New general managers are typically faced with the task of rebuilding moribund farm systems and injecting fresh and young talent into an organization. But GM Ray Shero’s job was instead to turn an already existing group of talented young players into a championship caliber team.
Shero’s predecessor, Craig Patrick, laid a solid foundation, drafting 15 of 41 players in the first three rounds. Many of those draft picks including Kris Letang, Daniel Carcillo, and Erik Christensen, are already NHL regulars. The majority are still prospects though.
The 2006 draft was already organized by the outgoing Penguins staff so Shero’s drafting and team-building philosophy does not really come through until the 2007 and 2008 drafts. Six of the Penguins 12 picks in those latter two drafts were forwards who have a history of scoring goals and versatility at the forward position.
An underrated aspect of the Penguins system has to be their ability to acquire young, undrafted talent. Last year they acquired Dartmouth standout Ben Lovejoy and traded for Hobey Baker candidate John Curry and this year undrafted Cape Breton Screaming Eagles winger Joey Haddad was signed to an entry-level contract before being sent back to juniors. Both Curry and Lovejoy were major contributors to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s run to the Calder Cup Finals.
Considering Luca Caputi is the only left wing prospect with the potential to be a regular scoring threat in the NHL, the Penguins are decidedly sparse at left wing. However, with a majority of other forwards able to play on left wing, the dearth at position can be misleading.
The 2007-08 season saw Caputi explode offensively, scoring over 51 goals and finishing fourth in OHL scoring, between wunderkinds Steven Stamkos and John Tavares. The Toronto native was rewarded with an entry-level contract last spring and joined the Penguins AHL affiliate for a run to the Calder Cup Finals. The beginning of his 2008-09 season started with dissapointment as the dynamic winger sustained a hip injury during the Penguins prospect tournament in Kitchener. Unable to make the most of his opportunities in NHL training camp due to the injury, he got assigned to the AHL in the first wave of cuts.
Ryan Stone, a player who was vocal about his displeasure of not making the NHL roster is among those on the short list to get called up because of injuries or roster shakeups. Stone comes from a rich tradition of agitating forwards who cut their teeth in the AHL, the likes of whom include current Penguins Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot as well as former Penguins Colby Armstrong and Daniel Carcillo.
Paul Bissonnette, a defenseman converted to left wing, recently made the jump to the NHL. A niche player, Bissonnette brings sandpaper and a willingness to sacrifice the body, two qualities the Penguins can not have enough of on their star-studded NHL roster. His versatility at position also allows him to offer emergency defensive services to a team amid a road trip.
Joey Haddad, an undrafted free agent from Cape Breton of the QMJHL could turn out to be coup for the Penguins. A power forward in juniors, Haddad has soft hands and possesses some scoring potential. Generally relegated to third or fourth line duty while playing for Prince Edward Island, the 20-year-old exploded offensively after a trade to Cape Breton. Haddad is in the classic mold of a power forward, posting 31 goals and 31 assists last season to go along with 104 penalty minutes. Invited on a tryout basis, Haddad joined the Penguins prospects for the Kitchener tournament and was subsequently invited to Penguins NHL and AHL training camps before being signed to an NHL contract. Sent back to his junior team for now, the Nova Scotia native expects to join the Penguins AHL affiliate in the spring. The 6’2, 196-pound forward will become a familiar name by next offseason.
The Penguins are unbelievably deep at center at the NHL level all the way through the junior ranks. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh at least through 2015, the Penguins need at center differs from most teams. While they have a glut of scoring centers, including Casey Pierro-Zabotel, Dustin Jeffrey, Keven Veilleux, Joe Vitale, and Nathan Moon, the hope is that at least a few of these players can make a successful transition to wing and compliment one of the Penguins talented playmaking centers already in the NHL.
An integral part of the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup Finals were the contributions they received from checking line forwards. Players like former defenseman Jordan Morrison, Brian Gifford, and Mark Letestu can fill certain roles on the third or fourth line but a dearth of checking centers should be a concern of the organization.
Among the skilled centers closest to the NHL is Jeffrey. A forward who saw a lot of time on wing during training camp, Jeffrey is current listed as a center for WBS. His style of play though is reminiscent of Tyler Kennedy and when he is ready, can bring a similar tenacious style of play. This versatility at forward is one of the organizational strengths and a near universal characteristic of the forwards Shero has drafted.
