In addition to signing defensemen Libor Hajek and Mark Pysyk to professional tryouts, as initially reported by CapFriendly last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced they’ve also signed winger Austin Wagner to a PTO.
A fourth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2015, Wagner burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old rookie in 2018-19 with a solid showing in a fourth-line role. It was somewhat of an unlikely promotion – he would notch 12 goals and 21 points in 62 NHL games that year in his second pro season after scoring just ten goals and 17 points in 50 games with the AHL’s Ontario Reign the year prior.
Nonetheless, most thought Wagner displayed the potential to be a solid, two-way bottom-six winger – especially after he put up solid production in an extremely limited role at such a young age. The following two seasons didn’t go nearly as well, unfortunately. Throughout the COVID-affected 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Wagner would fail to eclipse his rookie production despite playing in 109 total games, recording just 10 goals and nine assists for 19 points. He wasn’t a liability defensively, but he wasn’t a strong enough penalty-kill specialist or shutdown winger to cancel out the decrease in production.
That led to Wagner failing to make the team out of camp in 2021-22, just one season into a three-year, $3.4MM extension. He was waived and assigned to the AHL’s Ontario Reign, where he spent the next season and a half before the Kings dealt him to the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2023 trade deadline in exchange for future considerations. The Blackhawks would recall him after the trade, giving him his first taste of the NHL in 22 months, and he notched a goal and an assist in seven appearances down the stretch of the regular season.
After going unqualified by Chicago upon the expiration of the aforementioned extension earlier this summer, Wagner finds himself on the UFA market at age 26 and will look to land a contract with the Penguins (or their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) during training camp. In the minors, he’d scored 34 points in 79 games over the past two seasons with Ontario while adding 140 penalty minutes.
There’s no clear path for Wagner to earn an NHL role in Pittsburgh, even as an extra forward. The team’s financial situation is tight, especially to start the season with Jake Guentzel on injured reserve, and the limited fringe spots they do have will go to non-waiver-exempt, higher-ceiling talent such as Alexander Nylander. He could bolster a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton squad that finished eighth in their division and missed the Calder Cup Playoffs last season, however.