Penguins Top 20 prospects, Spring 2010

By Ian Altenbaugh

The Penguins top 20 list is primarily made up of mobile, puck-moving defensemen and blue-collar forwards with varying amounts of offensive ability. At the top of the list are two prospects with elite potential in power forward Eric Tangradi and 2009 first-round draft pick Simon Despres.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Eric Tangradi, LW 8.0B
2. Simon Despres, D 8.0C
3. Luca Caputi, LW 7.0C
4. Dustin Jeffrey, C 7.0C
5. Brian Strait, D 7.0C
6. Ben Hanowski, LW 7.0C
7. Carl Sneep, D 7.0C
8. Nick Johnson, RW 7.0C
9. Robert Bortuzzo, D 7.0C
10. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C 7.5D
11. Alex Velischek, D 7.0C
12. Nick Petersen, RW 6.5C
13. Joe Vitale, C 6.5C
14. Alex Grant, D 6.5C
15. Nicholas D’Agostino, D 6.5C
16. Philip Samuelsson, D 6.5C
17. Alexander Pechurski, G 7.0D
18. Brad Thiessen, G 7.0D
19. Keven Veilleux, C 7.0D
20. Nathan Moon, C 6.5C

1. Eric Tangradi, LW – 8.0B
Drafted by Anaheim, 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2007
Acquired via trade by Pittsburgh in 2009

The only blue-chip forward prospect in the Penguins prospect pool, Tangradi possesses an enviable mix of size, strength, skill, and physicality. Standing at 6’4 and well over 220 pounds, Tangradi is a big, nasty force along the boards and in the corners. In his rookie AHL season, the 21-year-old has spent most of his time playing on a checking line with Joe Vitale. Considering the growing pains most first-year pros go through and his role as a checking forward, his 12 goals, 17 assists in 49 games are solid.

It’s no secret that Tangradi is envisioned as a future linemate for one of the Penguins superstar centers. With his size and demeanor, the winger can create havoc around the net. He is also skilled enough to capitalize on the many chances his linemates may create. He will still probably play another season in the AHL, however. Over the past four seasons the Penguins have been cautious not to rush their prospects into the NHL and there is no reason to expect that to change. 

2. Simon Despres, D – 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2009

Despres is amid a breakout season with the QMJHL Saint John Seadogs. Not only is he on the top defensive pairing, playing in all situations, but he also is the team’s shutdown weapon, constantly being matched against the league’s top forwards.

Physically, Despres has the skill-set to be a dominant two-way defenseman: strong lateral and backward skating, good poke-checking ability, fantastic gap control, and a 6’4, 205-pound frame that he is still growing into. The 18-year-old has also seen an increase in offensive responsibilities, potting nine goals, four of which were on the man-advantage, and 32 assists. He has also been shooting the puck more, having already far surpassed last season’s total by 38 shots with many games left to play. Although his offensive play has been solid, 2009-10 is the first season Despres has had these types of responsibilities, meaning his offensive potential is still largely unknown. Regardless, his game seems to be one that will always focus on strong, steady play in the neutral and defensive zones.

Signed to an entry-level deal in fall of 2009, Despres could join the Penguins AHL affiliate as early as this spring.

3. Luca Caputi, LW – 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2007

The 21-year-old power forward started the 2009-10 season strong with 13 goals and 12 assists in his first 36 games. As a reward for his hard work, Caputi was called up to the NHL on January 5th because of injuries. Through four games, he tallied one goal and one assist while averaging 11:46 of ice time. He also played with physical zeal, registering nine hits and on several occasions trying to find a partner with whom to drop the gloves.

Caputi’s game was not without flaws, however. He is willing to take punishment around the net and along the boards while still being able to maintain possession of the puck. But this was an area that needed work over his four-game cup of coffee as he was frequently overpowered around the net and along the boards.

Since returning to the AHL on January 22nd, Caputi’s play has risen to another level, posting 10 goals and 12 assists in the past 15 games. Through 51 games so far, he has 23 goals and 24 assists.

