Deep group of defensive prospects beginning to come of age for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh

Brian Dumoulin - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Brian Dumoulin is one of many talented young defensemen in the Penguins minor-league system. Dumoulin made his NHL debut on December 14th and played in six games before returning to the AHL. (courtesy of Abelimages/Getty)

The Pittsburgh Penguins currently lead the NHL in man games lost to injury and at one point were missing their entire top-four defensive unit. The team has not missed a beat, however, and currently leads the NHL's Eastern Conference with 63 points and 31 wins.

Just as encouraging is the fact the Penguins AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, has also continued to do very well despite missing a large portion of their roster to call-ups and injuries of their own.

Because of all of the injuries the Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, have been used mostly as a destination for players returning from injury to get back into shape. That could change if organization is able to stay healthy, but that concept seems far-fetched right now.

NHL

Beau Bennett, RW/LW, 22

The 2013-14 season thus far has been a disaster for Bennett. The talented winger struggled to produce early on in the season and went down with an injury in just his fifth game of the season on October 12th. He returned on November 9th and finally recorded his first goal of the season on against the Washington Capitals on November 20th. He broke his left wrist in the following game and underwent surgery shortly thereafter. He has been on injured reserve since November 22nd and is not expected to return until late January or early February.

It was an unfortunate blow to both Bennett and the Penguins as he was just starting to regain his form from the 2012-13 season and had been promoted to the top line with Sidney Crosby. He will likely get a chance to reclaim that spot as Crosby's frequent right wing, Pascal Dupuis, is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Olli Maatta, D, 19

Maatta has not just been one of the most important prospects for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but arguably one of their most important players period. Heading into the season, the young Finn was expected to see limited ice-time playing in the third defensive pairing. Because of injuries however, he quickly ascended up the Penguins depth chart and for a while was playing over 20 minutes alongside veteran Matt Niskanen.

With many of the Penguins veterans recently back in the lineup, Maatta has returned to playing in the bottom half of the defense. As the defense continues to get healthy, the Penguins coaching staff could limit his ice time during the second half of the season, especially if he is selected to the Finnish Olympic team.

Simon Despres, D, 22

Despres has been at the center of speculation and trade rumors since day one of the 2013-14 NHL season, when he was sent to the AHL to start the year. He performed well in his time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and created a formidable shutdown pairing with Philip Samuelsson. He has since been recalled to the NHL and has averaged almost 18 minutes a game.

The 6'4 defenseman has recently graduated from prospect status, but still remains a work in progress overall. His consistency in his own end has vastly improved from a year ago and it seems only a matter of time before his offensive game comes around. On the season he has four assists in 17 NHL games and three goals and eight assists in 17 AHL games.

AHL

Brian Dumoulin, D, 22

Dumoulin started the season slow following an injury in training camp. Gradually however, his game started to come around, and by the time Despres was recalled to the AHL in late November, there was no question Dumoulin would be the next in line to be called up to the NHL. That promotion to the big leagues would happen on December 14th and Dumoulin would go on to play five more games in the NHL before finally being returned to the NHL on the 23rd.

Another big defenseman who can move the puck, Dumoulin played the same role in the NHL as he did in the AHL, and looked mostly comfortable. He is very steady in his own end, is good at moving the puck up ice, and has some offensive ability.

Brian Gibbons, C, 25

The NHL future of Brian Gibbons was murky heading into the 2013-14 season. The diminutive forward was coming off a lackluster 2012-13 season, where he managed eight goals and 22 assists despite seeing a lot of time in the top-six and on the powerplay.

Something clicked for Gibbons however, and he has been one of the Penguins most productive AHL players since the start of the season. He currently has nine goals and 18 assists through 23 games and should surpass his previous season totals if or when he returns to the AHL.

Gibbons received his first taste of NHL action on November 18th. He managed a goal and an assist in his NHL debut and through 10 NHL games has a goal and three assists.

Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, 26

Zolnierczyk has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Penguins organization this season. Though his NHL career is fairly short, he quickly developed a reputation as a player who had a penchant for borderline play. He has kept that mostly in check this season and, as a result, has been a valuable injury call-up for the Penguins.

He currently has 11 goals and seven assists through 24 AHL games, but any offensive output he provides at the NHL level is simply a bonus as his game is predicated around speed, agitation, and wrecking ball body checks.

Philip Samuelsson, D, 22

The Penguins regard Samuelsson as one of the most improved players in the organization and it is easy to see why. After opting to go pro after his sophomore year at Boston College, Samuelsson started the 2011-12 season in the ECHL and at the bottom of the organization defensive depth chart. His skating was sub-par, he was slow to make decisions, and sometimes looked uncomfortable with the puck. He worked at his weaknesses however and while he will never be mistaken for an offensive dynamo, he does have the look of an NHL level defenseman.

Samuelsson was called up to the NHL during the Penguins spate of injuries on defense and filled in admirably, playing mostly alongside Despres in a shutdown capacity. He has since been returned to the AHL and will likely play top-pairing minutes there for the rest of the season.

Jayson Megna, LW/RW, 23

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes piled heavy praise onto Megna during the 2013 off-season and it easy to see why. Megna possesses an ideal skill-package for the Penguins style of play. He is fairly big at 6'1, an explosive skater, and possesses a fair amount of offensive ability. He has a high compete level and typically goes all out every shift.

The undrafted forward was one of the first players called up by the Penguins and fared well in his first six games, managing two goals and an assist, before eventually being re-assigned to the AHL. He was recalled again in late November and managed to stick this time. Unfortunately, Megna injured his knee on December 17th in an odd collision with Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier that took place outside of the net and is now on injured reserve. He is projected to return to the lineup sometime in January or early February.

When he does return to the lineup, Megna will once again have the opportunity to earn a top-six spot at the NHL level, as the Penguins are extremely thin on right wing.

Tom Kühnhackl, LW/RW, 21

While patience has to be exercised with Kuhnhackl, as he missed large portions of the previous two seasons to injury and suspension, the second-year forward has not done a lot to inspire hope. He started the 2013-14 season on fire, scoring five goals in his first 10 games and registering 22 shots on net. In the proceeding 21 games however, he has two goals, one assist, and only 21 shots on net. Furthermore, when he is not putting pucks in the back of the net, he is not helping his team.

There are no real explanations or excuses for Kuhnhackl's output other than shaken confidence and possibly a lack of effort on his part. With forwards like Chris Conner, Megna, Gibbons, and Zolnierczyk all seeing getting called up to the NHL, a top-six spot was open for Kuhnhackl to seize. Instead, he has not only been a non-factor the last two months, but an occasional healthy scratch.

Adam Payerl, RW/C, 22

The hulking power forward had a strong start to the 2013-14 season, managing two goals, three assists, and four fights in his first 19 games of the season. He went down with an upper-body injury on November 30th however, and is projected to miss another two or three months.

Bobby Farnham, C/W, 24

Farnham is another gritty, undrafted forward who is beginning to show some NHL potential. Inked to an entry-level deal in the off-season after playing the 2012-13 season on an AHL deal, Farnham has shown tremendous growth in his overall game. He still often plays with reckless abandon and will occasionally go over the line, but he has also shown to be a capable two-way player at the AHL level. He projects as a similar player as Zolnierczyk.

Harrison Ruopp, D, 20

When a prospect is highly regarded yet has amassed only 34 points in 214 games at the major junior level, he has to be able to do something else extremely well, if not better than just about anyone else. For Harrison Ruopp, it is throwing thunderous body checks. He still has a lot of other aspects of his game that need to be worked on, from tightening up the play in his own end to learning the finer points of the Penguins defensive system, but those are things that should come with more experience.

Ruopp began the season on injured reserve. When he was activated off the IR in early November, he was assigned to the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL for nine games then recalled to the AHL, where he has appeared in eight games.

