Penguins organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Ian Altenbaugh

With the Penguins the 2009 Stanley Cup winner and off to one of their best starts in team history, maintaining the status quo is now the task. It will be the 2010-11 season when things get sticky for the organization. The Penguins have almost $42 million committed to 13 players. With several players including standout defenseman Kris Letang scheduled to get raises over the next few months, that number will go up, leaving the Penguins with even less room to re-sign Sergei Gonchar, let alone fill out the remaining roster spots. For the Penguins to succeed, they will need at least two or three of their prospects on entry-level deals to be ready for full-time NHL duties. But their prospect pool does not have the star power or depth it once did.

Left Wing

The Penguins have a large group of wingers who can line up on either side of center and fill a variety of roles. The most prominent is left winger Eric Tangradi, a prospect the Penguins acquired before last season’s trade deadline.

Tangradi brings a mixture of size, skill, and toughness. At 6’4 and well over 200 pounds, the Philadelphia native effectively uses his frame to screen the net, protect the puck down low, and throw body checks. He has also drawn praise from teammates regarding his on and off the ice leadership. There is little doubt the 20-year-old could play and succeed in the NHL right now, but the Penguins have been vocal about not rushing their top prospect’s development. Tangradi is currently in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but should at some point get a cup of coffee in the NHL during this season.

Behind Tangradi on left wing is Luca Caputi, a 21-year-old power forward who has started his second season in the AHL. In his first season, Caputi posted 18 goals, 27 assists in 66 games. He also made several NHL appearances and managed a goal on the first shift of his first game. While Caputi plays an offensively robust game and does not shy away from physical contact, there are questions about his maturity level. He was reprimanded and demoted to the ECHL last year because of an off-ice incident and was vocal in his displeasure of being assigned to the minors in training camp.

One of the more intriguing offensive prospects is Ben Hanowski, an dynamic forward who can work magic when the puck is on his stick. After setting all sorts of Minnesota high school records with 73 goals, 61 assists in just 31 games, Hanowski has gone the NCAA route of development with St. Cloud. The 19-year-old’s most pressing need right now is to improve his skating and play away from the puck.

Rounding out the Penguins group of left wing prospects is Joey Haddad. Currently playing for the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, Haddad brings a blend of goal-scoring and physical play to the organization. In order to succeed, according to his coach in Wheeling, Haddad needs to play less on the perimeter and more in the high-traffic areas of the ice.

Center

The Penguins’ star trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal is signed through 2012-13 so the majority of their prospects at center are utility players who play several forward positions. There are, however, two exceptions in Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Keven Veilleux – both of whom possess top-six potential.

Pierro-Zabotel, a 20-year-old in his first professional season, is currently honing his craft with the Nailers. The 2008-09 WHL scoring champion has shown the ability to both play and excel at the left wing and center positions. The native of British Columbia possesses offensive abilities but is also strong in his own end.

Another center with immense offensive ability is Veilleux. A 6’5, 218lbs forward with immense passing ability and instincts, Veilleux needs to play to his size and develop a warrior instinct down low. So far, the 20-year-old has so far looked solid in his first professional season with the Penguins AHL affiliate.

Nathan Moon, an offensively gifted center with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL is expected to adopt more of a utility role when he goes pro. The 19-year-old forward has shown decent goal-scoring capabilities in the OHL, but his ability to agitate the opposition is what makes him such an appealing prospect. The greatest obstacle that stands between Moon and a successful professional career is the forward’s inability to play a consistent game shift-to-shift let alone game-to-game. At times he looks like a world beater, at other times, he looks uninterested in the play.

Although neither of them are the most skilled of the Penguins prospects at center, both Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale look to fit the mold of what the Penguins want in their forward prospects – strong skating, hard work, physical play, and smart defense. Jeffrey, a 21-year-old pivot who is in his second professional season, has continued to progress in all facets of his game after a strong rookie season. Jeffrey plays a strong two-way style of game and is relied on to take crucial faceoffs and play on both special teams. He played 14 NHL games for the Penguins when they were ravaged by injuries mid-season and did not look out of place, playing a fourth-line role and seeing time on the penalty kill. Jeffrey very well could have made the NHL roster out of training camp but like with Tangradi and Caputi, the Penguins saw no reason to rush him. 

Vitale, on the other hand, brings a game that is equal parts defense and sandpaper and like Jeffrey, he has shown the ability to play in many different situations. Vitale is playing center in the AHL right now but he can easily line up on the wing. The 24-year-old’s offensive upside is not as high as many of his peers, but what he lacks in offensive he makes up for in on and off-ice leadership.

Starting the season on the injured reserve list because of a knee operation in September, Mark Letestu did not get to see action until Oct. 16 but his impact on the power play and in five-on-five was apparent from the get go. The 24-year-old forward is a brilliant passer but it is his poise and calming effect he has on his teammates that has shown him to be an important member of the organization. Letestu plays an offensive-minded game in the AHL, but if he was to play for the Penguins in the NHL, it would likely be in as a fourth-line center or utility player.

Andy Bathgate, the Penguins sixth pick in the 2009 entry draft, is a speedy center who plays for the Belleville Bulls of the OHL. Grandson of the former Penguin of the same name, Bathgate has had difficulties assimilating to junior hockey. Now in his second full season, the 18-year-old is still too easily knocked off the puck to be an effective top-six forward. He is also not physical enough to be the type of forward who can grind it out along the boards. He does possess good all-around skating ability though and decent hands. He needs to add a lot of muscle to his lanky frame and not shy away from contact either.

Yet another smart, defensively-minded center in the Penguins system is University of Denver senior Brian Gifford. The 24-year-old is best known for making smart plays in the defensive zone and playing a fairly low-risk type of game.

A Penguins prospect who remains a long shot to ever play in North America is Johannes Salmonsson. The 23-year-old has not been to any of the Penguins prospect or training camps the past two seasons and he never developed into the offensively dynamic forward he was originally envisioned as.

Right Wing

The Penguins group of right wingers is headlined by waiver-wire pickup Chris Bourque. A dynamic offensive player and veteran of over 275 AHL games, Bourque had made only a handful of appearances with the Penguins this season, playing mostly in a fourth-line role. At 23, Bourque has absolutely nothing left to prove at the AHL level. The question at this point in his career is whether his offensive production will carry over to the NHL level or will he be more of a bottom-six type of contributor.

Another  of the Penguins AHL prospects who seems close to contributing at the NHL level is 23-year-old Nick Johnson. Like many of his teammates, Johnson plays a offensive-minded, gritty game and can fill many different roles.

While many of the Penguins prospects are gritty and have shown a willingness to drop the gloves, only Aaron Boogaard could be considered a pugilist. The younger brother of Derek, a heavyweight for the Minnesota Wild, the 23-year-old has had difficulty with injuries the past few seasons and being that he is a one-dimensional type of player, his future in the NHL team looks cloudy at best.

Nick Petersen, a player drafted in 2009 as a 20-year-old, made the rounds through the Penguins NHL and AHL training camps before returning to St. John’s of the QMJHL. Petersen possesses good offensive instincts but the biggest knock on him last season was he played too much on the perimeter and cheated defensively.

Defensemen

The Penguins defense went through a major overhaul this summer as they lost NHL players Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill, and Philippe Boucher this summer and graduated Alex Goligoski to full-time NHL duties. Looking to restock the system for the immediate future, the Penguins brought three new players on entry-level deals into the fold in Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, and Alex Grant — all of whom are currently playing for the Penguins minor-league affiliates. As far as Penguins long-term plans are concerned, they drafted four defensemen this past summer in Simon Despres, Phillip Samuelsson, Alex Velischek, and Viktor Ekbom.

The most intriguing of the 2009 draft class is Despres, a highly-touted defensive prospect who was picked 30th overall and recently locked up to an entry-level deal. Despres is best known for his 6’4, 215lbs frame and skating ability which have drawn several high-profile comparisons but it is his ability to use his stick and his defensive awareness that make him a potential shutdown defenseman. The 18-year-old already possesses NHL-quality skating and size although demonstrated in the preseason and throughout training camp he needs to learn to better give and receive hits.

In the second round, the Penguins took another defenseman in Samuelsson. Son of Penguins legend Ulf Samuelsson, Phillip plays a decidedly different type of game than his father, one predicated on two-way play as opposed to physical intimidation. At 6’2 200lbs, Samuelsson is physically mature for an 18-year-old, but his game remains very raw. He will take on a primarily defensive role for Boston College this season. Samuelsson will also be playing alongside fellow Penguin defensive prospect Carl Sneep.

Velischek is another member of the 2009 draft class with NHL roots. Son of former Devils defenseman Randy, the younger Velischek plays an offensively robust style of game predicated around solid puck movement. An extremely raw prospect, Velischek needs a full upgrade in most facets of his game before he can be considered a legitimate NHL prospect. Still, the early signs point to Velischek having the ability to quarterback the power play. Velischek has also shown explosive skating ability and great poise when possessing the puck. The 18-year-old will have to simplify his game while playing for Providence as he will no longer be able to rely on his natural talent and athleticism at the NCAA level.

The Penguins final pick in the 2009 draft, Viktor Ekbom, brings a fairly simple, two-way style of game to the organization. Drafted as a 20-year-old, Ekbom is in the first of a two-year deal he signed with Linkoping HC of the SEL.

