Penguins Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Lou Arrico

Having graduated many of their top prospects to the big club already, the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool is not as deep as it recently has been.

Penguins GM Ray Shero traded his 2008 first and second-round picks to acquire Marian Hossa and Hal Gill at the trading deadline this year.  The Penguins third-round pick and Daniel Carcillo went to Phoenix in exchange for enforcer Georges Laraque at the 2007 trading deadline.  The Penguins are left with only a few picks in the 2008 draft, considered to be the deepest draft since 2003.  So it will likely be a while before the cupboard is restocked.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Alex Goligoski, D
2. Tyler Kennedy, C/W
3. Keven Veilleux, C
4. Carl Sneep, D
5. Brian Strait, D
6. Luca Caputi, LW
7. Dustin Jeffrey, C
8. John Curry, G
9. Jonathan Filewich, RW
10. Ryan Stone, C
11. Nick Johnson, RW
12. Robert Bortuzzo, D
13. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C
14. Alex Grant, D
15. David Brown, G
16. Joe Vitale, C
17. Michael Gergen, LW
18. Ryan Lannon, D
19. Paul Bissonnette, D/W
20. Tim Crowder, RW

1. Alex Goligoski, D, 22

2nd round choice, 61st overall, 2004

Foregoing his senior year at the University of Minnesota, Goligoski had a solid rookie season in the American Hockey League.  Goligoski had off-season shoulder surgery and many feared that it might be a setback for the puck-moving defenseman.  Goligoski rebounded from surgery and impressed as one of the last cuts from this year’s Penguins training camp. 

The 22-year-old defenseman received a late season call-up to Pittsburgh and showed excellent promise in the three-game stint notching 2 assists and a +2. 

Goligoski was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team, and played in the 2008 Rbk AHL All-Star Game.  The former WCHA Defensive Player of the Year had 38 points in 70 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. 

Goligoski will be an excellent replacement for Sergei Gonchar on the blue line eventually.  Expect Goligoski to spend at least one more season in the AHL.

2. Tyler Kennedy, C/W, 21

4th round choice, 99th overall, in 2004

Kennedy graduated from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Pittsburgh this year.  The scrappy winger has made a transition from center to wing as his right-hand shot is a welcome addition to the Penguins line-up. 

Kennedy was recalled in late October and notched his first goal, then reassigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a week, and then recalled to spend the rest of the season with the Penguins.  After battling a severe case of mononucleosis, Kennedy made his second half of the season a strong one with four game-winning goals.

Named to the NHL’s YoungStars squad, he could not compete due to illness.  Kennedy may not be the biggest player on the ice, but the 5’11 winger plays with passion, determination and lots of energy.  Look for Kennedy to continue to emerge for the Penguins through the playoffs and next season.

3. Keven Veilleux, C, 18

2nd round choice, 51st overall, 2007

In the mold of a power forward, Veilleux has soft hands, but plays with a mean streak.  He’s not afraid to crash the net and bring the physical game, but also is known for setting up teammates. But the 6’5 center needs to learn how to use his large frame to his advantage while improving his skating acceleration. 

Veilleux is a streaky scorer, and was named QMJHL Offensive Player of the Week at one point in the season for an eight-point night.  Veilleux played an important role for the Rimouski Oceanic, where he was traded in early 2008.

When Veilleux is ready he will help the Penguins lineup grow in size and add a fear factor.  Veilleux joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on an amateur tryout after his QMJHL season ended.  Veilleux needs to learn what it takes to play professional hockey, which means playing hard night-in and night-out.

4. Carl Sneep, D, 20

2nd round choice, 32nd overall, 2006

Sneep was drafted in the second round of the 2006 Entry Draft.  Standing 6’4, he maintains another theme that has been apparent by Penguins general manager Ray Shero: size. 

The right-handed defenseman plays for the Boston College Eagles.  A smooth skater for his size and build, Sneep also shows great poise when moving the puck out of the defensive zone.  He uses his size when necessary, but plays a smart game. He keeps his penalty minute totals way down.  He had 15 points in 44 games this season as a sophomore.

