Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
One of the biggest factors in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs was the emergence of several young players that provided a spark each season.
In 2017 it was Jake Guentzel.
All of them played significant roles in the second half of the season and the postseason and provided some huge moments.
They did not really get the same sort of breakthrough from their farm system during the 2017-18 season. Daniel Sprong never really got much of a chance (and when he did, did not provide much offense). Dominik Simon played more, but did not fully capitalized on his opportunities. Zach Aston-Reese flashed some potential, but only appeared in 16 regular games and then had his postseason ended in the second round on the hit that earned Capitals forward Tom Wilson a three-game suspension.
So who was the breakout player on this team that was mostly full of established NHL veterans?
It might have been defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.
Oleksiak become one of the Penguins’ latest reclamation projects on defense when they acquired him in December from the Dallas Stars for next to nothing.
If nothing else Oleksiak was a decent gamble because of his size, potential, and previous experience with Penguins defensive coach Sergei Gonchar (they actually played together briefly in Dallas, and Gonchar was intrigued by Oleksiak’s potential). There were enough tools there that it was worth the fourth-round draft pick to see if they could get something extra out of him that Dallas was not. If they couldn’t, it didn’t really cost them anything of significance.
It was the very definition of low-risk, potentially high-reward.
The move definitely seemed to pay off, at least in the short-term.
In his debut with the Penguins Oleksiak played the best hockey of his career and started to show at least some of the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2011. The Penguins gave him more freedom offensively, allowed him to join the rush and jump into the offensive zone, and just kind of turned him loose a little bit. The result was Oleksiak setting a new career high in points (17) and nearly matching his career total prior to the season, finishing as a positive in shot attempt metrics, and looking like he might be able to establish himself as a regular on their blue line.
It earned him a three-year, $6.1 million contract extension this summer.
The reputation of the Penguins’ — and Gonchar’s specifically — ability to work with and improve defensemen has kind of taken on a life of its own over the past year and is starting to become a little overstated. They’re not taking these players and turning them into Norris Trophy contenders or top-pairing defenders. And that is certainly the case with Oleksiak. Even now his best use is probably going to be as a solid third — and perhaps maybe a second — pairing defender. But that is still a big step forward from where he was in Dallas where he was not getting much playing time, was struggling to perform in those opportunities, and didn’t look like he had much of a future in the NHL.