4. Dustin Jeffrey, C/LW – 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2007

Like Caputi, Dustin Jeffrey spent the 2008-09 season, his first in the AHL, playing a checking role on the third line. Having paid his dues in his rookie season, Jeffrey was promoted to a top-six role for 2009-10 and is now among the top offensive producers in the AHL with 17 goals, 38 assists through 54 games. A center for most of his hockey career, Jeffrey has played left wing for most of this season on a line with center Mark Letestu. The move to left wing has meant fewer defensive responsibilities, which have allowed the forward to better utilize his speed and create chances in the offensive zone. He is a solid contributor in the faceoff circle when called upon.

During a stretch in January when the Penguins suffered injuries on the wing and at center, Jeffrey was called up. In his one game, the 22-year-old forward failed to register a point while playing 8:35 in a mostly fourth-line role.

Like frequent linemate Caputi, Jeffrey has little left to prove at the AHL level but has yet to make a compelling case for full-time NHL duties. He will likely remain a candidate to be called up during the remainder of the 2009-10 season.

5. Brian Strait, D – 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2006

There are more talented defensemen in the Penguins organization, but few are as steady or reliable as 22-year-old Brian Strait. In his first professional season, the left-hander has shown the ability to quickly adapt to a different system as well as the higher-tempo play of the AHL. He has demonstrated great poise on the puck and while his offensive totals of one goal, nine assists through 55 games are modest, the Boston native does have a solid outlet pass and underrated point shot. It has been his steady defensive play, however, that shows the most promise. He allows opponents little space when they are in his own zone, rarely allows any sort of giveaway, and distributes the puck smartly up ice.

As far as development goes, Strait mostly just needs more experience. He found his role as a defensive defenseman many years ago and is keenly aware of his limitations.

6. Ben Hanowski, LW – 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

The most talented of the Penguins prospects currently at the NCAA level, Ben Hanowski was drafted out of high school because of his sublime goal-scoring abilities. In his freshman season with St. Cloud, those abilities have gradually emerged as the 19-year-old forward has eight goals, 10 assists in 34 games. The Minnesota native is not a one-dimensional player, however. In addition to his natural goal-scoring ability, Hanowski is a smart puck-distributor and a talented skater. He can also play several different positions on the power play.

Despite his early success, Hanowski is viewed as somewhat of a project. He has good size at 6’2, 198 pounds but does not play as physically as he could. His play away from the puck also must improve as he can occasionally get lost up or down ice.

7. Carl Sneep, D – 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006

Now in his senior year with Boston College, 22-year-old Carl Sneep looks to have outgrown NCAA competition. Aside from being dominant in his own end, Sneep has set career numbers with eight goals, 13 assists in 30 games, two more goals than he scored in his first three seasons combined. The right-hander projects as a second-pairing defenseman who can be used in all situations and log 18-20 minutes a game. Although not overly physical, he has good size at 6’3, 205 pounds and will use it to clear his goaltender’s crease.

A solid blend of size, skill, and character, Sneep’s game should translate well to the professional level.

8. Nick Johnson, RW – 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 67th overall, 2004

Not even an ankle injury in late October could hinder the breakout season forward Nick Johnson is having. After posting seven goals and 15 assists in his first 26 games, the Penguins recalled Johnson in late January to fill in for Chris Kunitz. In six NHL games, the 24-year-old Johnson posted one goal and one assist while averaging 10:06 of ice time. Physically, the 6’2, 202-pounder did not look out of place. He was however at times guilty of trying to do too much. The right-hander showed that he is capable of playing any role given to him, playing some games almost exclusively alongside center Evgeni Malkin while at other times on the fourth-line playing less than six minutes a game. After riding the shuttle from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh for about a month, Johnson was finally returned to the AHL for good in early February. To date, he has nine goals, 21 assists, and a +14 rating through 38 AHL games.

Johnson has little left to prove at the AHL level. He is more physically mature than many of his teammates and his versatile enough to be used in a top-six or checking role. Because of the Penguins looming cap constraints, the winger will be given every chance to make the NHL roster for 2010-11.

9. Robert Bortuzzo, D 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

Another player entering his first professional season, Robert Bortuzzo is among the most versatile defenseman the Penguins have in their minor-league system. The right-hander has shown that aside from steady defensive play and gap control, he is willing to physically play the body, and occasionally drop the gloves. He is also an underrated puck distributor and has a heavy, accurate shot from the point. The 20-year-old has good size at 6’4 212 pounds and a pterodactyl-like wingspan. He has played much of this season in a shutdown pairing with fellow rookie Strait, where Bortuzzo has two goals, eight assists in 52 games.

With another year or two of experience and continued progress, Bortuzzo should be ready.

10. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C/LW – 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2007

Skating with the Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, 21-year-old Casey Pierro-Zabotel is playmaking forward who at this point in his career, could be considered a long-term project. The WHL’s leading scorer for 2008-09 has transitioned fairly well to the professional style of game, posting 11 goals and 25 assists through 41 games. In late January he was called up to the AHL where, through seven games, he registered one assist in a fourth-line role.

The forward has shown good puck-handling abilities but he needs continued work on his play away from the puck. He will likely join the Penguins AHL affiliate on a full-time basis in 2010-11 if not during the 2010 playoffs.

11. Alex Velischek, D 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2009

Part of a large contingent of NCAA trained defensemen on the Penguins depth chart, Alex Velischek is in his rookie season with the Providence Friars. At 19, Velischek has all of the raw tools to one day become a top-four NHL defenseman. His acceleration and backward skating ability are already very good, he is able to move the puck smoothly up ice, and plays with veteran poise. He is also a strong lateral skater and can quarterback the power play. He is a little undersized at 6’0, but has a thick 200-pound frame that more than compensates for any lack of height.

Velischek is far from a finished product, however. He occasionally gets caught cheating up ice and needs an overall upgrade on his defensive game. Through 30 games he has one goal, 10 assists, and 40 penalty minutes.

12. Nick Petersen, RW – 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, 2009

Drafted as a 20-year-old, the Penguins’ selection of Nick Petersen looks extremely shrewd in hindsight. He currently leads the QMJHL with a +43 rating, has 35 goals, 35 assists in 50 games, and has among the most accurate shot in the league with a 21.6 shooting percentage. For an organization that is tight against the salary cap, Petersen’s right-handed shot, strong defensive play, and goal-scoring ability address three of the Penguins most critical needs for the present and future.

Expect the 6’3 winger to join the Penguins AHL squad when his team, the Saint John Seadogs, finishes its playoff run. 

13. Joe Vitale, C – 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 195th overall, 2005

No one player better epitomizes the gritty, cantankerous style of play the Penguins organization strives for than 24-year-old center Joe Vitale. Neither the most talented goal scorer nor the swiftest skater in the organization, Vitale is one of the most talented agitators in the Penguins minor-league system. He finishes his checks, occasionally drops the gloves, and matches up against opponents top lines. Most importantly though, the Missouri native is plays a steady, two-way game and is superb in the defensive zone.

Centering a line of Tangradi and Tim Wallace, Vitale has five goals, 20 assists, and 50 penalty minutes through 51 games. In a vote of confidence for the young forward, the Penguins organization re-signed Vitale to a two-year deal in late January.

14. Alex Grant, D – 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2007

Another season and the same story for puck-moving defenseman Alex Grant: he struggles to play a consistent game. At his best, the 6’3 195-pounder plays an offensive game predicated around controlling the puck and creating offense from the blue line. His puck-management needs some work though as he tends to overplay the puck and occasionally make questionable decisions.

The right-hander started the season with ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers because the Penguins felt he would benefit from the additional responsibilities and ice time. However, because of multiple injuries to the Penguins NHL squad, there were several AHL call-ups. As a result, Grant was recalled to the AHL for two weeks in late November. In four games he posted one goal and a +3 rating.

Currently shuttling between the ECHL and AHL, Grant has seven goals and 20 assists through 40 games. In the AHL he has one goal through five games.

15. Nicholas D’Agostino, D 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2008

Cornell defenseman Nicholas D’Agostino has so far had a successful freshman campaign, posting two goals, 12 assists in 25 games while playing in both even-strength and power-play situations. The 19-year-old projects to be a second or third-pairing defenseman who has is responsible enough to play on the penalty kill yet offensively gifted enough to also contribute on the power play. First, however, he needs to improve his all-around play as the left-handed shot is still prone to trying to do too much.

He will require several more years of seasoning, but D’Agostino should eventually become a quality depth defenseman for the Penguins organization.

16. Philip Samuelsson, D 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009

At the time, it was a shock for many to see the Penguins select defenseman Philip Samuelsson in the second round of the draft. A strong freshman year with Boston College has so far put many questions to rest as Samuelsson has thus far surpassed expectations. With a thick 6’2 198-pound frame and a demeanor that would make his infamous father, Ulf, proud, the 18-year-old has one goal, eight assists, and 34 penalty minutes through 30 games.

With a good outlet pass and underrated skating, Samuelsson should continue to develop into a quality second or third-pairing defenseman.

17. Alexander Pechurski, G 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 150th overall, 2008

For the 2010-11 season, Alexander Pechurski has the rare distinction of playing for three different teams in three different leagues this season. Having been drafted by the Tri-city Americans last season in the CHL import draft, the 19-year-old faced resistance from the KHL, forcing him to wait until December before he was finally able to play in North America.

Now in the WHL, there is no question he has among the most potential of any of the Penguins goaltending prospects. In 16 starts, the athletic goaltender has a 7-6-1 record, a .911 save percentage, and a 2.42 goals-against-average. The netminder even saw a cup of coffee in the NHL because of injuries and poor play of backups Brent Johnson and John Curry. In 36 minutes of NHL play, Pechurski made saves on 12 of the 13 shots he faced.

With the Penguins system currently flush with netminding prospects, expect Pechurski to play another year in the WHL.

18. Brad Thiessen, G 7.0D
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009

Although he was originally assigned to the ECHL because the Penguins organization wanted to assure he would get plenty of starts, Thiessen eventually worked his way onto the AHL squad where is currently rotating starts with John Curry. The 23-year-old has a steady net presence, is good at getting square to the shooter, and does not typically allow too many soft goals. With a 6-8 record, .901 save percentage, and a 2.89 goals against average, Thiessen’s numbers are much a reflection of the Penguins AHL affiliate’s defensive struggles than they are the netminder’s abilities.

Thiessen has won his last four starts and is gradually taking over as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins starter. Expect this trend to continue through next season as Curry will likely back up Marc-Andre Fleury in the NHL.

19. Keven Veilleux, C 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2007

One of the many talented forwards who entered their first professional season, Keven Veilleux saw his 2009-10 season prematurely end in the mid-December because of shoulder surgery. When healthy, Veilleux is a right-handed playmaking center who is able to use his 6’5, 215-pound frame to overpower opposing defensemen. In his nine appearances, he notched two goals and one assist.

Concerns over Veilleux’s health, particularly his shoulders, are going to be ongoing and continue to mount as the 20-year-old has not played a full season since 2006-07. 

20. Nathan Moon, C 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 120th overall, 2008

Having developed a reputation as an agitator over his OHL career, Nathan Moon has really improved his all-around game in four seasons. For the first time since 2006-07, the 20-year-old is on pace to finish with a plus rating. He has 80 penalty minutes in 58 games, but has learned when to reel it in, and keep the bad penalties to a minimum. The 5’11 197-pound forward has continued to score at point-per-game pace, as he has for the last three seasons, posting 27 goals and 40 assists.

Over the next four months the Penguins are going to have to decide whether they wish to retain Moon’s rights and sign him to an entry-level deal or allow him to walk and re-enter the NHL draft.