Eric Tangradi maintains status as Pittsburgh Penguins top prospect

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Power forward Eric Tangradi is one of several prospects hoping to make the Penguins NHL roster in 2010-11. (Photo courtesy of www.ontariohockeyleague.com

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The Penguins prospect pool can be broken down into several different sections, the top two, power forward Eric Tangradi and defenseman Simon Despres stand out from the pack as players with game-breaking potential. The next three, Beau Bennett, Ben Hanowski, and Tom Kuehnhackl also possess similar potential but still have questions regarding certain aspects of their game. Beyond the top five, the prospect pool is flush with mobile depth defensemen and top-nine forwards with varying degrees potential.

Along with Bennett and Kuehnhackl, 2010 draftees Ken Agostino, Bryan Rust, and Joe Rogalski all make their top 20 debut.

Top 20 at a glance:

1. (1) Eric Tangradi, LW, 8B
2. (2) Simon Despres, D, 8C
3. (NR) Beau Bennett, RW, 7.5C
4. (5) Ben Hanowski, RW, 7C
5. (NR) Tom Kuehnhackl, RW, 7C
6. (8) Robert Bortuzzo, D, 7C
7. (6) Carl Sneep, D, 7C
8. (4) Brian Strait, D, 7C
9. (3) Dustin Jeffrey, C/W, 6.5B
10. (11) Nick Petersen, RW, 7C
11. (15) Philip Samuelsson, D, 7C
12. (NR) Ken Agostino, RW, 7D
13. (10) Alex Velischek, D, 7C
14. (NR) Bryan Rust, RW, 7C
15. (7) Nick Johnson, RW, 6.5B
16. (17) Brad Thiessen, G, 7C
17. (18) Keven Veilleux, C/RW, 7D
18. (13) Alex Grant, D, 6.5C
19. (14) Nicholas D’Agostino
, D, 6.5C
20. (NR) Joe Rogalski, D, 7D

1. (1) Eric Tangradi, LW, 21
Acquired via trade 2009

There were several players at the Penguins 2010 rookie prospect camp who stood out amongst the pack but none as big as Eric Tangradi. At 6’4, and over 220 pounds Tangradi’s brawny appearance is the first thing distinguishing himself from the other players his age. He has an NHL body and over the 2009-10 season learned to use it with acrimonious authority. It’s his skating and offensive potential however that make him the Penguins top prospect.

Relative to his frame, Tangradi is an explosive skater. Working over the off-season, his first-step is the biggest thing improved. His stride is choppy, but he is able to carry his momentum well.

In 65 games with the Penguins AHL affiliate last season, he only posted 17 goals and 22 assists. But his trajectory was going up as 28 were in the last 39 games. He is viewed as a power forward with the great offensive skill-package who plays with a warrior mentality. Best suited close to the net, his shot and hockey IQ make him an offensive threat anywhere on the ice. There is a hope among team officials and fans alike that in the near future Tangradi will be able to compliment one of the Penguins star centers.

The 21-year-old was expected to compete for an NHL roster spot in training camp but it is more likely to see him called up midway through the 2010-11 season.

2. (2) Simon Despres, D, 19
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2009

Like Tangradi, defenseman Simon Despres brings a mix of size, skill, and toughness to the Penguins organization. Despres will never be considered an intimidating presence in his own zone, but his skating ability, large wingspan, and hockey IQ give him the potential to be a top-pairing defenseman. For the St. John Seadogs of the QMJHL, he was normally matched against opponents’ top lines and often logged 25-30 minutes a game. He also played on both special teams.

After a successful 2009-10 season where Despres posted nine goals and 38 assists, the young defenseman has little to prove at the Canadian junior level. However, because of NHL CBA stipulations, he must either play in the NHL or be returned to his junior team for another season. This has led to some speculation the Penguins will take advantage of an entry-level slide clause in the CBA, meaning he can play up to nine games in the NHL before being returned to his junior team, allowing them to extend his entry-level deal for another season. The organization did something similar with defensemen Kris Letang in 2006-07. While nothing should be ruled out, Despres will play the bulk of next season in the QMJHL.

3. (NR) Beau Bennett, RW, 18
 Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2010

The Penguins 2010 draft class was flush with two-way scoring wingers and Bennett is the most offensively gifted of the group. One of the top goal-scoring prospects going into the 2010 draft, Bennett iced up with Pentincton of the BCHL, knowing he would be allowed offensive creative freedom, and finished the season tied as the league’s top-scorer, posting 41 goals and 120 assists in 56 games.

Bennett’s skill-package is that of a prototypical offensive winger, he shoots the puck a lot, is a strong skater, has excellent hockey sense, and handles the puck very well. However, his defensive game and physical play are average.

