The 2013-14 season was a good one for many Pittsburgh Penguins prospects. Over 500 man games lost to injury at the NHL level paved the way for several players, such as Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna, and Brian Dumoulin, to make their NHL debuts. Several other prospects, like Josh Archibald, Tristan Jarry, and Matt Murray had breakout seasons and elevated their status within the organization.
Hardest Worker: Brian Gibbons, C/W, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
An undrafted forward who is liberally listed at 5'8, Brian Gibbons brings neither good size nor much offensive pedigree to the Penguins lineup. He does however bring an infectious work ethic and elite speed, which he has used to carve out a regular role among the Penguins forward group, often on their top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Gibbons' ability to push the pace of the game and win puck races also makes him a valuable asset on the penalty kill.
The Penguins have a handful of prospects with very hard shots, including Jayson Megna, Tom Kühnhackl, and Brian Dumoulin, but none can rip the puck from the point like Derrick Pouliot. Known more for his passing ability, Pouliot is extremely effective at putting the puck on net, and does a good job lining up for one-timers. Heading into the 2014-15 season, his shot will likely be one of the featured weapons on the powerplay for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Scott Harrington is a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who plays a very defensively oriented style of game. Though not overly physical, he is a good athlete, strong on the puck, and capable of playing lots of minutes. He demonstrated consistent, steady play in his first season of professional hockey and took on more responsibilities as the season went on. He is considered a very coachable player and someone who takes pride in not giving a forward any space.
There are several other players who could compete for the title of fastest prospect, mainly Brian Gibbons, but Matia Marcantuoni possesses a level of game-breaking speed that is rare among players at any level of competition. Whether the rest of his game catches up to his feet remains to be seen, but Marcantuoni already has the type of skating ability that can push the pace of a game, draw penalties, and create odd-man rushes.
Prospect of the Year: Tristan Jarry, G, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Tristan Jarry had a phenomenal 2013-14 season. In his first year as the starting goaltender for the Oil Kings, Jarry led the WHL in goals against average (2.24), shutouts (8), and was the only goaltender in all of the three major Canadian junior hockey leagues to surpass the 40 win mark with 44.
Jarry possesses innate anticipation for a goaltender and is able to track the puck very well. He has a good stick-hand, which he can use to pass the puck and poke check, and is generally very confident in net. He still has a long way to go in his development, but he has demonstrated plenty of promise thus far.
Breakout Player for 2014-15: Jake Guentzel, C/LW, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (NCHC)
Though 34 points in 37 games as a freshman could be considering a 'breakout' type of season, the best is still yet to come from Jake Guentzel. Often teamed with fellow Penguins prospect Josh Archibald, Guentzel led all freshman players with 27 assists. He see a lot of time on the powerplay, and that should continue in 2014-15. Guentzel was red hot since the turn of the calendar year, producing 23 points in 21 games, a pace that should only improve as he gets stronger and more experienced.
Most Improved Prospect: Matt Murray, G, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Matt Murray is not only the most improved prospect in the Penguins organization, but is arguably the most improved goaltender in the OHL. Murray was one of the league's top goaltenders through the 2013-14 regular season, managing a 32-11-6 record, a .921 save percentage, and a 2.57 goals against average. The numbers are a far cry from his 2012-13 season, where he still managed a winning record at 26-19-4, but also posted a bloated 3.67 goals against average and .894 save percentage.
It was not as though the team in front of him improved a great deal either. They Greyhounds iced a fairly young lineup in 2013-14, and Murray actually saw more shots on average than he did in the previous season.
Overachiever: Josh Archibald, LW/RW, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (NCHC)
Josh Archibald established himself early on as a fierce forechecker with good skating ability, but he also managed to really open up his game offensively in 2013-14, managing 29 goals and 14 points in 37 games. He was among the hottest offensive players in the nation, and at one point went on a 10-game stretch where he managed 14 goals and 20 points.
Archibald will be hard pressed to match those totals at the NHL level, though odder things could occur. He first however must prove himself in the minors.
Underachiever: Tom Kuhnhackl, LW/RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
In terms of talent and overall pedigree, Tom Kuhnhackl is one of the top goal-scoring prospects in the Penguins system. He is however wildly inconsistent in his production, going for long stretches without any points. Furthermore, his play is fairly one-dimensional, so when he is not putting up points, he is not helping his team.
There is always some risk when a team signs an undrafted 19-year-old forward to an NHL contract, especially one who is on the smaller side and plays in an offensively oriented league like the QMJHL. That said, the Penguins do not have a ton of goal-scoring prospects in their system, and Jean-Sebastien Dea knows how to score goals. Dea was signed to an entry-level contract last September, following a 45 goal, 85 point season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. He had another strong season in 2013-14, finishing fifth in the league with 49 goals through 65 games.
The next step in his development will be to prove whether or not that scoring ability can translate to the professional level.
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh