Pittsburgh Penguins putting prospect depth to test with recent rash of injuries

By Ian Altenbaugh
Matt Murray - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Goaltender Matt Murray has been very solid in his first season of professional hockey. Murray has a 1.99 goals against average and .918 save percentage through 12 AHL games. (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

 

In what has seemingly become a rite of winter, the Pittsburgh Penguins organization is once again ravaged by injury, from the NHL level all through their minor league system.

The Penguins have been hit particularly hard by injury in the NHL and currently have eight players sidelined, including their entire top forward unit and two of their top six defensemen. While the organization remains well off pace from their 529 man games lost to injury in 2013-14, the system’s depth is getting tested early and often.

The Penguins AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, lead the AHL’s East Division with 33 points and have been buoyed strong defense and good goaltending from Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff. Offensive has been a problem for the organization, however, and their top point producer is defenseman Derrick Pouliot.

AHL

Bryan Rust, RW, 22

It is fair to say Bryan Rust has a way to go before he meets his potential, but the Notre Dame grad has been among the Penguins most consistent forward prospects early on. Rust has led the team for most of the season in goal-scoring despite receiving multiple call-ups to the NHL. He has shown NHL-caliber speed and has done a good job of getting the puck on net. He has 10 goals and four assists through 24 AHL games this season.

Although he had been recalled to the NHL early in the season, Rust did not make his NHL debut until December 13th. He scored his first goal on December 15th, in a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Scott Wilson, LW, 22

Similar to Rust, Wilson was one of the more productive prospects early on, playing strong at both ends of the ice and producing offensive at a relatively consistent pace. He had 12 points in 21 games leading up to his recall to the NHL on December 2nd. Unfortunately, he was injured several shifts into his first game and has been on injured reserve since.

Jean-Sebastien Dea, C, 20

The Penguins have struggled to develop top six forwards for the better part of the last decade. There remains some optimism however. Rookie forward Jean-Sebastien Dea has been extremely productive, with eight goals and nine assists through his first 24 games. Of his eight goals, five came on the powerplay and three are game-winners. He has played on the Penguins top line for most of the season, often alongside Rust, and has been one of the few consistent offensive threats for the team.

It is hard to see Dea not getting an NHL recall at some point during this season, especially if injuries continue to mount for the organization.

Brian Dumoulin, D, 23

Brian Dumoulin initially struggled to adapt to the Penguins new defensive systems. He did not have the strongest training camp, and had a shaky start to the 2014-15 AHL season. Those struggles seem a distant point in the past however, as Dumoulin slowly rounded into form through November and became a defenseman his team could rely on to play big minutes in all situations.

The big, mobile defenseman was recently recalled to the NHL, where he has averaged just over 14 minutes a game. He has seen a lot of even-strength time alongside Paul Martin and saw a handful of shifts on the penalty kill. Dumoulin also scored his first goal of his NHL career against the Lightning on December 15th.

Derrick Pouliot, D, 20

Picked eighth overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, Derrick Pouliot was touted as a potential star defenseman in the NHL, and so far, that projection looks accurate. The blueliner missed the first few games of the AHL season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but it did not take long for him to make an impact on the roster as he managed a goal and three assists in his first five games.

Pouliot currently has six goals and 13 assists through 22 games, making him the top-scoring rookie defenseman in the AHL and fifth among all defensemen. He will probably not see much, if any, time in the NHL this season, but given the Penguins recent spate of injuries, nothing can be ruled out entirely.

Scott Harrington, D, 21

Defenseman Scott Harrington has been recalled to the NHL probably more than any other defensive prospect for the Penguins this season, but he has yet to appear in a game. That could change soon, as the team’s NHL roster has been ravaged by both injury and an outbreak of the mumps.

Harrington has been extremely steady for the Penguins AHL affiliate, playing tough shutdown minutes against opponent’s top lines. He is expected to play a similar role at the NHL level.

Reid McNeill, D, 22

Now in his third season of professional hockey, McNeill has established himself as a big, stay-at-home defenseman who can be relied on to physical, intimidating, and defensively responsible. He is not afraid to drop the gloves, having already recorded five fights this season. McNeill will never be mistaken for an offensive defenseman like Pouliot, he has established himself as a tough defenseman who can kill penalties and provide a physical presence.

Bobby Farnham, W, 25

Bobby Farham has a distinct style of play. Possessing blistering speed, Farnham does not lay body checks as much as he launches himself at top speed towards the opposition, sometimes hitting an opponent and other times bouncing off the glass.

Farnham was recently recalled to the NHL and has looked solid playing in a limited fourth line role. His speed and physical play have been extremely disruptive to the opposition, and he has made a strong case to stay on the Penguins roster even when, or if, they get healthy.

Farnham has registered eight fights this season, seven in the AHL and one at the NHL level.

Adam Payerl, RW, 23

A big, physical forward, Payerl was expected to push for an NHL roster spot this season, but has instead been passed over by guys like Farnham or Rust. He has a goal and three assists through 19 games, as well as five fights.

Tom Kühnhackl, W, 22

The German-born winger is finally healthy for the first time in years. However, he has not managed much in the way of offense at the AHL level, despite seeing quality top six minutes alongside forwards such as Dea and Rust. Through 24 games he has two goals and three assists.

Anton Zlobin, W, 21

Zlobin was expected to take the next step in his development this season, following a strong showing in the 2014 AHL playoffs, where he managed 10 points in 15 games. Instead, Zlobin suffered an injury in mid-October and underwent surgery in December when it was apparent the injury was not going to heal.

The Russian forward will have a hard road ahead of him. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2013 and missed much of training camp. Now expected to miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season, Zlobin’s has missed a substantial amount of key development time early in his career.

Matt Murray, G, 20

Goaltender Matt Murray has quickly established himself in his first season of professional play, posting a 1.99 goals against average, a .918 save percentage, and two shutouts. He was particularly impressive during a stretch in October and November when veteran Jeff Zatkoff went down with injury.

The young netminder still needs a lot of experience, but his development is definitely on the right track. He should continue to push for more starts as the season goes on.

Matia Marcantuoni, C/W, 20

The speedy Marcantuoni has split the 2014-15 season between the AHL and ECHL, but looks to have maybe solidified a spot on the Penguins AHL roster as a bottom six forward. Marcantuoni’s game is predicated around his incredible speed and ability to use that speed to win races on the forecheck and create offensive chances off the rush. He was extremely productive in a top-six role playing for the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, where he managed 10 points in 11 games. At the AHL level, he has two assists through 13 games while deployed almost exclusively in a fourth-line role.

Josh Archibald, W, 22

Injured at the end of training camp, Archibald did not make his 2014-15 season debut until early November. He has struggled to consistently produce offense, with only two goals and three assists through 17 games, but Archibald has been extremely feisty and does a lot of good things in the offensive zone. Of all of the Penguins prospects, he is the more likely to have a strong second half of the season.

Dominik Uher, C/W, 21

Uher has made solid progress over the past two seasons and has now established himself as a versatile forward who can inject physicality and energy anywhere in the lineup. He has four goals and four assists through 27 games this season.

Jayson Megna, C/W, 24

Megna was one of the first Penguins forwards to be recalled to the NHL, but he has not been able to stick. He is able to make plays with his fantastic speed, and has a good nose for the net, but does not play physically enough to be a consistent offensive threat in the NHL.

The 24-year-old is slowly gaining the label of quad-A player, meaning he is probably too good to play in the AHL, but does not have quite enough talent to be a consistent NHL contributor. Through 19 games in the AHL, Megna has nine goals and four assists. He has one assist in nine NHL games.

ECHL

Nick D’Agostino, D, 24

D’Agostino has struggled to remain relevant in a system that is stacked with defensive talent. He spent the first two months of the season in the ECHL, but has been in the AHL for the month of December, playing mostly in a third-pairing role.

In seven AHL games, D’Agostino has three assists. He has four points in five ECHL games.

Harrison Ruopp, D, 21

The physical defenseman has spent most of the season either in the ECHL or the AHL pressbox. Ruopp has spent much of the year as a seventh defenseman for the Penguins AHL club, but has been sent to the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling on several occasions to make sure he received adequate playing time. With the Penguins organization currently ravaged by injury, Ruopp will have an opportunity to try and carve out a regular spot at the AHL level. At 21 years old, it is crucial to Ruopp’s development that he play regularly.

Eric Hartzell, G, 25

Hartzell has been something of an enigma since signing with the Penguins in 2013. A tall, athletic goaltender who has the ability to steal games, Hartzell suffered a late-season collapse with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2013-14 and there were early concerns regarding how well, or if, he would bounce back from those struggles. If the early returns are any indication, Hartzell appears to have overcome those struggles and get back on a solid developmental path.

He has spent the majority of the 2014-15 season in the ECHL, where he has a 2.54 goals against average and .915 save percentage in nine games. He was recently recalled to the AHL, where he has already played two games this season. Hartzell is 2-0 at the AHL level despite a 2.92 goals against average.

Non-Minor League Prospect Update

The Penguins two European prospects, Oskar Sundqvist and Kasperi Kapanen, continue to produce at a high level in their respective leagues. Kapanen, who is playing with KalPa in the Finnish Liiga, has six points in his last seven games. The 18-year-old has nine goals and seven assists through 19 games, already surpassing his point total from all of last year.

Sundqvist meanwhile has been very solid in his second full season of Swedish pro hockey. He has been fairly productive over the past month, producing three goals and three assists in his eight games.

University of Nebraska-Omaha forward Jake Guentzel has picked up his production as of late. Guentzel started his sophomore season with a bang, posting four goals and five assists in his first four games of the 2014-15 season, but suffered an injury and subsequently missed the first three weeks of November. It took him awhile to regain his offensive footing, but he seems to be back on track, with five assists in his past three games. Guentzel has five goals and 11 assists through 13 games this season.

Blaine Byron is another talented college forward having a strong sophomore season. He seemed to find a new gear in his game recently, posting five goals and two assists in his past six games.

Union defenseman Jeff Taylor has been the top-scoring defenseman in the NCAA this year, with 19 points through 16 games. He is tied for 11th in the nation in scoring, an impressive feat given ECAC teams have played fewer games than the rest of the NCAA.

The Penguins recently traded minor league defensive prospect Philip Samuelsson to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for a conditional draft pick and forward Rob Klinkhammer.

Pittsburgh Penguins Prospect of the Month

Teddy Blueger - Pittsburgh Penguins Prospect of the MonthTeddy Blueger has been 11 points in his last nine games, including a hat trick against Bemidji State on November 8th that helped earn him WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors. Of those 11 points, five came on the powerplay and one came on the penalty kill.

Blueger is currently tied for second in scoring for the Minnesota State Mavericks with seven goals and nine assists through 17 games. The Mavericks currently have a 13-4 record and have been one of the top teams in the nation.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh