The Pittsburgh Penguins began a new era in the 2014 offseason. They have a new general manager in Jim Rutherford, a new head coach in Mike Johnston, and a deeper group of forwards – at the NHL level and throughout the system – than the organization has seen in quite a while.
With or without new management, the Penguins professional forward depth was going to improve, as five forwards are entering their first full season of professional hockey – six including Conor Sheary who is on an AHL contract. While none of these players, including Josh Archibald, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, and Jean-Sebastien Dea, are considered game-breaking talents, they are skilled enough to chip in offensively and will upgrade a major weakness within the organization.
The strength of the Penguins prospect pool remains on defense, with Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, and Philip Samuelsson all considered NHL talents. There is however a great deal more positional balance, with quality prospects also at forward and in net.
1. (1) Derrick Pouliot, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2012
The top prospect in the Penguins system, Pouliot underwent shoulder surgery last May to repair a torn shoulder labral. His recovery is on target, and he is expected to be ready for NHL training camp, where he will push for an NHL roster spot.
A supremely skilled puck-moving defenseman, Pouliot might have a leg up on the other defenseman he is competing with, as the Penguins new head coach, Mike Johnston, was Pouliot’s former junior coach in Portland. Still, it seems likely Pouliot starts the 2014-15 season in the AHL, as the Penguins will carry eight waiver eligible defensemen on their roster, and ice time on the blue line will be at a premium.
When healthy, Pouliot is a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who excels at transitioning the puck up ice and joining the rush. He has the potential to be a good point producer in the NHL and is the type of player who can lead the powerplay.
2. (NR) Kasperi Kapanen, LW/RW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 22nd overall, 2014
It was a pleasant surprise to Penguins management and fans alike when high-flying forward Kasperi Kapanen was still available at the 22nd spot in the 2014 NHL Draft.
“He’s even better than I thought he’d be,” said Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin. “I was very happy with him. He’s a high end talent. High end speed. He’s a very, very mature kid for his age.”
The son of former NHL forward Sami Kapanen, Kasperi played with his father for KalPa in the Finnish Liiga, where he managed seven goals and seven assists in 47 games.
“Obviously having his father playing so many years in the NHL, and playing with him, bringing him up that way, he’s already a pro,” said Guerin. “So he’s ahead of the game in that department.”
Kapanen spent the last few years of his life playing hockey in Finland, but he does have experience playing midget hockey in North America. Still, he will have to adjust his game to the smaller North American rinks, and he views that as one of his biggest challenges he will have to face in order to have success in the NHL.
“It’s going to be a lot different than the rink I played in back home. The European rinks are bigger,” Kapanen said at the Penguins 2014 prospect development camp. “Being in a smaller rink, everything happens a little bit faster, which is good for me because I like to play that fast style of game.”
Kapanen is going to get a long look in training camp, especially if forwards Beau Bennett and Pascal Dupuis are not yet healthy enough to play. It is unlikely he makes the Penguins NHL roster this year, but he seems up for the challenge.
“It’s going to be tough but I’m ready. I think I’m up for the challenge. I know that some people might doubt me but I’m just going to bring everything to the table and hopefully make the team.
3. (2) Beau Bennett, RW/LW, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2010
Winger Beau Bennett has had a difficult time staying healthy since he was selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft. A skilled forward with good vision and strong playmaking ability, Bennett underwent three wrist surgeries in the last four years, including two since last November. There is some reason for optimism, as his recovery has been much quicker this time around than in the past, but he will have to put together a fairly healthy season in 2014-15 to shake the ‘injury-prone’ tag.
When healthy, Bennett is a physical, high-motor type of player who aggressively attacks the puck. He is slated to start the season in the Penguins top nine and could quite possibly flank Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby on one of the scoring lines.
4. (4) Scott Harrington, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2011
Like Pouliot, defenseman Scott Harrington is expected to push for an NHL roster spot in training camp. A mobile, puck-moving defenseman who plays in the high contact areas of the ice, Harrington had a strong rookie pro season in the AHL.
“Every game I wanted to get better, and every practice,” Harrington said. “You get more and more comfortable every week. By the end of the year I wanted to be someone who could contribute and make an impact on the game through my defensive play. I tried to use the minutes that I got to the best that I could.”
By the end of the 2013-14 AHL season, Harrington was playing regular top four minutes and chipping in on both special teams. He saw a lot of the tough matchups, often against the opposition’s top forward units, and played the type of mature two-way game that belied his age and inexperience.
Even with the departure of several key veterans and the off-season surgeries of Pouliot and Olli Maatta, Harrington will have to be mighty impressive to make the Penguins NHL lineup out of training camp. He is behind Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, and Phil Samuelsson on the defensive depth chart, and Penguins management might feel his development would be better served playing top-pairing minutes in the minor leagues.
Either way, the NHL does not seem too far off for Harrington. He should, at the very least, be among the first defensemen to be recalled should injuries strike the Penguins defensive corps.
5. (3) Brian Dumoulin, D, 7.0B
Trade with Carolina Hurricanes, June 22nd, 2012
If competition breeds success, then defenseman Brian Dumoulin should be poised for a big season in 2014-15.
“There are some openings [on defense] but they’re not just going to give it to me,” Dumoulin said. “There’s a lot of good quality ‘D’ here, so it’s going to be a challenge and we’re going to be pushing each other for those spots. It’s going to be a challenge but it’s going to be fun.”
Now entering his third season as a pro, Dumoulin has shown steady progress throughout his professional career and is now one of the most NHL-ready prospects in the Penguins system. However, that might not be enough to secure a spot on the NHL roster this upcoming spring, as the Penguins will probably carry eight defensemen on their roster. Further complicating matters is the fact Dumoulin is waiver-exempt, meaning he could be forced into a similar situation as Despres was in last season, splitting the season between the AHL and NHL.
Regardless of where he plays most of the 2014-15 season, Dumoulin brings a ton of size and poise to the Penguins back end. He is not an overly physical player, but he is tough in the corners and assertive on the puck. He can chip in on both special teams and has a hard shot from the point.
6. (6) Tristan Jarry, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2013
Tristan Jarry has come a long way in one season. After spending two seasons backing up Laurent Brossoit (EDM), Jarry was appointed the Oil Kings starter at the start of the 2013-14 season and never looked back.
He led all goaltenders playing Canadian major junior hockey in wins with 44 and was the only goaltender in the CHL to record over 40 wins. Jarry seemed to get better as the season went along too, and was very strong for the Oil Kings in both the WHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament.
The 19-year-old will return to the WHL for another season where he is expected to once again be a difference maker for the Oil Kings. He has the athleticism and size to play in the NHL, but is still extremely raw and must refine his technique in order to succeed in the pros.
7. (7) Matt Murray, G, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2012
Like Jarry, goaltender Matt Murray is coming off a spectacular season at the Canadian major junior level. Murray was one of the top goaltenders in the OHL, managing 32 wins, a 2.57 goals against average, .921 save percentage, and six shutouts. He joined the Penguins AHL affiliate following his 2013-14 playoff run and made one start, a 2-0 loss to the Utica Comets.
Standing at 6’4, Murray brings great size to the goaltending position. He is very athletic, good at tracking the puck, and seems to do well when facing a barrage of shots. Murray does need to calm down in the net, he often makes saves more difficult than they have to be by flopping on the ice, but that is something that should improve with experience and coaching. He could also stand to upgrade his stick work, but it is not a major liability.
Murray will probably spend the 2014-15 season in the AHL, but could start the year in the ECHL in order to see regular starts. He will need a few years in the minors before he can realistically be considered an NHL-caliber goaltender.
8. (15) Jake Guentzel, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2013
Drafted in 2013 as a project, Jake Guentzel has come a long way in a short period of time. He had a strong freshman season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, managing seven goals and 27 assists in 37 games, often while playing alongside fellow Penguins prospect Josh Archibald.
“He’s a player that took me under his wing right away,” said Guentzel. “I feel like he, in the summer, just grabbed me. I looked up to him the whole year and maybe at the end of the year we were on the same line so I got lucky. We were learning a lot from each other so that was good for me.”
