Of the 26 players invited by the Pens to participate in the 2015 rookie tournament, here's who I’m most looking forward to watching both this weekend and at training camp next week.
DERRICK POULIOT The 21-year-old has the most NHL experience on the rookie tournament roster, skating in 34 games for the Pens last season (which was his rookie year). Pouliot said that his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be once he jumped to the NHL and that was the one key area he wanted to improve heading into this season. So he moved to Toronto this summer to work with Gary Roberts, a commitment head coach Mike Johnston said Pouliot made on his own and it was one they were excited about. I am as well, because the swift, puck-moving offensive defenseman is incredibly talented and has a lot of potential and upside. So I’m looking forward to see how strengthening his fitness affects his game on the ice and his chances to make Pittsburgh’s roster – as he’ll be one of 10 or more defensemen in training camp battling for a spot in the lineup on opening night.
OSKAR SUNDQVIST Though the big, nasty forward had a terrific training camp last year and nearly made the opening-night roster, it’s important to manage expectations with the 21-year-old. Not only was Sundqvist dealing with an injury this summer; he also spent the offseason rehabbing and training in North America unlike previous years, when he arrived at training camp in midseason form after practicing and playing games with Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League. That being said, the Pens believe he has the qualities to be a fourth-line center on the team and the coaches have told Sundqvist that defensively, he could make the roster. However, both he and the coaches agreed he needed to work on his offensive game, so we’ll see if he shows any improvement there. He’s definitely a legitimate candidate for a spot in Pittsburgh, especially with Eric Fehr sidelined after offseason elbow surgery. But either way, Sundqvist will be playing in North America after spending his entire career in his native Sweden up to this point.
BRYAN RUST Rust was what management referred to as a marathon prospect, as the forward used all four years of his college eligibility at Notre Dame before turning pro last year. And during his time in South Bend, I think he was an under-the-radar prospect. But once he made the jump, the 23-year-old made an impact right away – playing in 14 total games for Pittsburgh last year and leaving a positive impression on the coaching staff. Johnston likes the speed and energy Rust skates with and his ability to play with and protect the puck. And with that many NHL games already under his belt so quickly, Rust absolutely has a chance to challenge for more this year despite the depth up top.
SCOTT WILSON Wilson is another guy who left a positive impression on Pittsburgh’s coaching staff whenever he was in Pittsburgh. Though he suffered an injury in his NHL debut last December that forced him to miss six weeks, Wilson worked his way back to health, tore it up at the AHL level with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and earned a call-up back to Pittsburgh for the most important time of the year: the postseason, where he skated in three NHL playoff games. Wilson missed prospect development camp in July with an injury, so I’ll be watching to see how his speed and timing is.
CONOR SHEARY After playing under the radar at UMass-Amherst for four years, he joined WBS for their playoff run in 2014 and dominated with six goals and 11 points. He then went on to have a spectacular 2014-15 season, where the 23-year-old led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in scoring during both the regular season (45 points in 58 games) and postseason (12 in 8). While his numbers speak for themselves, the Pens also like so many of his intangibles. They feel he’s smart, skilled, tough, holds onto pucks and makes the people around him better, and felt it was necessary to get his name on a two-year contract earlier this summer. So far, he’s been incredibly noticeable in his pro career. We’ll see if that continues at the rookie tournament and his first NHL training camp next week.
DANIEL SPRONG Even though Sprong will likely return to his junior team (Charlottestown of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) this fall, this is still our first chance to see the Pens’ 2015 second-round draft pick in real game action. Director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton said while Sprong still needs to work on the defensive side of his game like most young players, they think there is tremendous upside with the 18-year-old and that he is “a tremendous goal scorer who has an NHL release and shot.” We’ll see if Sprong, who has led the Islanders in goals, assists and points each of his first two seasons, can fill the net this weekend.
DOMINIK SIMON He’s an intriguing prospect for a number of reasons, starting with his age. Even though he was a fifth-round draft pick of the Pens in June, Simon is further along than most players in his class as he turned 21 on Aug. 8. He also had a breakout season last year and seemed to stand out in every situation, starting when he scored 18 goals playing against men with HC Plzen of the Czech Extraliga. He then starred at the international level – representing his country at the World Championship and skating in a top-six role alongside players like Jaromir Jagr. Jakub Voracek and Tomas Plekanec. Finally, Simon was very noticeable during development camp – he was someone management singled out as being particularly impressive – so we’ll see if he can build off that these next couple of weeks. He’s someone who could come to North America as soon as this fall.
MATT MURRAY It’s easy to get excited about a prospect like Murray. The 21-year-old netminder had an incredibly successful first professional season, earning AHL Goaltender and Rookie of the Year honors while posting a league-high 12 shutouts and leading the league in goals-against average (1.58) and save percentage (.941) amongst several other honors. Needless to say, expectations are high on the young goaltender. But it’s unfair to think that he can repeat that same kind of individual success. All that matters is he continues to grow and develop, and I’m always thrilled when I get a chance to watch him in action, especially after hearing so much about him.
TRISTAN JARRY The 20-year-old had an absolutely fantastic 2013-14 season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, his first as the starter. He posted a career-high 44 wins in the regular season before backstopping the club to a Memorial Cup championship with several clutch performances over a lengthy, arduous playoff run. However, Jarry wasn’t able to repeat that success playing behind a much weaker team in 2014-15. He’s gone through some highs and lows the last couple of years, so it will be interesting to see what he’s learned from those experiences and how he applies that to his mindset and game as he makes the transition to the pros this year.