Several prospects for the Pittsburgh Penguins had breakout seasons. The most notable was defensive prospect Derrick Pouliot, who established early on that he was capable of handling steady NHL playing time. However, rookie goaltender Matt Murray came in a close second, as he broke several AHL records and looks poised to one day take over the goaltending reins in Pittsburgh.
Also, for the first time in a while, the Penguins have several forward prospects who have proven themselves in their respective leagues and should push for NHL jobs next fall.
Hardest Worker: Bobby Farnham, W, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Farnham is not the most talented player in the Penguins system, but his hard work, speed, and physical play are noticeable every time he touches the ice. An established agitator, Farnham was recalled to the NHL several times this season and proved he can drive players crazy at the highest level of hockey just as effectively as he could in the minors. He plays with an incredible amount of energy—which is noticeable every shift—as well as a degree of physical recklessness that frequently draws the ire of opposition.
Hardest Shot: Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa Kuopio (Liiga)
Kapanen is the most skilled forward prospect in the Penguins system and probably the only one who can push for a scoring line role in the near future. He has soft hands and a quick release with the puck. His slap shot has good velocity, and his wrist and snap shots are as hard as they are accurate. His hands alone should guarantee him a long look in the Penguins 2015 NHL training camp.
Best Defensive Prospect: Derrick Pouliot, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
While Pouliot started the 2014-15 season in the AHL, it was not long before he was recalled to the big club, where he scored on his first shot in his first NHL game. Pouliot has the skating, vision, and offensive acumen to be an impact defenseman. Though not overly big, he has a low center and is difficult to knock off the puck. He is expected to play a top-four role for the Penguins on defense and may do so as soon as next season.
Fastest Skater: Matia Marcantuoni, C/W, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Marcantuoni does not have the hands of a scorer or the size to be a power forward, but he certainly possesses the skating ability to one day play in the NHL. The first-year pro has rare separation speed, allowing him to create space for himself and his linemates. He needs to work on other aspects of his game, but his skating ability is tops in the organization.
Prospect of the Year: Matt Murray, G, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Murray led the AHL in almost every meaningful goaltending statistic in his rookie pro season, finishing with a 1.58 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage, and 13 shutouts. He kept getting better as the season went on, too. Of his 25 wins, 19 came in his final 25 appearances. Murray will need more seasoning in the AHL before he can challenge for a backup role in the NHL, but he has the athleticism and poise to one day be an NHL starter.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Scott Wilson, LW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Wilson was one of the top scorers for the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in his rookie season, managing 19 goals and 22 assists in 55 games, but the best has yet to come from the 23-year-old winger. Possessing good hands, deceptive speed, and a willingness to take some punishment to create offense, Wilson brings a package of skills that the Penguins are short on in their prospect pool. There is a strong chance he will contend for an NHL roster spot next season. He was recalled on several occasions and even appeared in several playoff games for the Penguins.
Most Improved Prospect: Oskar Sundqvist, C, Skelleftea AIK (SHL)
The big Swedish center had a strong playoff run with Skelleftea in 2014, so he went into the 2014-15 season with heightened expectations. One of the last cuts in the Penguins training camp, Sundqvist was eventually re-assigned to Skelleftea where he managed nine goals and 10 assists in 41 games, and was a factor at both ends of the rink whenever he touched the ice. He is expected to contend for an NHL roster spot in 2015-16.
Overachiever: Matt Murray, G, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Murray was the top goaltender in the AHL, and while his development should remain on an upward trajectory, he will be hard pressed to replicate his gaudy rookie numbers. Most impressive were his 13 shutouts, which were five more than any other player in the league.
Underachiever: Eric Hartzell, G, Wheeling Nailers (ECHL)
While Murray flourished this season, Hartzell struggled. A free agent signing in 2013, Hartzell spent the majority of the 2014-15 season in the ECHL, where he posted relatively lackluster numbers, including a 2.75 goals against average, a .917 save percentage and a 17-14-1 record. Hartzell is a free agent this offseason and might be playing elsewhere next year. Aside from his lackluster performance, highly regarded goaltending prospect Tristan Jarry will be joining the organization next year and should see a lot of starts.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Tom Kuhnhackl, RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Drafted in 2010 because of his offensive potential, Kuhnhackl has suffered from frustrating inconsistency and a multitude of injuries since he went pro in 2012. He seems to have finally put together a healthy season in his third pro year, and he finally looks like a player who the Penguins can rely on for offense, albeit at the AHL level.
The problem with Kuhnhackl is that when he is not scoring, he is not helping his team. His defensive game and ability to make reads have improved since his rookie pro season, but he still lacks the overall game that allows him to play more than a scoring role in the pros. He is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2014-15 season, but the Penguins will probably re-sign him given the lack of forward depth in their system.
Prospect of the Month: Matt Murray, G, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
For the second month in a row, Murray is the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect of the Month. The 20-year-old goaltender has arguably been the top netminder in the AHL since the turn of the 2015 calendar year and his play continued to improve all year. He went 10-2-1 in 14 appearances in March and April, where he posted five shutouts and allowed only 17 goals. For his efforts, Murray was given the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award, which goes to the AHL’s rookie of the year. He was also named to the AHL All-Rookie Team and part of the AHL All-Star first team.
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