Scheduled to play for the University of Denver next seaso
n, Bennett’s focus will be on his conditioning. He currently weighs about 180 pounds and will expect to add another 10-15 pounds of muscle over the next two seasons. DU has a solid reputation for not only building competitive teams, but developing young players towards their strengths while making them well rounded players in the process. This is the perfect environment for a young forward with tons of upside but a need to improve round out his game.


4. (5) Ben Hanowski, RW, 19

Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

Heading into his sophomore year, forward Ben Hanowski will need to do one thing more than anything else: score goals. In his freshman season with St. Cloud, the forward saw limited offensive opportunities, normally on the second or third line, and not always with the most gifted linemates. As a result, the offensively gifted forward was forced to play a two-way checking role with the team and more importantly work on his play away from the puck.

While still not perfect, his play away from the puck did improve over the course of last season and is in a better place than last fall. With the puck, he plays a poised and offensively creative game. With forwards such as Ryan Lasch graduating, Hanowski will be given the opportunity to expand his offensive role on the Huskies. Expect him to play one, if not two more seasons with St. Cloud before exploring his options with the Penguins.

5. (NR) Tom Kuehnhackl, RW, 18
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

Although drafted in the fourth round, German forward Tom Kuehnhackl was among the top ranked European players going into the 2010 draft and among the overall top 50 skaters. His precipitous drop in the draft is due at least in part to him having a relatively unproductive season with the Landshut Cannibals of the German 2.Bundesliga. To compound matters, he was recovering from a shoulder injury sustained during the season and saw limited ice-time. Also, in a salary cap era, teams have used their early-round picks in the past few drafts to address specific needs, not necessarily, the best player available. As a result of all these things, the Penguins were able to snag him in the fourth round.

Kuehnhackl is now fully healthy and was among the better skating prospects at the Penguins 2010 rookie prospect camp. Able to speak perfect English, he has also shown flashes of an outgoing personality among teammates and the media.

He has the offensive ability, the hockey IQ, and competitive nature to be a top-six winger in the mold of Dallas forward James Neal. However, his frame and strong play away from the puck suggests he could be an effective NHL forward regardless of his offensive ability.

He will join the powerhouse Windsor Spitfires for the 2010-11 season.

6. (8) Robert Bortuzzo, D, 21
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

Last season was the first time in many where Robert Bortuzzo played at or close to 100 percent. After a nagging shoulder injury that limited what would’ve been a productive junior career, Bortuzzo joined the Penguins AHL affiliate and almost immediately found chemistry with defenseman Brian Strait. Along with Strait, Bortuzzo makes up the Baby Penguins shutdown defensive pairing.

His skills aren’t strictly limited to defense and physical play, Bortuzzo has a good hockey IQ, above average puck-handling abilities, and good skating for a man who stands at 6’4 and over 210 pounds.

He’ll start the 2010-11 season in the AHL but expect Bortuzzo to get an NHL cup of coffee in the coming season.

7. (6) Carl Sneep, D, 22
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006

After Boston College won the Frozen Four last season, Carl Sneep ended an extremely productive four years in the NCAA, and signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Penguins.

When initially drafted, Sneep was considered a long-term project, a player with an immense amount of potential who could develop into a well-rounded, top-four defenseman. At the end of his college career there is no reason to not think that should be the case as he enters the pros.

Sneep has good size at 6’4, 210 pounds and plays a poised type of hockey. In his senior season he was the Eagles’ number one defenseman, playing in all situations and at times looking dominant. He does have lapses with his puck-distribution however and his skating needs an overall upgrade. Look for him to be a mainstay with the Penguins AHL affiliate in 2010-11.

8. (4) Brian Strait, D, 22
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2006

Although he plays a simple brand of hockey, it is by no means an easy style to play. A defensive defenseman by trade, Strait has been known throughout his college years and now as a pro for his calm and methodical play in the defensive zone. He distributes the puck well, rarely overplaying it and is able to send crisp outlet passes to forwards.

Strait along with Robert Bortuzzo made up an effective shutdown defensive pairing for the Baby Penguins and while it is too early yet for them to bring their show to the NHL, like his defensive partner, Strait should get to see a few games the coming season.

With the type of game the Boston native plays, it will not be several years before he becomes a truly effective shutdown defenseman. Nonetheless, he should be at least a serviceable third-pairing defender in the near future.

9. (3) Dustin Jeffrey, C/W, 22
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2007

If Dustin Jeffrey ever becomes an NHL regular, it is because of his versatility. After playing as a center for most of his career as well as his rookie pro season, Jeffrey moved to left wing for the bulk of 2009-10 and the dividends were apparent. Among the top-scorers in the AHL, the 6’1 forward posted 24 goals and 47 assists in 77 games while posting only 16 penalty minutes.