Keven Veilleux was another forward who was signed to an entry-level contract in the spring, but had a mixed training camp. He is currently playing for Rimouski Oceanic and on pace to shatter previous career highs in goals and assists. Veilleux, like Jeffrey, Pierro-Zabotel, and Kennedy, is also a center by trade but is comfortable playing both wing positions. A right-handed shot and over 6’4, Veilleux brings several highly prized assets to the Penguins organization. The towering forward is not without his flaws; at various Penguins functions he has often seemed lackadaisical, playing reactively, and often a step behind the play. Still 19, his fresh start in Rimouski is paying early dividends. If Veilleux can manage to maintain a consistently high level of play, then the hulking forward with crisp passing and scoring ability will be an integral part of the Penguins future.
A power forward who models himself after Tomas Holmstrom, Casey Pierro-Zabotel is among the listed centers with the most goal-scoring capability. A bit of a late bloomer, Pierro-Zabotel is a tall, muscular forward who at 6’2 and 210, is able to make his presence known in the slot and crease. The Vancouver native’s main knock last season was that he was often knocked off the puck and was not as strong a skater as he should be. After an off-season spent lifting weights and working on his skating he is now among the most dominant forces in the WHL.
Nathan Moon, an offensive dynamo currently playing for the Kingston Frontanacs of the OHL, is an undersized forward who is an adventure at both ends of the ice. Drafted in the fourth round, Moon may have gone earlier if he had not finished his season a team worst -25, on a team that won only 25 of their 68 games. He finished last season with 35 goals, among the top-20 in the OHL, and is a right-handed shot who can play on wing. A universal sentiment about the Belleville native is that he is a complimentary player, someone who is most effective playing alongside a defensively responsible playmaker.
Joe Vitale is another versatile, talented scoring center although unlike the aforementioned players, was drafted by Patrick. The captain of Northeastern University, Vitale had a breakout year in 2007-08, posting 35 points in 37 games, more than he produced in his first two full years as a Husky. At 5’11, Vitale is not big by traditional standards. He is, however, over 200 lbs and skates with a wide stance, making him difficult to move off the puck. Vitale could fill a variety of roles for the Penguins, as a third line forward with some scoring touch, a chaotic presence around the net during the power play, and as the captain of his college team, a calming presence in the locker room. His right-handedness gives him additional appeal to an organization with few right-handed players with scoring potential.
Nick Johnson and Tim Crowder headline a group of forwards with a scoring history who are comfortable playing on right wing. Johnson, a point-per-game player at Dartmouth and college teammate of Penguins prospects Ben Lovejoy, is considered a hard-working forward with a scoring touch. Known as a solid locker room presence and a player who works his hardest every shift, Johnson can fill any role asked of him. Currently playing for Wheeling of the ECHL, Johnson has to work on his strength and adapt to a rigorous and long professional schedule.
Crowder, an assistant captain for the Michigan State University Spartans, is another player with promise. Scoring 19 of his 46 goals on the man advantage, the right-handed shot gets his best work done in front of the net, especially on the power play. Crowder is still relatively lean at 6’3 and 195 lbs, but has been able to endure the punishment of a full season of NCAA hockey. But like Pierro-Zabotel, Crowder needs to thicken his upper body to endure the around-the-net punishment that he will regularly endure to be successful at the professional level.
An undrafted free agent, Tim Wallace has raised eyebrows with his physical and tenacious play in 2007-08. The Alaska native is a physical and athletic winger currently playing in the AHL. A former 153-game iron man for Notre Dame, Wallace signed after college by the Penguins AHL affiliate and split his first season in between the AHL and ECHL. After paying his dues, he was rewarded with a two-year entry-level contract in 2007 and has stuck with the AHL team since. Wallace fills a similar role that Gary Roberts did for the Penguins, finishing every body check, occasionally dropping the mitts, and chipping in offensively. He has decent north-south speed but will never be more than a fringe player in the NHL.
Although he took a step back in 2007-08, posting 10 goals after scoring 30 the year prior, Jon Filewich was given a vote of confidence by the Penguins and inked a two-year deal. Once considered a promising goal-scoring prospect, something happened that threw a wrench into Filewich’s development. The right-handed winger still plays a strong two-way game but is neither physical nor nasty enough to compensate for such a radical dip in scoring. If his 2007-08 outing was in fact an aberration, Filewich fits an urgent need for the Penguins roster. However, if Filewich’s scoring ability does not return, he will have to diversify his game to play in the NHL.
Michael Gergen, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth is a prospect who has not developed as expected. The two-way forward was initially drafted because his lightning quick feet and soft hands. Not the offensive dynamo at the NCAA level that he was in the USHL, Gergen still plays a complete two-way game and shows a willingness to get his hands dirty along the boards. The 5’11 forward could fill a similar role that current Penguin Pascal Dupuis provides: playing smart two-way hockey, engaging in physical play along the boards, and occasionally chipping in offensively.