Bortuzzo, a third-round pick in 2007, impressed greatly during training camp and the pre-season and has been playing a steady, two-way style of game for the Penguins AHL affiliate. The 6’4 defenseman is mostly known as a physical presence along the blue line and recently even dropped the gloves in a late-game scrum against Bridgeport. However, Bortuzzo has also shown adept puck-handling and distribution as well as a solid, heavy, right-handed shot from the point. His skating is also been impressive for a man his size.

Strait, a player who played a pivotal leadership role in Boston University’s Frozen Four victory, employs a simple, defensive-oriented style of game that the Penguins are hoping will mean a quick transition to the NHL. Although he is often compared to former Penguin Rob Scuderi, Strait brings a more dynamic game to the ice than Scuderi did at the same age. While his forte is defense, Strait has a solid outlet pass, an underrated shot from the point, and is a strong lateral and backward skater.

Grant, another player to make the transition to the professional leagues this season, was assigned to the Nailers. Grant possesses many great assets such as size and a booming, right-handed point shot, but he is a very raw prospect who still needs work in all areas. At the top of the list, he needs to simplify his game and work on being more consistent in his own zone.

Carl Sneep is another member of the ever growing group of Hockey East players to be drafted by the Penguins. Now in his senior season at Boston College, Sneep has established himself as a solid two-way contributor in his NCAA career. He plays with a great level of poise and uses his stick and body to effectively create turnovers and protect the puck. A right-handed shot, Sneep is neither as physical nor offensively minded as his skill set would imply but he is solid in both ends of the ice and can play in all situations. He is also an accomplished shot blocker.

Another Penguins prospect who is entering his first season of college hockey is Nick D’Agostino. The 19-year-old played possesses good offensive ability and on-ice awareness although he is still raw. As an OJHL player, D’Agostino played a complete, two-way style of game. D’Agostino will have to simplify his game to maximize his effectiveness at the NCAA level.

Chris Peluso, a steady, two-way defender for Bemidji State University, is another Penguin prospect in his senior season. The 23-year-old plays a cognitive type of game based around good positioning and gap control. He is a smart puck distributor and rarely mistakes in his own end.

Entering his third season in the AHL, Jonathan D’Aversa is a member of the fairly large stable of two-way defensemen the Penguins have been collecting. The right-handed 23-year-old possesses the offensive ability to distribute the puck well out of his own zone and jump into the play. As the 2009-10 season progresses, D’Aversa may see more duties on the Baby Penguins power play.

Perhaps the defensive prospect who is the closest to being NHL-ready, Ben Lovejoy started the 2009-10 season on the IR with an injured shoulder. He has recently started skating and will undoubtedly see some spot duty in the NHL this season as they Penguins will undoubtedly experience some injuries on defense this season. Lovejoy possesses strong skating, good stick work, and smart defensive play – all traits the Penguins highly value in their defensemen. As a 25-year-old who is in his third professional season, Lovejoy has nothing left to prove at the AHL level and is simply waiting for his opportunity to prove he can do the same on a regular basis in the NHL.

A defensive prospect whose immediate future remains in a bit of limbo is Timmo Seppanen. The 22-year-old Finn is an offensively gifted defenseman who plays for KalPa Kuopio of the FNL. The Penguins do have needs at defense, but Seppanen will likely have to start in the minors making considerably less than he would in Europe, let alone the NHL.

Goaltending

The Penguins de facto goaltender if things go awry is John Curry. At 25 and in his third season in the AHL, the goaltender has nothing left to prove at the minor-pro level and is simply waiting for his chance to demonstrate he can make it in the big show. The athletic goaltender has shown good positioning and recovery.

Backing up Curry is first-year pro Brad Thiessen. A former Northeastern standout and teammate of Joe Vitale, Thiessen has seen surprisingly little actual ice time despite practicing and traveling with the Penguins and their AHL affiliate for much of last spring. Still, the 23-year-old has showed great poise in college and in Penguins training camp and should be able to fill in for Curry in relief or for longer stretches of time.

At 6’5, Patrick Killeen is easily the Penguins largest goaltending prospect. At 20 years old and in his fourth year of junior hockey, Killeen appears to have finally embraced his role as a starter for the Brampton Battalion. He has finally learned to fully utilize his frame to his advantage and has shown a good glove side. At this point, Killeen’s biggest concerns are continuing to improve his stick work and consistency.

Both Penguins and Tri-City Americans would like to see Alexander Pechurski playing in North America this season, but as has been the case with many Russian prospects, there are many questions that remain. Still, the 19-year-old remains in Russia. In the national tournaments he has participated in, Pechurski has demonstrated great athleticism and flexibility.