Over the past few years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have shown a proclivity for drafting mobile defensemen early and often out of the Canadian major junior leagues. That philosophy has shifted in the last two years however, and the organization now has focused on replenishing their goaltending and forward ranks.
The result is a fairly representative cross-section of talent at the junior level, with a potential star defenseman in Derrick Pouliot, two standout goaltending prospects in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, as well as a handful of depth players with varying skill packages.
Jean-Sebastien Dea, C, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Acquired: Free agent signing in 2013
Dea went into the 2013-14 QMJHL season with vastly increased expectations following a 2012-13 season which saw him post 45 goals and 40 assists through 68 games. So far, he has delivered on those expectations, producing 24 goals through the first 27 games of the season.
A quick skater with soft hands and a sniper's mindset, Dea went undrafted in 2012 because of his lanky build and general lack of size. The next year he added almost 20 pounds of muscle, and following a strong performance at the Penguins 2013 Prospect Development Camp, was signed to an NHL entry-level contract.
What kind of player the 19-year-old develops into at the professional level remains to be seen, but Dea has the hands and vision to be a top-nine forward capable of contributing on the powerplay. He is going to need to keep getting stronger, but probably more importantly, Dea will have to adapt his offensive game to the professional level. He will have to strike a balance between playing sound two-way hockey and taking risks up ice in order to create offensive opportunities.
Matt Murray, G, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 3rd round (81st overall) in 2012
Last season Murray was considered a long-term project, and while his development remains fully underway, there has been a dramatic increase in the overall quality of his play. Through 22 games, Murray leads the league with a 2.28 goals against average and is ranked second with a .927 save percentage. He has been arguably the top goaltender in the OHL this year and has stolen his fair share of games for the Greyhounds. He has been so consistently good, that he has even managed to keep his team in games where they were otherwise outplayed.
Murray possesses an intriguing skill package. He has a lean build at 6'4, 165 pounds, with extremely long arms and legs. His technique has shown marked improvement in the past year and he appears much calmer and confident in net. Still, Murray's greatest asset is his natural athleticism. He is able to stretch out and make plays on the puck that other goaltenders are simply unable to make.
Murray was one of three prospects to represent the Penguins at the 2013 Subway Super Series. He started game one for Team OHL and allowed four goals in a 5-2 loss against Russia.
Signed to an entry-level contract earlier this season, Murray is expected to join the Penguins minor-league affiliate at the end of his junior season.
Matia Marcantuoni, RW, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: 4th round (92nd overall) in 2012
Matia Marcantuoni is the fastest player in a Penguins system built around speed and mobility. He is an explosive skater even by NHL standards and is able to get to top speed in a few quick strides. If the rest of his game can catch up, and there is a good chance it will, he should develop into a serviceable forward at the NHL level.
Currently in his fourth season with the Kitchener Rangers, Marcantuoni has not experienced a great deal of development in his offensive game. He does however play a tenacious, puck-hawk style of game which should translate well to the professional level.
The 19-year-old signed an entry-level deal with the Penguins in the fall and should join their minor-league affiliate at the conclusion of his season with Kitchener.
Clark Seymour, D, Peterborough Petes
Acquired: 5th round (143rd overall) in 2012
Clark Seymour plays a simple game predicated around being tough and responsible in his own end. Standing at 6'4 and over 200 pounds, he is big, strong, and a willing combatant. He also has a long reach and is good at getting stick on puck.
He showed some offensive flair early in the season, managing three goals and nine assists through his first 14 games. His production has since dried up however, and he has only one point through his last 11 games.
Unsigned and playing an overage season of junior hockey, Seymour's future with the Penguins is unknown at this point. The organization has a fairly large stockpile of defenseman, many of whom have a similar package of skills as Seymour, so he does not bring anything particularly unique to the system.
The Penguins will likely offer Seymour an amateur try out contract at the conclusion of his OHL season.
Derrick Pouliot, D, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 1st round (8th overall) in 2012
Defenseman Derrick Pouliot was returned to the WHL for his fourth and final season following an extended look in Penguins training camp. The 19-year-old has focused on playing a more complete and mature game at both ends of the rink this season. He is still averaging a point-per-game and manning Portland's top powerplay unit, but has added penalty killing and shutdown duties to his resume as well.
A mobile skater who specializes in distributing the puck, Pouliot seems tailor fit for the Penguins system. He activates offensively but prefers to pass the puck up ice rather than rush it. He is very calm along the blue line and is good at keeping his head up when he has the puck. He also has a heavy and accurate point shot.
Pouliot recently represented the Penguins at the 2013 Subway Super Series. He appeared in both games for Team WHL, but was especially productive in game two, where he played in front of Penguins goaltending prospect Tristan Jarry. He finished the series with a goal, an assist, and a minus-two rating in two games.
Tristan Jarry, G, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 2nd round (44th overall) in 2013
Whether it was the weight of added expectation or playing behind a roster that was still missing some key talent, Tristan Jarry had a rough start to the 2013-14 regular season. He allowed 27 goals in his first 10 starts and would even struggle in games where he did not see a lot of shots. He managed to dramatically turn things around in mid-October however, and now leads the WHL with a 1.98 goals against average. He also sports a 15-7-0-1 record, a .923 save percentage, and has three shutouts. He has been one of, if not the top goaltender in the WHL for November, managing two shutouts, a 7-1 record, and a 1.25 goals against average.
Jarry also represented the WHL at the 2013 Subway Super Series. He started in the game two of the WHL/Russia series and stopped 15 of 17 shots en route to a win.
Dane Birks, D, Merritt Centennials
Acquired: 6th round (179th overall) in 2013
One of the younger players in the 2013 NHL Draft, Dane Birks is scheduled to attend Michigan Tech in the 2013-14 season. In the meantime, he is playing junior-A hockey with the Merritt Centennials.
Birks is extremely raw, but has many qualities the Penguins value highly in their prospects. His skating is top-notch for a player who is 6'3, he has a long reach, and good offensive instincts. Aside from playing a simpler style of game at both ends of the ice, he needs to get stronger and fill out his frame.
Birks has a goal and 10 assists through 24 game this season.
Prospects Olli Maatta, Jayson Megna, and Brian Gibbons all made their NHL debuts this season. Maatta has been particularly impressive playing a regular shift in the Penguins top-four, often in the top-pairing alongside Kris Letang.
Forward prospect Beau Bennett recently underwent surgery on his left wrist and is expected to miss around two months. This is the second time Bennett will undergo wrist surgery, having ruptured a tendon in his right hand in December of 2011.
Recent injuries on defense have forced the Penguins to recall Simon Despres from the AHL. Despres spent the truncated 2012-13 NHL season on the Penguins roster, but was re-assigned to the AHL out of training camp this year. So far, the 22-year-old has been used in a lot of key situations and has looked very solid.
Josh Archibald, a winger for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has been one of the top goal-scorers in the nation, with 10 goals through 14 games. Archibald managed six goals and three assists through eight games in November.
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh