Defense continues to headline Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool

By Ian Altenbaugh

Olli Maatta - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Olli Maatta has been one of the top young defensemen in the NHL this season, with seven goals and 18 assists through 58 games. Maatta also helped Finland win the bronze medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics. (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the NHL's Eastern Conference with 40 wins and 84 points despite amassing over 350 man-games lost to injury. The team has suffered major injuries at every position and at one point were missing four of their top-six defensemen, two of their top-six forwards, and their backup goaltender.

Though the Penguins continue to win, mounting injuries have exposed some weaknesses in their system, namely a lack of skilled forward depth. There appears to be no immediate help in the system either, as the majority of their forward prospects lack either experience, skill, or both. The Penguins would normally address these weaknesses by trading a young defenseman, but they may not be able to afford to given the uncertain health of veteran defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin.

1. (4) Olli Maatta, D, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 22nd overall, 2012

Olli Maatta has surpassed all expectations this season and has developed into one of the top rookie defensemen in the NHL. When the 19-year-old Finn made the roster out of Penguins training camp, there was doubt as to whether or not he would be able to secure a regular roster spot on a veteran laden defensive core. Those doubts were quickly put to rest however, as Maatta has been one of the most durable and reliable players on the Penguins roster.

Maatta has taken his game to new places over the past two months, managing 13 points in his past 17 NHL games, and providing clutch play for Team Finland at the 2014 Olympics. Though he is close to graduating prospect status as per HF criteria, he still possesses tons of upside and could very well develop into a future top-pairing defenseman for the Penguins.

2. (1) Derrick Pouliot, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2012

Derrik Pouliot has established himself as one of, if not the top defenseman in the WHL this season, and currently has 17 goals and 45 assists through 50 games. He was one of the top defensemen for Team Canada at the 2014 WJCs, and seems to have taken his game to another level offensively since the turn of the new year, with 32 points in 22 games. Probably even more important than his production is that Pouliot has improved in his own end and has been relied upon in all situations for the Portland Winterhawks.

3. (2) Beau Bennett, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2010

Slated to compete for a spot in the Penguins top-six forward unit, Bennett has instead spent all but 12 games of the 2013-14 NHL season on injured reserve, first for a lower-body injury suffered in training camp and later because of an injury to his wrist which required surgery. He has since recovered and is skating, but still remains several weeks away from NHL action.

Bennett will get an opportunity to play a prominent role for the Penguins at some point this season, if only because they do not have much in the way of skilled forward depth. He still possesses game-breaking abilities and is extremely creative in the offensive zone, but given his growing list of injuries, it is difficult to envision him as a regular member of the Penguins lineup.

4. (4) Brian Dumoulin, D, 7.0B
Trade with Carolina Hurricanes, June 22nd, 2012

Second-year pro Brian Dumoulin is one of many big, mobile, puck-moving defensemen the Penguins have in their system. His season has been one of dramatic highs and lows thus far, as he has missed substantial time to injury, but also managed to make his NHL debut on December 14th against the Detroit Red Wings.

Dumoulin has spent the majority of the 2013-14 season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL, where he has played in either the second or third pairing. He has also seen time on the powerplay and both special teams.

5. (5) Scott Harrington, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2011

Defenseman Scott Harrington has shown immense growth over the course of 2013-14 season. He started the year playing in either a second or third-pairing role with the Penguins AHL affiliate, and has taken on more responsibility as the season has gone on. He has spent a lot of time alongside Brendan Mikkelson and the two have combined to form a reliable duo at both ends of the ice.

The 21-year-old projects as a shutdown defenseman who can play close to 20 minutes a night and contribute on both special teams. He will likely need another season in the minors before he is ready for the NHL, but could be a capable injury call-up as soon as next year.

6. (6) Tristan Jarry, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2013

Goaltender Tristan Jarry has been spectacular in his first season as the full-time starter for the Edmonton Oil Kings. He currently leads the WHL with 39 wins, a 2.21 goals against average, and seven shutouts. He is also one of the main reasons the Oil Kings have allowed the fewest goals in the league.

Though he has experienced immediate success as a starter, Jarry remains a project at this point in his development. Goaltenders traditionally take longer than skaters to reach their potential, and the fact Jarry has only limited starting experience only further confounds things. He will likely need one more season at the junior level followed by several years in the minors.

