The NCAA has been Pittsburgh's saving grace - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

The NCAA has been Pittsburgh's saving grace

The Penguins have acquired the rights to Harvard defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers and when they sign him, he'll be the latest college product to help a prospect pipeline that has been decimated by years of Stanley Cup runs.
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After years of chasing – and winning – Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins have found themselves with one of the barest prospect cupboards in the NHL. Though the NHL draft currently features seven rounds, the Penguins haven’t made more than six selections in any given year since 2012 – when they hosted the draft and traded Jordan Staal to Carolina for the eighth overall pick (Derrick Pouliot), Brian Dumoulin and Brandon Sutter.

Until this summer, Pittsburgh had only picked in the first round once since 2012 and that player, Kasperi Kapanen, was traded to Toronto in the Phil Kessel deal. If there has been one saving grace for the Penguins, it has been the NCAA and the organization went to that well again today by trading for the rights to Harvard defenseman John Marino.

Originally drafted out of the USPHL by the Edmonton Oilers, Marino has spent the past three seasons at Harvard, where his physical, puckmoving game was a boon for the Crimson. His numbers aren’t staggering (he had 11 points this past season in 33 games), but it’s worth noting that Harvard also had Adam Fox and New Jersey Devils pick Reilly Walsh on the blueline. That pair finished 1-2 in team scoring, if you can believe it.

Marino still has a year of college eligibility left and was slated to be a captain for Harvard next season, though Fox was too and he has already signed with the New York Rangers. And the way the Penguins are talking, they want Marino to turn pro now.

"We are excited to acquire him as we continue to add defensive depth to the organization,” said GM Jim Rutherford. “The next step is to work on getting a contract done with him."

The price for Marino was not steep – Edmonton gets a conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2021 for the 22-year-old’s rights and given the earlier rumblings that Marino did not plan on signing with the Oilers, this was the right move for GM Ken Holland. Since the condition on the pick is that Marino must sign with the Penguins (or have his rights traded by Pittsburgh), it feels fairly safe that Edmonton is getting that sixth-rounder.

For the Penguins, this is practically a free prospect and one who is probably not far from contributing at the NHL level. It’s also a nice asset that comes from the NCAA ranks, a well Pittsburgh has gone to a couple of times in recent years to make up the organization’s draft gap. Conor Sheary, who played four years at UMass, was an undrafted free agent when he joined the Penguins organization in 2014. Shortly thereafter, he became a part of back-to-back Stanley Cup teams, finding chemistry with the man himself, Sidney Crosby. Carter Rowney also won a Cup with the Penguins, who signed him as a free agent out of North Dakota back in 2016.

More recently, the Penguins won the college free agency derby for power forward Zach Aston-Reese, who became a hot commodity after a massive senior year at Northeastern saw him put up 63 points in 38 games for the Huskies. And then there’s backup goalie Casey DeSmith, who signed with the Penguins after three seasons with the University of New Hampshire. DeSmith became critical this past season when starter Matt Murray was injured.

So what’s the upside on Marino? Given his talents, he’ll be able to contribute in Pittsburgh soon and even if it’s on the bottom pairing, it’s a win for the Penguins.

Winning for so long can have a detrimental effect on a team’s prospect pipeline, but it success can also attract talent to an organization. Clearly the Oilers weren’t sure if they could sign Marino once his college career ended, while the Penguins must have at least a bit of confidence that they can. That kinda says it all, doesn’t it?