When Jim Rutherford took over the general manager job for the Pittsburgh Penguins last June, he inherited an organization that was shallow at forward, from the NHL level all the way through the prospect rankings. Rutherford did not take long to address the problem, first picking four forwards in the 2014 NHL Draft, then augmenting the Penguins NHL roster with several talented veteran players.
A lot of work still needs to be done however. The Penguins drafted only five forwards in the first two rounds over Shero’s eight-year tenure, opting to instead select lots of mobile defensemen in the early rounds. Shero and his management team did not entirely neglect the forward position, as they picked many players in the middle or later rounds of the draft – typically college-bound talent – with the hope they may grow into NHL quality talent on a slower development path.
The results so far have not been good. The only forward Shero selected past the first round of the NHL draft to play over 40 NHL games is Dustin Jeffrey, who at 26 years old, still has not established himself as a fulltime NHL forward.
There is some reason for optimism though. The Penguins welcomed five new forwards to their minor league system this year, six including Conor Sheary, who is on an AHL deal. While none are expected to make a quick impact on the Penguins NHL roster, several, such as Josh Archibald and Jean-Sebastien Dea, are believed to have good NHL potential. Furthermore, the Penguins have two European players, Oskar Sundqvist and Kasperi Kapanen, who look like they have solid futures in the NHL.
The Penguins remain strong on the back-end, especially on defense, where they have several blueliners in the AHL who could vie for NHL roster spots on other teams. The organization also has two promising goaltending prospects in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.
The Penguins have a fairly gritty group of prospects on the left wing, headlined by Dominik Uher, who was among the standouts in training camp. Uher is a Czech-born forward who plays an aggressive, two-way style of game. He is good on the penalty kill and can chip in offense, but his real strength is his ability to matchup against opposing forwards and take them out of the game. Uher seems destined to see some time in the NHL this season, at least in an injury call-up capacity.
The Penguins have a few other gritty forwards who are much farther down the depth chart. Bobby Farnham is beginning his third season of pro hockey with the Penguins minor-league affiliate and looks to have maxed out as an effective energy player in the AHL. His skating and willingness to play with a reckless abandon make him a viable NHL option, but the Penguins have several players who are ahead of him on the depth chart.
Troy Josephs is another one of those gritty wingers with NHL potential. Now in his sophomore year with Clarkson University, Josephs plays a hard-working physical style of game that makes him noticeable most shifts. He is a physical force on the forecheck and does a very good job of cycling the puck and maintain possession. His offensive upside is limited, but his skating and tenacious play could eventually land him an NHL spot.
The Penguins also have a fair amount of skill on left wing, with Scott Wilson, Jayson Megna, and Tom Kühnhackl all playing for their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. Megna and Kuhnhackl are both in their third pro year and have something to prove, especially now that the Penguins have a new group of forwards in their minor league system.
For Megna, it is a matter of establishing himself as a regular NHL forward. He split the 2013-14 season between the AHL and NHL but did not impress the Penguins new coaching staff and was assigned to the AHL out of training camp. He has the skating and the hands to be play in the NHL, but his penchant for perimeter play and inconsistent production have held him back at this point.
Kuhnhackl has also suffered from offensive inconsistency. A sniper by trade, Kuhnhackl has a combined AHL 10 goals over three seasons. He has been dogged by injury since joining the pro ranks and appeared in only 59 AHL games and 18 ECHL games over the past two years. He is in the final year of his entry-level contract and will have to impress Penguins management if he wants an extension.
Wilson is arguably the most skilled of the prospects listed at left wing, though what kind of player he develops into at the professional level remains to be seen. A very productive forward for UMass-Lowell, Wilson has good hands and a high hockey IQ but is not the biggest or most physically intimidating player on the ice. However, he is a pretty good two-way player and should be able to carve out a role at the professional level.
The Penguins have a strong group of center prospects, headlined by Sundqvist, a big, versatile forward who seems to have a great deal of NHL potential. Sundqvist was among the last cuts by Penguins management in training camp and for good reason, he impressed everyone-from coaching to management-with his massive size and ability to create havoc around the net and in the crease. Sundqvist will join the Penguins when his season is over in Skelleftea, and given his development over the past season, he should be able to make a quick contribution to the NHL.
Dea is a versatile offensive forward who is among the numerous rookies the Penguins have welcomed to their AHL team. He is a very skilled forward, and was signed primarily for his goal-scoring ability, but he has also shown a chippy side to his game. He needs to first adapt to the AHL level before he can realistically project as an NHL player.
The Penguins have a group of promising centers at the NCAA level in Teddy Blueger, Jake Guentzel, and Blaine Byron. Of the trio, Guentzel is the most skilled. He possesses superior vision and speed and is good at creating offense off the rush. Blueger meanwhile is more of a two-way forward who plays equally good with and without the puck. He has some offensive pedigree, but will probably be relied on to play more of a defensive role in the professional ranks. Byron is probably the flashiest of the three, and he probably needs the most work in terms of improving his overall game. All three must get stronger before they can be impact players in the pros.
Recent draft picks Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello round out the center position. Lafferty was originally scheduled to play in the USHL for the 2014-15 season but is instead part of the incoming freshman group at Brown University. Through very raw, Lafferty has good size and is a strong skater, and could be a fairly productive player in the NCAA.
