continue working on his strength and speed this offseason, which will help him in dealing with the rigors of the professional game.

On his first professional season: "It was a good first year. I think when you first go in there, there's a learning curve you have to go through. Throughout the whole year you just try to get better, and if you keep progressing, the more you learn. And the more time you spend with the coaching staff, your game will pick up and you'll start to gain that confidence."

JEFF TAYLOR

Taylor is a prototypical offensive defenseman, commended for his ability to skate and move the puck. He's quick at thinking the game as well as with his feet, possessing an ability to skate out of trouble. Taylor finished second among ECAC defensemen with 33 points (9G-24A) last season as a member of Union College, where he won an NCAA championship as a freshman. Taylor had a short stint with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, playing in six games.

On the biggest difference between college and the pros: "The size and the speed of the guys. I think it had a huge difference, through those six games, coming in here now knowing what to expect this season."

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