7. (11) Matt Murray, G, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2012

Murray has been one of the top goaltenders in the OHL all season. He struggled in previous years with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, often seeing a ton of shots with not much in the way of goal support, but things have come together nicely this season for the 19-year-old netminder. He currently has a 2.51 goals against average, a .922 save percentage, and six shutouts, all while often seeing an average of over 30 shots per game.

Murray was inked to an entry-level contract in early September and is expected to join the Penguins AHL affiliate upon the completion of his 2013-14 junior season. Like Jarry, Murray's resume is fairly limited at the junior level, and he will need several years of seasoning in the minors.

8. (8) Josh Archibald, RW/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011

Josh Archibald is amid a breakout junior season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he has 26 goals and 12 assists through 30 games. He has been a leader all season for the Mavericks and leads the team with seven powerplay goals and five game-winners. He has also acted as a mentor to fellow Penguins prospect Jake Guentzel, who has been on fire since the turn of the new year.

Archibald will likely return to college for his senior season, but when he does eventually turn pro, the Penguins should have a quality two-way forward who has lots of speed and some offensive upside.

9. (9) Oskar Sundqvist, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2012

Standing at 6'3 and almost 200 pounds, Oskar Sundqvist is one of, if not the only forward prospect in the Penguins system that possesses both size and skill. Drafted by the Penguins out of the Skelleftea system in Sweden, Sundqvist is playing his first full season at the SHL level and has experienced a relative amount of success given his limited role. He also had a fair outing at the 2014 WJCs, where he managed two goals through seven games while playing a mostly bottom-six role.

His game has matured a great deal since his junior days, when he was known as much for some on-ice antics as he was his combination of size and skill. In fact he has only 16 penalty minutes through 47 games on the season.

The Penguins will have to make a decision as to whether or not they want to sign Sundqvist to an NHL contract this spring.

10. (NR) Brian Gibbons, C/W, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, April 4th, 2011

No forward in the Penguins system has improved more in the past year than Brian Gibbons, a diminutive forward who is now in his third season of professional hockey. Gibbons broke out offensively from the start of the season, and already has 30 points at the AHL level – matching his previous season's totals in 32 fewer games. More importantly though, he appears to have carved out a role in the NHL as a speedy, versatile forward who is capable of making some high-skill plays. He has recently spent a lot of time on the Penguins top line alongside center Sidney Crosby, and the two appear to have developed good chemistry.

Whether or not Gibbons projects as a future top-six forward in the NHL remains to be seen, but his emergence has been a bright spot for a forward core that has been plagued with injury and inconsistency.

11. (18) Jayson Megna, RW/LW, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, August 1st, 2012

Another savvy free agent signing by Penguins management, Megna has emerged this season as a viable scoring forward at the NHL level. He possesses an intriguing mix of size, skating, and creativity, but his overall upside still remains somewhat of a mystery. At the very least, he should be able to carve out a role in the NHL as a bottom-six forward with some skill.

Megna will likely split the remainder of the 2013-14 season between the AHL and NHL, with the likelihood he will start the 2014-15 season in the NHL.

12.  (7) Teddy Blueger, C/W, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012

Now in his sophomore season with Minnesota State, Blueger has not yet taken the next step in his development at the NCAA level. He has gotten stronger and continues to be a solid two-way presence, but his offensive numbers, three goals and 14 assists, are not particularly inspiring. Still, Blueger plays the type of smart, gritty, two-way game that should allow him to find a role at the NHL level, assuming of course he can continue to add weight to his 170 pound frame.

13. (10) Eric Hartzell, G, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, April 14th, 2013

It has been a rookie season of extreme highs and lows for Hartzell, who has battled through injuries and bouts of inconsistency. He has spent most of the 2013-14 season in the AHL, and was stellar over the month of January, allowing 11 goals in 10 games and going 5-2. He struggled mightily through February however, where he has gone 1-3 and allowed 18 goals in six games.

The Penguins recently sent Hartzell to their ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, with the hope he can get regular starts and regain his confidence.

14. (NR) Philip Samuelsson, D, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009

Philip Samuelsson has quietly developed into one of the top shutdown defensemen in the Penguins system. He plays a smart, physical brand of hockey and is good at getting the puck up ice and out of danger. He does not possess an overwhelming amount of upside at the NHL level, but has already shown he is capable of playing a shutdown role for the Penguins. He will spend the remainder of the 2013-14 season in the AHL, assuming of course the Penguins defense can remain healthy, but could compete for a regular NHL roster spot as soon as next year.

15. (13) Anton Zlobin, RW/LW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 173rd overall, 2012

Zlobin began the 2013-14 season on injured reserve after undergoing shoulder surgery in the 2013 offseason. He made his professional hockey debut on November 10th, 2013, and after a nine-game stint in the ECHL, was recalled to the AHL.

He has been all throughout the Wilkes-Barre lineup this season, from playing in the top-six to more recently being a healthy scratch. He has been inconsistent offensively, but has been mostly solid even when he is not contributing on the scoresheet.

The Penguins may not truly know what they have in Zlobin until next season, as he will not likely be 100 percent recovered from his shoulder injury until then. He has the talent to be a top-six or top-nine scoring winger NHL, but must get stronger and stay involved at both ends of the ice.

16. (NR) Jean-Sebastien Dea, C/W, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, September 17th, 2013

The Penguins may have found a diamond in the rough when they signed Jean-Sebastien Dea to an entry-level contract in September. Now in his third season of QMJHL hockey, Dea is tied for third in the league with 44 goals and seventh in the league with 14 powerplay goals. The 20-year-old forward's greatest asset is his shot and he is not afraid to use it. He ranks 13th in the league with 215 shots on net and fourth with 150 'dangerous shots' which is a stat the QMJHL keeps to measure high quality shots on net.

Dea is expected to join the Penguins minor-league affiliate at the conclusion of his season the QMJHL. He will join the Penguins minor-league organization full-time in 2014-15. At this point he projects as a promising scoring winger, but will have to add a considerable amount of size and strength to his rather lanky frame.

17. (19) Jake Guentzel, C/W, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2013

Guentzel started his freshman year with the University of Nebraska-Omaha strong and has only improved as the season has gone on. He has been particularly impressive since the turn of the new year, and has 14 points in his past 14 games, including three multi-point affairs. He has four goals and 21 assists through 30 games on the season, which ranks fifth on the team.

The 19-year-old remains a long-term project at this point in his development. He needs to add size, as he is only 5'10 and 160 pounds, but he also needs to shoot the puck with more regularity. He projects as a skilled forward who can play in the middle of the lineup.

18. (NR) Reid McNeill, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2011

An off-season of training with former NHL power forward Gary Roberts has done wonders for Reid McNeill, who has come on strong over the second half of the 2013-14 AHL season. The 21-year-old defenseman has learned to use hulking, 6'3 frame over the past year and is developing into a ferocious hip checker. He is also playing a simple and steady game in his own end, getting stick on puck and doing a good job of taking away time and space from the puck carrier. He will never be an offensively dynamic player, but he handles the puck with confidence and can capably move it up ice.

19. (17) Dominik Uher, LW/RW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2011

Uher is a gritty, two-way forward who plays with a little bit of skill and a lot of sandpaper. He has taken on a more prominent role in his second season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and has even seen time on the Penguins top scoring line.

If Uher makes a name for himself in the NHL, it will be as a physical, bottom-six forward who can play on special teams and chip in the occasional goal. He will likely need one more year of minor-league experience, but could very well see an NHL recall as soon as next season. Especially if the organization is once again plagued with injuries.

20. (16) Harrison Ruopp, D, 6.5C
Trade with Phoenix Coyotes, June 22nd, 2012

Ruopp started the 2013-14 season with an injury and never seemed to find his footing. He made his pro hockey debut with the Wheeling Nailers on November 14th, and was recalled to the AHL after a solid nine-game outing. He managed to stay in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton lineup for most of December, but was in and out of the lineup for January and February.

While the Penguins uncanny depth on defense has contributed to Ruopp's lack of playing time, he still has not done enough to separate himself from the other defensive prospects competing for ice time. When he is in the lineup, Ruopp is a tough, physical defenseman who is capable of delivering devastating body checks.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh

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