Going into the 2009 draft as the Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins were among the few teams who did not need to address any immediate concerns at the draft. Instead, they focused on keeping the prospect pipeline flush with talent. Among the least active teams at draft day, the Penguins did trade goaltending prospect Chad Johnson for the 151st pick in the draft and their seventh-round pick to Montreal for a sixth in 2010.
The Penguins once again drafted heavily from the North American junior development leagues, picking four of their seven picks from the OHL, QMJHL, and USHL with two more coming from United States high school programs. With their final pick in the draft, they selected defenseman Viktor Ekbom from Sweden.
Simon Despres, D – Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
1st round, 30th overall
6’4, 220 pounds
A former teammate of Penguins prospect Alex Grant, Depres was projected by many to go much higher than the 30th overall pick. Some of this drop had to do with a lackluster performance at the World U18 Championships where Depres wore the A for the team but only posted two assists in six games. While some of this lackadaisical performance was attributed to a hip injury, there is a general belief that he needs to get stronger and play more assertively in the middle of the zone.
The left-handed blueliner could best be described as a two-way presence with size and offensive ability. He is not particularly adept at using his size to punish opponents, but has a good stick, blocks shots, and plays both ends of the ice. At the beginning of the 2008-09 season, Despres was relegated to primarily defensive duties as he was the partner of the offensively gifted Grant. Once Grant was traded in early January, Despres was given more offensive responsibilities and responded with 1 goal, 12 assists in his last 24 games.
The 17-year-old blueliner projects to be a top-four defenseman but will need more time in juniors, and at least one year in the AHL before he will be ready to make any sort of impact in the NHL.
Pros: Despres brings size to a Penguins blue line that is lacking in both size and physicality. He is not known as a big hitter but can effectively play the body, clear the goal crease, and shows a willingness to block shots. Unlike many of the other prospects in the draft, Despres is physically mature at 220 pounds and has the thick frame to match.
Cons: Despres is prone to mental breakdowns on the ice and his upside is still largely unknown.
Philip Samuelsson, D – Chicago Steel (USHL)
2nd round, 61st overall
6’2, 198 pounds
The Penguins drafted three players with NHL bloodlines this year. The first of those three picks is Philip Samuelsson, son of Pittsburgh legend Ulf Samuelsson. There will be no mistaking the younger from his father. Philip, while aggressive in his own end of the ice, does not get kicked out of games, start fights, or play as though the rulebook were a set of guidelines to be loosely followed.
The defensive partner for Blue Jackets prospect John Moore, Samuelsson played a stay-at-home role for the Steel, doing his best work along the boards and keeping his goaltender’s crease clear of any traffic.
However, the young defenseman is still fairly raw. His puck-moving abilities leave a lot to be desired. He simply does not carry the puck enough or play it with enough poise to be considered anything more than a mediocre puck-handler. He is a strong backward, and lateral skater, although he does need to improve his explosiveness.
Scheduled to attend Boston College next season, Samuelsson should benefit from the more structured style of play employed in the college ranks.
Pros: Samuelsson possesses great hockey instincts, a solidly built frame, and strong skating ability.
Cons: He needs to improve his play with the puck and explosiveness.
Ben Hanowski, RW – Little Falls (Minnesota High School)
3rd round, 63rd overall
6’1, 198 pounds
Leading up to the draft, one of the Penguins most pressing needs was a goal-scoring winger to develop alongside the Penguins trio of dynamic centers. While Hanowski is definitely a few years away from playing in the pros, he most certainly fits the description of an offensively minded, goal-scoring winger. Having posted 73 goals, 62 assists in only 31 games last season and 405 total points during his four years in high school, Hanowski is the most offensively prolific forward to ever play Minnesota high school hockey.
Not considered an overly physical type of player, the native of Little Falls, Minnesota does possess decent size at 6’1, 198 pounds and has room to fill out. He is strong on the puck, and although considered a shooter, will defer to a teammate if he feels they have a better shot.
Committed to St. Cloud State for 2009-10, Hanowski will have to work on his skating before he can flirt with going pro.
Pros: The Penguins needed a prolific goal-scoring forward and they may have got him. His personality, humble and hard-working, also seems to mesh nicely with what the organization looks for in its players.
Cons: As a high school athlete Hanowski did not regularly play against players of similar skill-level. How well will his offense translate to the next level?
Nick Petersen, RW – Shawinigan Cararactes (QMJHL)
4th round, 121st overall
6’2, 186 pounds
A big winger who had a breakout season in 2008-09, Petersen posted 37 goals, 53 assists in 68 games – over three times the 11 goals, 18 assists he posted in 2007-08. Having turned 20 in May, the left-handed winger is considerably older than many of the prospects of his fellow draft class and from a developmental standpoint, is much farther along.
“My goal this year is to make the AHL or NHL,” Petersen said at the draft when asked about his plans for the fall. “I’m going to work on that for the off-season and I hope Pittsburgh realizes how hard I work (and) how much I want to help their team in the future.”
If Petersen, who because of his age will be given a longer look than most in his draft class, does not make the AHL or NHL out of training camp, he does have the option to play as an overager for Saint John next season.
Petersen plays a fairly robust offensive game, using his vision and passing skills to set up plays and score goals, but also uses his size to create space. His skating is also above average, particularly once he is in flight.
Pros: The Penguins needed an offensively minded winger who could make an impact on the NHL roster in the near future and Petersen appears to fit that description.
Cons: Petersen is fairly one-dimensional forward. If he hopes to be paired with one of the Penguins dynamic centers down the road, he needs to dramatically improve his defensive side of the game and not cheat up ice so often. He also needs to play a more physical game along the boards.
Alex Velischek, D – Delbarton (New Jersey High School)
5th round, 123rd overall
6’0, 200 pounds
The son of former New Jersey Devil Randy Velischek, Alex is was a dominant defenseman last year for Delbarton High School of the Shore Conference in New Jersey. Unlike his father, who was a defensive defenseman, Velischek considers himself more of a two-way threat. Considering he posted 16 goals, 35 assists and a plus-61 rating last season, that label seems fair.
“I’m not a checker, I’ll play the body in the defensive zone…but I like to take some risks in the offensive zone,” Velischek said at the draft.
Velischek is a smooth skater with a booming point shot. While admittedly he is not a big hitter, he does have the thick build to play a robust physical game. He has good hockey instincts, plays solid positional hockey, and does not get easily rattled. The defenseman is also strong on the puck and difficult to knock down.
Committed to Providence next season, Velischek will likely develop into more of a defensively-minded defenseman as he continues to progress.
Pros: Velischek is a smart, hard-working hockey player with good defensive instincts.
Cons: It is difficult to gauge a player’s skill level when he is playing against high school competition.
Andy Bathgate, C – Belleville Bulls (OHL)
5th round, 151st overall
6’0, 170 pounds
If his name sounds familiar, that is because Andy Bathgate is the grandson of former NHL forward and Pittsburgh Penguin of the same name. Drafted in 2007 by the Belleville Bulls in the third round of the OHL priority draft, Bathgate’s first full season in the OHL was cut short in January by a shoulder injury. Before falling to the injury, Bathgate posted 4 goals, 12 assists in 44 games.
Although he was offered a full scholarship to Northeastern University, Bathgate opted to join the Belleville Bulls for the remainder of the 2007-08 season. In his first full season of junior hockey, Bathgate demonstrated brilliant skating ability, perhaps the best skating abilities out of all of the Penguins 2009 draft class. He also however demonstrated in his first season that he is not physically ready for the rigors of junior hockey, being keyed in on physically and eventually cutting his season short because of a shoulder injury.
Bathgate is considered an offensively minded forward with good vision, hockey instincts, and puck-distribution ability. Mostly though, he is known for his soft, fluid skating ability.
Playing on a Belleville team that will go through turnover this off-season, Bathgate will see increased responsibilities in both five-on-five and on special teams.
Pros: If Bathgate can fill out his frame and remain healthy, he could develop into an electrifying forward as he already possesses game-breaking speed.
Cons: Bathgate must add size and strength to his frame.
Viktor Ekbom, D – Oskarshamn IK (Swe-1)
6th round, 181st overall
6’02, 194 pounds
Another 20-year-old taken by the Penguins in the 2009 draft, Ekbom is a two-way defenseman who plays mostly on the defensive side of the puck. Signed to a two-year deal with Linkopings HC of the SEL, Ekbom is definitely a project.
His skating is probably the aspect of his game that needs the most work as his lateral, backward, and straight-line skating is all lackluster even by NHL prospect standards. He does not have a particularly hard shot, nor is he an adept puck-distributor.
Ekbom does have incredibly good hockey instincts and despite his
limited abilities, plays with poise.
Not likely to sniff North American hockey until sometime in 2012, Ekbom is at this point a long shot to play in the NHL.
Pros: Ekbom adds further size, strength, and character to the Penguins pool of defensive prospects.
Cons: With limited skating and puck-handling abilities, Ekbom is a long shot.