Coming into the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a bit of a blessing in disguise. After years of trading picks and prospects to improve the NHL roster during Stanley Cup runs, the team’s farm system had been dismantled. For that reason, the Penguins could essentially draft whichever prospect they deemed the best available. At first glance, it appears that strategy worked out well.
Samuel Poulin – Forward – 21st Overall
After having not picked a player in the first round since Kasperi Kapanen in 2014, Pittsburgh seemed to make a strong selection with Samuel Poulin at 21st-overall. He lit up the QMJHL as a member of the Sherbrooke Phoenix last season, tallying 29 goals and 76 points across 67 contests. The 6-foot-2 winger relied on his strong release and smooth hands to carve up junior opponents.
At 206 pounds, Poulin already owns an NHL-ready frame that should continue to fill out a bit as he matures and adjusts to professional hockey. If he improves his skating and footwork, he could be a legitimate top-six winger at the NHL level. The 18-year-old may be the Penguins’ top prospect already and should be a part of their long-term plans.
Nathan Légaré – Forward – 74th Overall
Penguins fans should be happy about this pick as the team certainly is. With the Arizona Coyotes on the clock, general manager Jim Rutherford traded up, giving away the 98th, 151st, and 207th overall picks in Saturday’s draft. Pittsburgh moved up to select another QMJHL winger with solid offensive upside, Nathan Légaré.
The Penguins got a steal according to Bob McKenzie’s final draft rankings where the 6-foot, 205-pound forward was ranked 59th-overall. After scoring just 10 goals and 29 points during the 2017-18 season, Légaré enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2018-19, notching 45 goals and 87 points, good for second and eighth in the league, respectively. He struggles to create his own offense and, like most young prospects, his skating abilities are still pretty raw. Still, snagging a player with this much offensive potential in the third round is a risk well worth taking.
Judd Caulfield – Forward – 145th Overall
The Penguins followed a similar theme for their first three picks in this year’s draft: big-bodied wingers. In the late fifth round, the team selected North Dakota native Judd Caulfield, clocking in at 85th in McKenzie’s final rankings. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound USHL product will attend the University of North Dakota next season.
Caulfield collected six goals and 25 points in 28 USHL contests last season. For an 18-year-old forward, he plays a strong, physical brand of hockey and is touted for his ability to play off the puck. He should mature and improve quite a bit during his time in college; North Dakota has produced many wonderful NHL players, including Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, and T.J. Oshie.
Valtteri Puustinen – Forward – 203rd Overall
The oldest player selecting by the Penguins during the 2019 NHL Draft, Valtteri Puustinen is a 20-year-old Finnish forward coming off a solid rookie season in the Finnish Elite League. He’s a bit of a late bloomer after going undrafted in both 2017 and 2018, but finally put his name on the map for a team to take a flier on him in the seventh round this season.
The selection of Puustinen also broke the team’s “big-bodied winger” theme; the right-handed winger comes measures at just 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds. He’s got a knack for finishing around the net, scoring 10 goals and 13 points with HPK of the SM-liiga last season
Santeri Airola – Defenseman – 211th Overall
For their last pick of the draft, the Penguins once again made a trade to secure a prospect. The team sent a 2020 seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks in order to move up and draft Santeri Airola. Like Puustinen, Airola is a product of the Finnish Elite League where he impressed quite a bit this season.
The 18-year-old started the season by scoring 15 points in 10 games with SaiPa’s U18 affiliate before being bumped up to the U20 squad. There, he’d rack up another four goals and 31 points in 41 contests, earning him a promotion to the top level of the SM-liiga. Slightly undersized at 5-foot-10, 163 pounds, Airola should fill out his frame a bit when he comes over for his first taste of North American hockey.
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.