Guentzel was especially good following the winter break, where he posted five goals and 18 assists in 21 games and saw significant time on UNO’s powerplay.
“I just got more confident,” Guentzel said. “I felt like my game started to get better and I got more confident with the puck.”
The 19-year-old forward needs to add a substantial amount of strength before he can play at the pro level, but his approach to the game seems like it would be a good fit for the Penguins. He is fast, aggressive, and good at making plays off the rush as well as in the corners. He is a playmaker by trade, but has a good wrist shot and drives the net when he is not open to make or receive a pass.
He will return to Nebraska-Omaha for the 2014-15 season and it seems likely he will stay in college for his junior and senior years as well.
9. (8) Oskar Sundqvist, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2012
Oskar Sundqvist is easy to spot on the ice. A massive human who seems to always have a smile on his face, Sundqvist is a unique prospect in the Penguins system. For one, he is the only Penguins prospect who is playing in Europe. More importantly than where he is playing is the fact he is one of the few forwards in the system that possess both size and skill.
It will still be a while several seasons before Sundqvist comes to North America for anything more than a camp or a tournament. He is signed to an entry-level contract by the Penguins, but the organization feels it would probably be in Sundqvist’s best interest to play at least one more season in Sweden. The benefit would be two-fold as Sundqvist’s Swedish team, Skelleftea, will have several vacated spots in their lineup, providing the big Swede with some opportunity to play a prominent scoring role. The other reason Sundqvist would benefit from another year in Europe is the fact the Penguins are going to have six incoming rookie forwards battling for spots on the AHL roster. The addition of Sundqvist would make that seven, and there would be no guarantee he would get adequate ice time.
What kind of player Sundqvist develops into remains to be seen, but he has the size, skill, grit, and hockey IQ to play in the NHL. He needs to get quicker and more explosive in his skating, but more than anything, he needs more experience playing against men.
10. (8) Josh Archibald, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011
Winger Josh Archibald is coming off a monster junior season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The former sixth round pick finished third in the nation in scoring with 29 goals in 37 games and was a consistent threat all year, never going more than three games without a goal.
“Personally, I did some pretty great things, but for me, it couldn’t have been possible without my teammates and my linemates,” Archibald said, referring to center Jake Guentzel and left winger Dominic Zombo.
“We had some great chemistry and that was the main thing for us. We got open, we found each other. We made plays. It was a pretty special season.”
Archibald went pro shortly after his junior year ended and appeared in nine AHL games, including two in the playoffs. He did not see much ice time, but did show good speed and energetic play.
The 21-year-old winger does not project to be a big time scorer in the NHL, but he should be able to chip in a fair amount of offense. He must get stronger though, and prove he can handle the rigors of the long professional season.
11. (13) Anton Zlobin, RW/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 173rd overall, 2012
Anton Zlobin was always known as a clutch player. So it really should have not been any surprise that he seemed to find a new level when the 2014 AHL playoff season rolled around. After generating eight goals and 11 assists in 46 AHL regular season games, Zlobin posted six goals and four assists in only 15 playoff games, including three game-winners.
Zlobin was particularly effective against the Providence Bruins, where he managed four goals, three assists, and 20 shots in six games.
Entering his second season of professional hockey, Zlobin will have to prove that his strong playoff run was no fluke, and that he can be a regular offensive contributor in the AHL. He has great offensive instincts and good hands in tight, but his size, skating, and physical play leave something to be desired. He will be expected to play a prominent offensive role with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to start the 2014-15 season, likely in the top six. And if he excels in that role, he should be on the short list of forwards to get recalled to the NHL in case of injury.
12. (10) Teddy Blueger, C/W, 7.0C
2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012
Forward Teddy Blueger had a fairly rough sophomore season with the Minnesota State Mavericks. His offensive production was sporadic, as he generated four goals and 22 assists in 40 games, while going on prolonged goal-scoring slumps.
