The 2009 NHL off-season was one of the most important in Pittsburgh Penguins history as it marked their first Stanley Cup parade in over 15 years. The off-season also marked a major transition period for the Penguins as General Manager Ray Shero and his management team used the opportunity to rebuild the organization's then-barren defensive pool.
The rebuild, which is now in its fifth year, has already paid major dividends for the Penguins organization. They have been able to regularly supplement an NHL roster that currently leads the league in man-games lost to injury without missing a beat. Just as importantly, the organization is positioned well for the long-term and should be able to replace any veteran defensemen who leave via free agency.
The selection of Despres, if anything else, signified a philosophical shift for Shero and his scouting and management staff. The strapping defenseman from the QMJHL was one of four defensemen the Penguins selected in the 2009 NHL Draft and is the first of six defensemen the organization picked in the first two rounds of the past five drafts.
Despres, like most defensemen selected out of the QMJHL, was drafted for potential. He fit the mold for what the Penguins sought in their defense – size, mobility, and good puck-distribution – but was extremely raw in his own end. Still, the organization seized the opportunity to select a player who, by most accounts, dropped in the draft because of a hip injury he sustained during the 2008-09 season.
The Penguins have brought Despres along slowly. He played two full years in major juniors following his draft season and made his NHL debut December 1st, 2011. He played the majority of the truncated 2012-13 season in the NHL, but was assigned to the Penguins AHL affiliate out of the Penguins 2013-14 training camp.
He has split the 2013-14 season between the AHL and NHL, and unless the Penguins defense is once again hit by the injury bug, he should spend the remainder of the season in the minors.
Though he has a promising future in the NHL, Depres' status in the Penguins organization is murky. He has the pedigree to play in the NHL right now, but the Penguins current depth on defense has caused him to be ninth on the depth chart. He could be a regular member of the Penguins top-six defense next year or he could be traded for a forward by the March 5th trade deadline.
Just hours before Philip Sameulsson made his NHL debut on December 16th, 2013, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma described Samuelsson as "…a guy who has developed the most in our organization of any defenseman in the past three years. He has come a long way. He left [Boston College] and he’s developed into a top shutdown defenseman, a top [penalty killing] guy for Wilkes-Barre."
That is an apt description for Samuelsson, who was considered a long-term project player in 2009. His skating was deficient, not only lacking explosiveness but much footspeed, his puck-skills were average, and he was not known for laying big hits. He did however have NHL size and was heading into one of the top NCAA programs in Boston College. Being the son of former Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson probably helped a little too.
Samuelsson signed an NHL entry-level contract in 2011 following his sophomore season at Boston College. He had difficulty getting into the lineup initially, but as Bylsma alluded to, he has gradually developed into a quality defensive defenseman with good NHL potential.
He is likely one more year away from fulltime NHL duties, but demonstrated in December that he can be a viable call-up for short stretches of time.
Ben Hanowski, W/C, Little Falls High School (Minnesota High School) – 3rd round, 63rd overall
NHL Games played: 5
No one knew it at the time, but Ben Hanowski would be the first in a long line of college-bound players the Penguins would select in the middle and later rounds of the NHL Draft.
Hanowski was a skilled, high-scoring forward with decent size, but lacked much experience playing against higher quality competition. Furthermore, his skating was sub-par for a center and he would have to eventually have to convert to wing. The generally held belief was that time in the NCAA, where there are fewer games than major juniors and a greater emphasis on conditioning, would be hugely beneficial to his development. That prediction was correct, as Hanowski has filled out his 6'3 frame, improved his skating ability, and looks like a viable top-nine forward in the NHL.
On March 28th, 2013, Hanowski was traded to the Calgary Flames as part of a package that brought veteran Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He signed an entry-level contract shortly thereafter and appeared in five of the Flames final seven regular season games. He has played the 2013-14 season in the AHL for the Abbotsford Heat.
Nick Petersen, RW, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL) – 4th round, 121st overall
NHL Games played: 0
The Penguins took a mid-round flier on Nick Petersen following a 2008-09 season where, as a 19-year-old, he managed 37 goals and 53 assists in 68 games. Though never drafted by a Canadian major junior team, Petersen had good size and hands. His skating however left a lot to be desired.
The sniper would join Despres and the Saint John Sea Dogs for an overage season in 2009-10, and signed an entry-level deal in May of 2010. He played parts of two seasons in the Penguins minor-league system, split between the AHL and ECHL, but never seemed to find his scoring touch at the pro level.
The Penguins bought out the final year of Petersen's contract in September of 2012 and he then signed a minor-league contract with the Houston Aeros. In July, 2013, Petersen signed a deal with the German club Schwenninger Wild Wings.
Alex Velischek, D, Delbarton School (New Jersey Prep) – 5th round, 123rd overall
NHL Games played: 0
The son of former NHL defenseman Randy Velischek, Alex was drafted out of Delbarton School, an elite prep school in New Jersey. Like most players selected in the later rounds of a draft, Velischek had some blotches on his scouting report, namely a lack of experience playing against higher quality competition. His skating, lower body strength, and pedigree were all very good however and the belief was that four years playing college hockey with Providence would allow him to round out his game.
Things did not going according to plan however. Velischek had a strong freshman year with Providence, managing a goal, 11 assists, and 44 penalty minutes through 34 games. He struggled in his sophomore year though, frequently butting heads with then-head coach Tim Army, and eventually left Providence and joined the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. Army would be fired at the end of the 2010-11 season and the new Providence coach, Nathan Leaman, would persuade Velischek to return for his junior year.
Velischek fared no better under Leaman, often looking out of place or ineffective in many of his assigned roles. He was signed to an amateur try-out contract following his graduation and played three games with the Wheeling Nailers.
The Penguins opted not to sign Velischek to an entry-level contract in the summer of 2013, but did sign him to a try-out contract in the ECHL. He was released in October and after a month of searching for a place to play, finally signed with the Arizona Sundogs of the CHL.
NHL bloodlines run deep for Andy Bathgate, who shares the same name as his grandfather, a Hall of Fame center who played 17 seasons with the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately for the younger Bathgate, his size hindered him from a professional career in North America and he is currently playing professional hockey in Holland for the HYC Herentals.
Bathgate battled injuries during the 2009-10 season and while he was fairly healthy in 2010-11, he posted a ghastly minus-30 rating. The Penguins signed him to an amateur try-out contract and he appeared in two AHL games. He was not however signed to an entry-level contract in the 2011 off-season and he returned to the OHL for an overage season with the Plymouth Whalers. He was invited to the New York Rangers 2012 prospect camp for a tryout, but did not sign a contract and played the 2012-13 season with the University of Guelph. He has since gone overseas to play professional hockey in Holland.
Viktor Ekbom, D, Oskarshamn IK (Allsvenskan) – 6th round, 181st overall
NHL Games played: 0
Ekbom was a steady, two-way defenseman who the Penguins drafted as a 20-year-old following a strong but understated performance for Team Sweden at the 2009 U20 World Junior Championships. He played the 2009-10 season in the Swedish Allsvenskan league and followed that up with a two full seasons in the SHL with Linkoping.
The Penguins signed him an amateur try-out contract in 2011 and he appeared in three games for them. His skating was not really up to AHL standards however and he returned to Europe. He spent the 2011-12 season in Finland with Tappara, played the 2012-13 season in Germany with EHC Munchen, and is currently back in the SHL, this time with Orebro.
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