Sneep helped the Eagles to the national championship this year, but at a price.  Sneep was struck with a slapshot resulting in a familiar injury throughout the Penguins’ organization, a high-ankle sprain.  Sneep did not suffer a fracture and is expected to make a full recovery.

5. Brian Strait, D, 20

3rd round choice, 65th overall, 2006

Strait is a two-way defenseman who’s not afraid to take the physical abuse that a defenseman can incur, but most importantly he keeps it simple. The 20-year-old Massachusetts native has an IIHF U-18 gold medal on his resume and captained the 2008 U-20 USA team, which lost to Russia in the bronze medal game. 

Strait is another valuable piece to the Penguins puzzle down the road. He isn’t flashy.  For now, he remains at Boston University, where he had 10 points, all assists, in 37 games last season.

Strait has been named an alternate captain for the Boston University Terriers for the 2008-09 season.

6. Luca Caputi, LW, 19

4th round choice, 111th overall, 2007

A recent draft pick who has been garnering a lot of talk in Pittsburgh is Niagara IceDogs left wing Luca Caputi.  Weighing only 185 lbs, Caputi had a significant increase in scoring this season notching 111 points (51 goals, 60 assists) in 66 games, 46 more points in two fewer games than last year.  In the playoffs, he had 17 points in 10 games.

Caputi has two knocks on him before he could have an impact in the NHL.  The first is that he needs to fill out to be able to endure the rigors of the NHL or even AHL season; secondly, Caputi will also have to work on his skating to become the impact power forward he has the potential to become. 

Caputi joined Wilkes-Barre on an ATO at the end of this season, and recently signed an entry-level contract with the Penguins.  He has four points in five games with WBS.  With an October birthday, he can play full time in WBS next year.

7. Dustin Jeffrey, C, 20

6th round choice, 171st overall, 2007

Jeffrey has been making a lot of noise in the OHL this year.  The left-handed center amassed 97 points (38 goals, 59 assists) in 56 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds during the regular season, good for ninth in the league for scoring.  In the postseason, Jeffrey collected 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists) in 14 games.  But he’s not all offense — he’s a quality penalty killer as well.

The sixth-round pick made good was a co-captain along with Brandon MacLean for the Greyhounds.  Excellent on faceoffs, Jeffrey has the potential to make a living on the wing as well, but will spend some time in the AHL before he makes a jump the NHL.

Drafted a year later than most, Jeffrey is already 20 years old.  Jeffrey has signed an amateur try-out with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and joined the team amidst their playoff run.

8. John Curry, G, 24

Undrafted, Free Agent, 2007

Curry stepped it up big when called upon by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Todd Richards.  With Ty Conklin on his way to Pittsburgh, Curry, who had been sharing duties in a three-man rotation with fellow rookie David Brown, took the Baby Penguins on his shoulders and carried the team to a playoff berth.

Curry represented Team USA at the 2007 Deutschland Cup, leading Team USA to a second-place finish and a 2-1-0-1 record during the tournament.

Curry, an undrafted free agent and former Hobey Baker nominee from Boston University, received the AHL Rookie of the month honors in December and was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team.  Curry posted a 24-12-4 record with a 2.23 GAA, a .915 save percentage and three shutouts.  Curry is already 24, and it’s not clear where he fits into the Penguins future, but remains the No. 1 goaltender in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

9. Jonathan Filewich, RW, 23

3rd round choice, 70th overall, 2003

Filewich finally got into NHL action this season.  He started the year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.  He received a call-up in late January and in five games in Pittsburgh registered no points a -2 rating.

Filewich has seen his point totals tail off from a 56-point (30 goals, 26 assists) season in 2006-07 to only 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) this year in the AHL.  He won the AHL fastest skater competition during the 2007 AHL All-Star Skills Competition. 

If Filewich is going to stick with the parent Penguins, it will be in a defensive role.  He did show a glimmer of offensive flair when playing on a top line, but lacked energy when playing on the bottom two lines.  Filewich will need to step up his game if he wants to remain in the organization.  currently he is out of the WBS lineup injured.

10. Ryan Stone, C, 23

2nd round choice, 32nd overall, 2003

Stone also finally made his long-anticipated NHL debut this season.  He spent a little more time in the NHL than Filewich and excelled in the defensive role he was placed in. He’s not afraid to crash the net or be gritty along the boards. 

Stone recorded an assist and also had one fight in his six-game stint.  Stone, like Filewich, will need to step up his game to remain a vital prospect in the organization.  He found himself in Wilkes-Barre Head Coach Todd Richards’ doghouse several times during the season, and was arrested twice for public drunkenness.  Stone has responded and has been making great strides to become a better player for Richards.  Stone could become a role player for Pittsburgh next season.

11. Nick Johnson, RW, 22

3rd round choice, 67th overall, 2004

Patterning his game after hometown hero Jarome Iginla, Johnson has the making to become a mix of a two-way forward and a power forward.  Johnson competed in 133 straight games for the Dartmouth Big Green and also captained the team.  In his senior year he had 35 points in 32 games.

Johnson, like several prospects, will need to fill out his 6’1 body to compete at the professional level.  A great stickhandler, Johnson must work on his defensive responsibilities for the pro game.

Johnson was one of the first players to join the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after the completion of their season. 

In 10 games for WBS in both the regular season and playoffs, Johnson has one assist.

12. Robert Bortuzzo, D, 19

3rd round choice, 78th overall, 2007

As the Penguins continue to get better they are also going to need to become more physical.  Bortuzzo is 6’4 and 205 lbs which will make him an intimidating factor in front of the Penguins net.

Bortuzzo is considered a veteran defenseman for the Kitchener Rangers.  Bortuzzo receives most of his minutes against opposing team’s top lines and has been a balanced player for the Rangers during the OHL playoffs.

Another one of Shero’s over 6’ prospects, Bortuzzo is not a flashy player.  He keeps his game extremely simple and will not shy away from the physical play.  Bortuzzo also is capable of contributing offensively, but don’t expect a lot of points from the Kitchener Ranger defenseman.  Bortuzzo looks like a sure lock to be with the Baby Penguins in 2008-09.

13. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C, 19

3rd round choice, 80th overall, 2007

Pierro-Zabotel joined the Vancouver Giants of the WHL after plans to join Michigan Tech fell through.  Pierro-Zabotel is a player that likes to play gritty in front of the net and rarely misses on chances in front of the net.

Pierro-Zabotel compares his game to Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom.  The Penguins seem to lack the gritty players that like to make a living in front of the net, but Pierro-Zabotel would help make room for skilled players.

Pierro-Zabotel averaged close to a point a game since the 2005-06 season with the Merritt Centennials in the BCHL (a second tier junior league).  The third-round draft pick has joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for their playoff run and has not appeared in a game yet for the Penguins.

14. Alex Grant, D, 19

4th round choice, 118th overall, 2007

Grant captains the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL.  Another right-handed defenseman who is not afraid to shoot the puck, Grant has spent three seasons with the Sea Dogs.

Grant has represented Team Canada twice during the IIHF’s Under-18 World Championship.  Grant had a career year in 2007-08 scoring 48 points (15 goals, 33 assists) through 70 games and won defensive player of the week honors twice.

Not just an offensive defenseman, Grant plays a solid defensive game.  At 6’2, Grant is another large defenseman.  Looking down the depth chart, the Penguins have accumulated a great deal of size over the past two drafts.  Grant’s physical game is excellent, but he needs to improve his transition game while working on his decision-making.

15. David Brown, G, 23

8th round choice, 228th overall, 2004

Brown wasn’t quite sure where he would be playing this season.  He knew it wouldn’t be with the Pittsburgh Penguins and it was going to be a battle between him and fellow rookie Curry to back up Ty Conklin in the AHL. 