“It was really a kind of up and down year,” Blueger said. “There were times when I played really well and times where I played really poorly. I learned a lot about myself, about the importance of the mental side of the game, and really tried to work on that. Because there are going to be times in your life where you’re not going to be scoring and not going to be producing and you got to find other ways to contribute.”
The two aspects of his game that he focused on in particular were defense and faceoffs.
“If we need a faceoff win in the d-zone I really try to be that guy coach calls upon to win those draws. Focusing on my defensive game is really important too, just being a complete player. Being able to play a two way game, have a good stick, and play the body well.”
“I got to play wing for a bit this year too, I think that was very helpful for me,” Blueger added. “Because when you’re able to provide many different services to your team, that makes you a more valuable player and you’re more likely to stick around.”
Blueger will return to the Mavericks for his junior season and is expected to be one of the top offensive players for his team.
13. (12) Philip Samuelsson, D, 6.5B
2nd round, 61st overall, 2009
Philip Samuelsson rounds out the group of Penguins defensive prospects are close to, if not NHL-ready. The son of former Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, Philip physically resembles like his father on and off the ice, but he does not play with the same type of reckless demeanor that made the elder Samuelsson infamous. Instead, Philip plays a steady, defensive style of game, predicated around getting in shooting lanes, blocking shots, and transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone. He does occasionally lay a big hit, and at 6’2 and about 200 pounds, he has the size to make those hits hurt.
Samuelsson will be waiver eligible for the 2014-15 season, so unless the Penguins are willing to risk losing him for nothing via the waiver wire, he will start the season on the NHL roster. The amount of playing time he sees in the NHL will largely be determined by the health of the defensive unit as a whole, but right now he is the seventh or eighth on the depth chart.
14. (14) Jean-Sébastien Dea, C/W, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, September 17th, 2013
The Penguins do not have many pure goal-scorers in their prospect pool. So there was naturally some interest when they signed Jean-Sebastien Dea, who was coming off of a 45 goal season in the QMJHL, to an entry-level deal last fall.
A year later and that interest still remains. Dea is coming off his second consecutive 40 goal season in QMJHL and will begin his pro career this fall. He has strong shot repertoire and can score goals anywhere from a distance to right around the net. However, the question remains, can he score goals at the pro level?
While Dea has the hands to score goals, he is slightly built and will need to add a substantial amount of strength to fend off defensemen in the AHL, let alone the NHL. He also plays a relatively one-dimensional game, and he is not a major factor on the ice when he is not scoring.
The Penguins have taken the slow road with most of their prospects up until this point and will probably be very patient with Dea. Given the large amount of incoming forwards, he could realistically start in at the ECHL level, where he would get an opportunity to play regular minutes in the top six.
15. (9) Jayson Megna, LW/RW, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, August 1st, 2012
The 2014-15 season will be an important one for Megna, who is entering his third year of professional hockey. Megna played 36 games in the NHL last year, where he managed five goals and four assists. He played throughout the lineup and even saw time in the top six playing with either Crosby or Malkin.
The 24-year-old is a fast skater with good size and a hard shot. He does not possess tons of hockey sense, nor is he overly creative, but he shoots the puck frequently and accurately. He also is not afraid to drive to the net or get involved physically.
Megna should have a chance to make the Penguins NHL roster out of training camp. The organization has 12 forwards slotted to start the year in the NHL and will probably carry at least one spare forward.
16. (NR) Scott Wilson, LW/RW, 7.0C
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011
Winger Scott Wilson is another one of the many Penguins forwards who are entering their first full season of professional hockey. A skilled player by trade, Wilson plays a strong two-way style that should be conducive to the North American pro game. He possesses good hockey sense, soft hands, and instinctively drives to the net.
Like the majority of the Penguins forward prospects, Wilson is not overly big and will have to get stronger in order to match up against bigger defensemen in the pros. He is not an overly fast skater, but is strong on his feet and is good at getting on loose pucks.
Even if Wilson’s offensive game does not materialize at the professional level, he possesses good enough hockey sense that he should be able to carve out some type of role, even if it is in the bottom six.