Nick D'Agostino, D, 23

D'Agostino is in his rookie pro season following a very solid four-year career at Cornell. A two-way defenseman by trade, D'Agostino does not impress in any one facet of the game, but does everything pretty well. He has good size at 6'2 and a long reach. He is not a physically an intimidating player, but plays with a bit of an edge. He has a good shot and can move the puck well, but he is not very dynamic offensively. He is however very steady and effective at both ends of the ice. D'Agostino will have to battle to stay in the lineup this season as the Penguins AHL squad is loaded defensively.

Reid McNeill, D, 21

McNeill is a strapping defenseman who plays a simple, stay-at-home style of game. Like Ruopp and D'Agostino, McNeill has battled to stay in the lineup. He went down with an arm injury in mid-November while trying to block a shot and returned after about two weeks. He sustained another upper-body injury in mid-December and has only recently returned to health.

Scott Harrington, D, 20

Harrington is probably the most high-profile new face on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster. Regarded throughout the hockey community as an extremely smart and steady defenseman with a very high hockey IQ, Harrington is the type of defenseman who is at his best when he goes unnoticed. He is among the beneficiaries to the Penguins injury depleted lineup, particularly in early December, when there were three defensemen recalled from the AHL. He saw a fair amount of time during that stretch playing in the top-pair, but was relegated to second-pairing when Dumoulin returned from the NHL.

Paul Thompson, RW/LW, 25

Thompson has greatly benefitted from organizational injuries to not only the players at the NHL level, but also the players who were called up to fill in for them. As a result, the big forward has recently played a lot of top-six minutes and in general looked pretty good. He started the season poorly and was at times relegated to fourth-line duties. His play has gradually come around however and while he initially played a top-six role out of necessity, his game is where it needs to be for him to keep that spot when other players return to health. On the season he has three goals and one assist in 26 games.

Dominik Uher, W/C, 21

Uher has shown dramatic improvement this season. A forward from the Czech Republic by way of the WHL, Uher has improved his overall game while still playing his lively, if not at times ornery style of game.  He was going along at a solid clip, managing nine points in the first 18 games of the season, but took a puck to the face on November 27th and missed almost a month of hockey as a result. He has since returned and is gradually getting back into form.

Anton Zlobin, RW/LW, 20

Probably among the most intriguing prospects in the Penguins minor league system, Zlobin started the 2013-14 season on the IR following off-season shoulder surgery. He made his professional debut on November 15th and after nine games was reassigned to the AHL. The offensively gifted winger has grown increasingly comfortable at the AHL level and is starting to convert his chances offensively. He currently has a goal, three assists, and 21 shots on net through 13 AHL games. At the ECHL level, he managed four goals and five assists in nine games. His production should only increase as the season goes on and his comfort level continues to grow.

Eric Hartzell, G, 24

Arguably the top goaltender in the NCAA in 2012-13, Hartzell has lived up to the hype thus far and is beginning to turn heads in the AHL.

The Quinnipiac graduate suffered an injury in early October and missed the first month of the 2013-14 season. When he returned, he was assigned to the ECHL to get back into game shape and see a lot of starts. Through five starts at the ECHL level, Hartzell went 2-2-1 while managing a 2.58 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.

He was recalled to the AHL in late February and has gradually taken starts away from veteran goaltender Jeff Deslauriers. He has a 4-2-1 record, a 2.20 goals against average, a .914 save percentage, and two shutouts.

Expect Hartzell to earn more and more starts as the 2013-14 season progresses.

Other Notes:

The Penguins had two representatives at the 2014 World Junior Championships in forward Oskar Sundqvist for Sweden and defenseman Derrick Pouliot for Canada. Pouliot was impressive at times for Team Canada, and finished with a goal and four assists in seven games. Sundqvist did not quite post as impressive stats, but he scored the game-winning goal in the semi-final round of the tournament, allowing Sweden to compete for a gold medal.

Related Articles