After a brief stint in Wheeling with the Nailers, the Hobey Baker nominee was back in Wilkes-Barre part of a two-man tandem for the Baby Penguins.  Brown struggled in his first few starts as he had trouble controlling rebounds, but the Notre Dame alumni has found a groove working behind Curry. 

Brown is 8-7-1 and will be a vital role in the Penguins organization.  The Penguins have two excellent goaltenders in the system that will resemble a Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez tandem.

16. Joe Vitale, C, 22

7th round choice, 195th overall, 2005

A St. Louis native and a member of the Northeastern University Huskies, Vitale is a steadfast center who plays a well-rounded game.  Vitale’s strong play has sparked resurgence for the Huskies hockey program. 

Vitale is the ideal prospect to anchor your third line.  He’s not afraid to carry the puck, take the body or stick up for his teammates.  Vitale plays a strong game at both ends.  The NHL may not be the same defense-first league that it was through most of the 90s, but defense still wins championships. 

Vitale is the type of player that will help the Penguins win a championship once his collegiate career is finished at Northeastern and some seasoning in the minors.

17. Michael Gergen, LW, 21

2nd round choice, 61st overall, 2005

A Shattuck-St Mary’s alumni like fellow 2005 draftee Sidney Crosby, Gergen went the college route, playing with the University of Minnesota-Duluth.  Gergen only recorded 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in 33 games for the Bulldogs.

Gergen will more than likely remain with the Bulldogs for his senior and hopefully will be able to regain a consistent scoring touch like he did during his prep school days.

Gergen has the potential to compliment a top scoring line for the Penguins.  The Minnesota native posses a deadly wrist shot, but seems to hesitate to use it in the proper situations.  Look for Gergen to spend a few seasons with WBS before joining the parent Penguins.

18. Ryan Lannon, D, 25

8th round choice, 239th overall, 2002

Lannon was a dominant player for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in his third pro year.  Lannon was called up to the Penguins this year, but never made it to the line-up.  The time spent in Pittsburgh helped Lannon become a better leader when he returned to Wilkes-Barre.

Wilkes-Barre coach Todd Richards feels that Lannon has emerged as a more complete player after a sophomore slump during the 2006-07 season.

Lannon could become a six or seventh defenseman with the parent Penguins next season.  Lannon plays a simple game, but can mix in some offense when needed.  If he’s going to make the NHL, he must do it now, as his window of opportunity is closing.

19. Paul Bissonnette, D/W, 23

4th round choice, 121st overall, 2003

Many people thought Bissonnette was finished with the Penguins organization, in fact, Bissonnette assumed he was done with the organization.  After requesting a trade at the beginning of training camp, Bissonnette was fed up with the way he had fallen off of the organization.s depth chart — he almost made the team in 2003 as an 18-year-old defenseman. 

Bissonnette was instead returned to his junior team and joined the WBS Penguins in 2005.  Bissonnette was banished to the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL after having a run-in with Wilkes-Barre’s new coach Todd Richards.  Injuries and call-ups lead to Bissonnette returning to Wilkes-Barre, where he has made a much better impression on the coaching staff.

Bissonnette is not afraid to drop the gloves and enjoys doing so on a regular basis; he has the makings to be a middle-weight NHL enforcer, reminiscent of former Penguin and NHL pest Matthew Barnaby.  If the ECHL All-Star continues the hard work and stays focused, he has the potential to one day get a shot.

20. Tim Crowder, RW

5th round, 126th overall, 2005

Crowder had 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 42 games for the Michigan State Spartans this year as a junior.  Crowder has been able to contribute to the Spartans in big ways by scoring goals in key moments.

The British Columbia native is expected to spend one more season at Michigan State before making the jump to the professional level.  Crowder knows what it takes to win, being a part of Michigan State’s 2006-07 championship team.  If Crowder’s drive remains consistent, he could become a similar player to Ryan Malone.