Angello is another college bound forward, who is playing his second season with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL. He is headed to Cornell for the 2015-16 season. It is hard to project any player selected in the late rounds of the draft, but Angello has very good size at 6’5 and seems to embrace the power forward role expected from a player with his stature.
The Penguins possess the most potential at the right wing position, though how much of that potential is realizes remains to be seen. Headlining the group is Kapanen, a Finnish forward who possesses a wicked wrist shot and an extremely high hockey IQ. He needs to get bigger and stronger, but he does not seem too far off from an NHL job following a strong training camp performance. He is currently lighting up the Finnish league with KalPa, and could join the Penguins as soon as this Spring.
Behind Kapanen is Beau Bennett, Archibald, and Anton Zlobin, three players who all possess a ton of promise, but also possess some red flags in their game. For Bennett, it is simply a matter of staying healthy. He has proven over parts of two seasons that he belongs in the NHL, but he has also proven over that same span that he may not be physically durable enough to play in the NHL. Archibald on the other hand has great skating and plays with a ton of tenacity. He also does a good job of creating offense around the net. He is however undersized for the NHL, and will have to prove he can first stay healthy and produce in the AHL. Zlobin possesses intriguing offensive upside, but he is inconsistent and needs to get stronger.
Further down the minor league pipeline are Bryan Rust, Matia Marcantuoni, and Adam Payerl. Marcantunoi and Rust are both starting their first season of pro hockey and while both project to be third line forwards in the NHL, they are distinctly different types of players. Rust, who recently graduated from Notre Dame, is a fairly polished two-way forward who is able to play a variety of positions and roles as well as chip in offensively. Marcantuoni is more of an energy player who uses his blazing speed to create space off the rush. He is also a tenacious forechecker and seemed to turn into a solid penalty killer at the OHL level. Payerl, who is entering his third season of pro hockey, is the greybeard of the group. He has NHL caliber size and can move around very well. He is a willing fighter, but is also strong on the forecheck and penalty kill. Payerl seems like a possible call up if the Penguins have injuries to their third or fourth lines.
Rounding out the left wing position is Jaden Lindo, a tenacious, physical forward who is still recovering from a knee injury he suffered last February. Lindo is a member of the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL.
The Penguins have a large stockpile of defensemen who are pushing to play in the NHL. Leading the group is Derrick Pouliot. A former top 10 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Pouliot possesses game-breaking offensive abilities and strong skating and vision. He played for Penguins new coach Mike Johnston in Portland as a junior player and should be able to make a smooth transition to the NHL when management and coaching feel he is ready.
Behind Pouliot are a handful of mobile, two-way defensemen in Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin, and Philip Samuelsson. Harrington appears to be a cut above Dumoulin and Samuelsson in terms of pedigree, and the Penguins were impressed with the poise and decision making he made during the preseason. Dumoulin is a big defenseman who brings a strong but nondescript style to the Penguins blue line. He is currently playing in the AHL, but should be among the first defensemen called up in case of injury. He could also be a viable trade chip should the Penguins decide to package a prospect in a trade. Samuelsson is another defenseman who is probably at his best when he goes unnoticed. He has good size and battles hard in his own zone. Of the defensive prospects pushing for a spot in the NHL, he probably has the least upside, but he has proven to be a capable NHL defender.
Further down the defensive depth chart are Nick D’Agostino, Reid McNeill, and Harrison Ruopp. Of the three, McNeill probably has the most appeal as an NHL defenseman. He is big, strong, relatively mobile, and not afraid to get involved physically. He will probably need another year of regular time in the AHL, but his size makes him an appealing NHL prospect. Ruopp is another physical defenseman, who brings a similar blend of size and physicality as McNeill, but he does not possess quite the polish to his defensive game. D’Agostino meanwhile is an all-around defender, who is capable of filling most roles but does not stand out in any particular aspect of the game.
At the bottom of the depth chart are college defensemen Ryan Segalla, Dane Birks, and Jeff Taylor. Taylor is going into his sophomore season with Union College and will be expected to take on a larger role now that Union star Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI) has gone pro. Birks is beginning his freshman season with Michigan Tech. Both Birks and Taylor project as two-way defensemen. Segalla meanwhile is a physical, gritty defensemen who is starting his sophomore year with UConn.
Jarry leads an up and coming group of goaltending prospects. Jarry returns to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL following his 2014 Memorial Cup victory. Jarry has good athleticism and vision and could develop into a promising goaltending prospect with time. He has not had a great deal of experience as a starter however, so it might be awhile before he is ready for the NHL.
Behind Jarry is Murray, a tall, athletic goaltender who is beginning his first season of minor league hockey. Murray is going to need some seasoning in the minor leagues. He needs to settle down in the crease, but that is a common problem for young goaltenders.
Eric Hartzell fills out the goaltending depth chart in the AHL. A tall, poised goaltender, Hartzell is beginning his second season of pro hockey. He split last season between the AHL and ECHL and it appears he could see a similar split this year. Hartzell is 25, so he is running out of time to prove himself in the pros.
Last but not least is Sean Maguire, a goaltender who took a medical leave from his junior season at Boston University. With him not playing the 2014-15 season, it is hard to see what future, if any, Maguire has in hockey as a player.
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