With five potential unrestricted free agents in the next two years, The Penguins’ defense will look remarkably different in 2010-11. Shero’s philosophy towards surrounding his star nucleus with talented complimentary players is evident in how the organization has drafted along the blueline.
Among the Penguins defensive prospects, only Alex Goligoski is a guaranteed top-pairing talent. The Grand Rapids native was forced into duty because of injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. Often playing over 20 minutes a game, Goligoski has not looked out of place in the NHL. He quarterbacks the Penguins power play and sometimes plays the point alongside Evgeni Malkin. The 23-year-old has played so effectively in the NHL that in order to make sure he gets enough ice time, the Penguins may be forced to make a trade in February, when Whitney and Gonchar are expected to return for duty.
Behind Goligoski is Alex Grant, an immensely gifted defenseman playing in the QMJHL. Only 19, the talented Nova Scotian is already in his fourth year of junior. Despite a concussion sustained before the season started, Grant has been utterly dominant offensively and was named the QMJHL player of the week after playing two games in which he posted three points, was a +3, threw five body checks, and played on the top penalty-killing unit that went 17 for 17. The fact that the Saint John Sea Dogs won the games which Grant dominated demonstrates his influence on the outcome of a game. With Alex Goligoski, Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, and Kris Letang all under contract for at least the next two years, it is unlikely that Grant will be making an NHL appearance anytime soon. If his offensive talents translate to the professional ranks, his puck-moving ability and right-handedness could be yet another piece in an already formidable stable of offensively gifted defensemen.
Carl Sneep and Brian Strait are the next defensemen to join Brooks Orpik, Ryan Whitney, Rob Scuderi, as Hockey East alumni after college. Strait has been favorably compared to Scuderi, but skater with better closing speed and more physical around the net. The Boston native will not leave the audience in awe with deft puck handling but he is quick with his judgment and is rarely a liability on the ice. He has a solid outlet pass and a good first step. Strait can fit any number of roles for the Penguins. He can serve as defensive partner for one of their talented offensive defensemen or alongside a player like Brooks Orpik in a shutdown capacity. The thick blueliner also plays the PK and is deployed when Boston University is preserving a lead.
Sneep is another big, mobile, athletic defender taken in the 2006 draft. At 6’4 and 210lbs, the Minnesota native’s body still has room to fill out. The right-handed shot was an offensive defenseman by trade but has evolved his game to a more two-way style during his time at Boston College. His puck distribution skills are raw but is a deft puck handler with a hard point shot. Like Strait and Grant, Sneep is looked to his team for on-ice leadership and willingly sacrifices his body for the better of the team. Also like Strait, Sneep can fill a variety of roles for the Penguins, playing on both special teams and as second pairing defenseman.
Robert Bortuzzo, a physical defenseman taken 78th overall in 2007, sustained a shoulder injury and will be sidelined for the beginning of his 2008-09 campaign. Standing at 6’4 and already over 200lbs at the age of 19, Bortuzzo could fill a valuable role as a shutdown guy, getting matched up with opponents top forwards, or as a defensive specialist, similar to Hal Gill.
The most physical of the Penguins defensive prospects, Jake Muzzin, a 225 lbs Brantford native brings a nasty demeanor to the ice, intimidating opponents physically and dropping the gloves if need be. Muzzin however, is not a one-dimensional player; he has a strong point shot and one-timer, above average lateral movement, and is an effective penalty killer. While his physicality is clearly the main attraction, his diverse skills and mental toughness make him able to fit a variety of roles.
Going into the 2008 draft, the Penguins identified their main weakness as a lack of goaltending prospects. So with their second pick, 150th overall, they drafted Alexander Pechurski, an athletic goaltender from Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
With the Penguins next pick in the sixth round, Patrick Killeen was selected. A platoon starter with the Brampton Battalion, Killeen, at 6’4 203 lbs, is one of the largest Penguins prospects at any position. He follows the play fairly well but is still clumsy at times handling the puck. The Ontario native, while athletic for a goaltender his size, relies too much on his ability to take up space in the net rather than proper positioning.
Neither prospect is expected to contribute to the Penguins anytime soon. However, with John Curry already a shoo-in to be an NHL backup in 2009-10, and David Brown to take Curry’s old job, there will be opportunities between the pipes over the next few seasons.
With Marc-Andre Fleury locked up for many years to come, finding a goaltender of the future is of little concern for the organization. The Penguins do have depth at goaltender if something was to befall their star goaltender. John Curry, an undrafted free agent who the Penguins acquired via trade early last season, is currently the top goaltending prospect. David Brown, a standout at Notre Dame, while still considered a project, also shows promise as a starting goaltender.