17. (17) Dominik Uher, LW/RW, 6.0B
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2011
Every player wants to make the NHL out of training camp. Not every player takes it as seriously as Dominik Uher though.
“This is the first year I’m spending the whole summer in North America,” Uher said. “Trying to get in the best shape of my life so I’m ready for training camp. If there’s a chance (to make the NHL roster) I want to take it seriously. That’s my goal.”
Uher will face stiff competition, with prospects such as Kapanen and Payerl expected to push for a roster spot, but Czech forward does not seem fazed.
“It’s going to be great, it’s going to be competitive, and I’m going to be ready for it.”
It should be noted that Uher seems to approach everything with tons of enthusiasm. He seems to be grinning at all times, whether he is doing an interview after practice or running a defensemen into the boards.
“I’m just trying to have a good time. No matter where you go. Whatever the circumstances,” Uher said, grinning. “If it’s a sunny day, if it’s a good day, you’re always trying to have a smile and have a positive attitude in the locker room.”
The smile, however, can be misleading. Uher plays a nasty, cantankerous style of game that drives opponents crazy. He hits, chirps, and possesses enough skill to play a complementary role in the top nine. He is also a strong defensive presence and is very good at killing penalties.
If he does not make the NHL out of training camp, Uher should be on the short list of players who will be recalled because of injury.
18. (NR) Bryan Rust, W, 6.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010
A two-way player who had a strong four seasons at Notre Dame, Bryan Rust possesses a strong hockey IQ and might have enough offensive skill to chip in some offense at the NHL level.
Of all of the Penguins forward prospects beginning their first year of professional hockey, Rust is probably the most NHL ready. His game is versatile, as he played a lot of different roles in college, he is defensively responsible, and at 6’0 and over 190 pounds his size should not be a hindrance. He is not a game-breaking talent though, and his ceiling is probably that of a third line forward who can chip in offensively.
The Penguins are patient with their prospects and will give Rust as much time in the minors to develop as he needs. However, it would not be surprising to see him quickly ascend up the organizational depth chart.
19. (16) Reid McNeill, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2010
In a prospect pool filled with mobile, offensively gifted defensemen, Reid McNeill sticks out.
“I know I’m not an offensive guy. I’m a bigger body. And that’s something I take pride in,” McNeill said. “Definitely being a bigger, physical guy is something that the organization can look at. It sets me apart from everybody.”
Standing at 6’4 and over 200 pounds, McNeill is one of the biggest prospects in the Penguins pool. He is very strong and extremely well-conditioned too, having spent the past two offseasons training with Gary Roberts.
He is fairly mobile for a big man and is capable of winning a lot of races to the puck. More importantly, he provides a physically intimidating presence along the Penguins blue line and is good at clearing the front of his goaltender’s crease.
McNeill will start the 2014-15 season in the AHL, likely in a prominent shutdown role.
20. (NR) Blaine Byron, C/W, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2013
Blaine Byron is a flamboyant offensive talent who excels when the puck is on his stick. He is coming off a fairly strong freshman season with the University of Maine, where he managed eight goals and eight assists in 32 games.
A natural center, Byron spent a big chunk of the 2013-14 season playing wing for the Maine Black Bears. While the adjustment was not easy, he found there were a number of benefits.
“It teaches you to play without the puck. Play a more defensive role,” said Byron. “I felt that really helped me, just learn more of the game away from the puck.”
Byron also felt that playing wing made him a more offensively dynamic player.
“When you play center you have a lot of speed. You come through the middle and you’re better able to make plays off the rush,” Byron added. “I noticed this year, playing wing, I found myself having a lot more scoring opportunities and I think I produced more goals than in the past.”
While there is no doubting Byron’s offensive ability, namely his vision and superb wrist shot, he will have to overcome quite a bit to be an effective NHL player. The biggest issue, like many of the Penguins forward prospects, is his size. Standing at 5’11 and 163 pounds, Byron needs to add a substantial amount of muscle to his frame in order to withstand the rigors of professional hockey.
Byron will return to Maine for his sophomore season.
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh