Last season Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray went from Wilkes-Barre unknowns to some of the Pittsburgh Penguins biggest playoff contributors. From first goals, saves, and wins they all made contributions. As we head into 2016-2017 it’s time for a new crop of faces we may have seen once or twice, or perhaps someone we completely forgot about, to make an impact.
Wilson took a little while to adjust to the NHL game but once he did, he did it in style. Despite being with the big club consistently from the end of January 2016, Wilson didn’t score his first NHL goal until February 18th. After that, he rattled off three goals in three games and four goals in five. He was making solid contributions as a depth player when he went down with a lower body injury on March 11th, 2016.
This year, look for Wilson to make the team out of camp or make a real case to do so. He will likely be one of the last cuts and see a large quantity of high quality pre-season minutes. He’s proven he can play in that bottom-six role consistently, but might make a name for himself on the scoring side of things this season. Why is that? Because almost all of Wilson’s goals were the direct result of a high hockey IQ and skill. He’s proven he’s got the goal scoring touch and this season might just be the perfect time for him to showcase it.
Dominik Simon, the Czech product out of Prague, was just weeks away from becoming an unrestricted free agent when the Penguins drafted the over-ager in the 2015 draft. Many teams even passed up on him, content in the fact he would be a free agent soon. The Penguins, however, didn’t want to tempt fate.
And they have to be pleased with the results. Simon quickly adapted to the North American ice surface and had a stellar rookie campaign that even led to his selection for the AHL All Star Game. His second half was slowed a bit by injury, but when he stepped onto the ice to face the Rangers in a spring regular season game the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first time to have multiple 2015 NHL draft choices play in the NHL (Daniel Sprong had already played in the NHL for a stint). He’s been touted as perhaps the most skilled player to ever skate for the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It’s highly likely he makes a serious run for an NHL spot in camp. If not, look for him to become the name that’s thrown around like Conor Sheary was last season as the player taxiing to and from Pittsburgh with injury necessities.
Of all the cases the Penguins have seen recently, few have been like Justin Schultz’s. After deciding not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks who drafted him, Schultz landed in Edmonton, where the weight of a city proud with hockey heritage and lean in recent successes was put on him. He, understandably, failed. Last season he took a trade to Pittsburgh and reinvented himself. Working regularly with Sergei Gonchar and being trusted to be a part of a great team revitalized him.
Look to see him make more progress this season. He’ll still play that bottom pairing role unless injury necessitates a move up the depth chart. And if that does happen? Don’t be surprised if he goes full Matt Niskanen. Niskanen took his larger role opportunities slowly but surely and turned them into the ideal big contract and big role on the Capitals where he’s making a difference every shift. Schultz on a team that isn’t convinced he needs to work on his weaknesses but harness his strengths is ideal. Watch out for a surprising number of goals from him along with, as long as the pairing is reunited, some great work with Ian Cole defensively.
When the defending Stanley Cup Champions take the ice in October of 2016 some things will have to change. That’s how life works. No one can expect everything to work the same as it did last spring, it would be foolish to do so, but with new faces like these poised to come into their own at the highest level, there’s a real chance the Penguins could get off to a much better start this year than they did last year.