In a 4-3 shootout win over the New York Rangers on Friday night, Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospect Pierre-Oliver Joseph made his NHL debut. Playing with Chad Ruhwedel on the third pairing, Joseph played a simple, effective game. With his smooth skating and strong puck-movement ability, the rookie fits right in with the system implemented by head coach Mike Sullivan.
Joseph played 13:02 of ice time, where he had three shots and three hits. The 21-year-old also had a beautiful assist, where he shot intentionally wide from the blue line to create an opportunity for Teddy Blueger, who then finished the play. With one game under his belt, Joseph will look to build on his young NHL career. His head coach was certainly pleased with his performance.
With injuries decimating the Penguins’ blue line, Joseph will continue to be thrown into the fire, but if his first game is any indication, the young prospect will be a bright spot moving forward.
How Joseph Got Here
In the 2015-16 season, Joseph began his major junior career with the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). In the following three seasons, he combined for 110 points in 152 games as captain. The Quebec-native was then drafted at 23rd overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Arizona Coyotes.
On June 30, 2019, the Penguins and Coyotes completed a blockbuster trade that sent winger Phil Kessel to the desert. Kessel and a fourth-round pick in 2021 were sent to Arizona for Joseph and Alex Galchenyuk, and both sides were happy with the deal. Kessel was looking for a fresh start, while the Penguins wanted to go younger throughout the roster.
In his first professional season, Joseph played with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL, where he scored 17 points in 52 games. With assistant coach Mike Vellucci on the current staff, Joseph has some familiarity from last year, as Vellucci was his head coach in the AHL.
As Joseph continues to mature and adapt to the NHL game, his offensive and skating skills will flourish. Like any young defenseman, his defensive game will need to be a constant improvement. At about 180 pounds, his strength and ability to battle in front of the net will be tested in the near future.
Joseph’s Chance to Seize the Opportunity
Through five games, the Penguins have faced multiple injuries on the defensive front. Marcus Pettersson is out week-to-week with an upper-body injury, while Mike Matheson and Juuso Riikola are out longer-term. With the ascendance of Joseph, the Penguins have nine options at defense at the NHL level when healthy. On Friday night, Cody Ceci played with John Marino, while the top paring of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin continues to lead the way.
If needed, general manager Jim Rutherford has options he can pursue via trade. With Ceci, Ruhwedel, and Joseph playing above their usual spot in the depth chart, the next couple of weeks will be critical. On Friday night against the Rangers, the defense stood its ground, but with seven games in the next 13 days, it will truly be put to the test.
With multiple injuries on the defensive front, Joseph has the opportunity to control his own destiny. If his play remains strong in the games to follow, Sullivan and assistant coach Todd Reirden could have no choice but to keep him in the lineup. Moving forward, the Penguins defensive core could feature Letang, Dumoulin, Marino, Pettersson, and Joseph, a solid group of five. With two years remaining on his entry-level contract, Joseph gives Penguins management flexibility moving forward.
Joseph and the Penguins will look to build on their three-game winning streak when they face the Rangers on Sunday, Jan. 24.