Jeffrey, like teammate Eric Tangradi, will be competing for an NHL spot this coming season. Unlike Tangradi though, Jeffrey does not have a zest for physical play. His offensive abilities also project to be lower. He is however a responsible two-way player who can kill penalties and take faceoffs.

Jeffrey will likely start the 2010-11 season in the AHL but should be among the earliest to get called up to the
NHL.

10. (11) Nick Petersen, RW, 21
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, 2009

Signed to an entry-level deal in the off-season, Petersen is on a slightly different developmental curve than many of the Penguins other prospects. Drafted out of the QMJHL as a 20-year-old, Petersen did not play at the Canadian junior level until he was 18 and his first season was nothing to be impressed with. Following the 2008-2009 season Petersen emerged as an offensively talented goal-scorer and the Penguins decided to take a chance. His 2009-10 season was equally impressive as Petersen posted 39 goals and 40 assists in 59 games and more impressively, seven goals and 21 assists in 21 playoff games.

Petersen will start the 2010-11 season in the Penguins minor-league system. There is no question that he has the ability to develop into a scoring winger, it is a matter of him learning to properly use his frame size and strength to his advantage.

11. (15) Philip Samuelsson, D, 19
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009

During Boston College’s run to the Frozen Four Championship, flashes of Ulf Samuelsson, father of Philip and infamous Penguins defenseman, were on full display. While Philip will never be able to match his father’s cantankerous play or profligate personality on the ice, he definitely showed a physically intimidating style of play that had to make at least several old Penguins fans blink twice and smile.

Although he stands at 6’3 and 198 pounds, Samuelsson has room to fill out, and could add as much as 10-15 pounds of muscle. He is a relatively mobile skater, particularly for his size, and more importantly, does not play beyond his means. Like many of the defensemen the Penguins target, Samuelsson also has a good first pass.

Expect him to play at least one more season with Boston College before exploring his options with the Penguins.

12. (NR) Ken Agostino, RW, 18
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2010

A teammate of 2009 draft pick Alex Velischek, Agostino will leave Delbarton as the most prolific player in the high school’s history. Posting 247 points and his team, the Green Wave, went 103-7-5 during his four-year tenure.

Agostino is a forward who is able to score goals and protect the puck fairly well. He has been commended for not only his tireless work-ethic and commitment to conditioning but also his ability to explode on the puck and make crisp and accurate passes. At 5’11 and around 190 pounds, he is a little undersized, but he could still grow and should get stronger as he physically matures.

In his senior season, Agostino posted 50 goals and 33 assists in only 27 games. While there is no way he will replicate even half those totals next season with Yale, he will be expected to produce in his freshman season.

13. (10) Alex Velischek, D, 19
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2009

On a Providence team that finished 10-20-4, Alex Velischek still managed to have a successful freshman season, appearing in all 34 games for the team and managing one goal, 11 assists, and 44 penalty minutes.

Velischek is a talented puck-moving defenseman who plays with a great level of poise. At 6’0 and 200 pounds Velischek is sturdily build with a thick lower body. He is also a fairly explosive skater, able to get to full speed quickly and carry his momentum well.

Like most offensive defenseman, Velischek needs improve his all-around game, in particular his decision making when it comes to distributing the puck offensively. Expect him to play one if not two or three more years in Providence. The Penguins could attempt to lure him out of the program however if they feel it is counterproductive to his development.

14. (NR) Bryan Rust, RW, 18
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010

A player who improved his stock as the 2009-10 season went on, Rust is a slightly undersized forward who has excellent hockey sense, makes good decisions with the puck, and plays a polished two-way game for his age.

He doesn’t necessarily have the offensive upside of 2010 draft picks Bennett or even Kuehnhackl, but has the physical make up to be at the very least a solid role-player of not complimentary two-way forward. He’s not without his offensive ability however as he did post 10 goals and 13 assists in 27 games with the USNDT. The problem is projecting his offensive ceiling. As a forward, Rust was only recently started to blossom offensively, having played as a checking forward or a role player up until the 2009-10 season.

Rust is committed to Notre Dame for the 2010-11 season and his two-way style of game should excel in the more structured college game.

15. (7) Nick Johnson, RW, 24
Drafted 3rd round, 67th overall, 2004

At 24 and entering his third year as a pro, the 2010-11 season will be a decisive one for Johnson more so than most other Penguins prospects. His salary this upcoming season, a one-year contract worth 500,000 dollars, is actually less than it was in the previous year so the cap-strapped Penguins have some incentive to play him before Tangradi or Jeffrey.

Where Johnson fits into the NHL squad is another question. He appears to have the two-way acumen and competitive nature to be an effective checking forward but he also has some offensive ability. How much of that will translate to the NHL level remains to be seen however.

Johnson, like many other of the Penguins AHL prospects, will be competing for an NHL spot at training camp and will at the very least, see a call-up at some point during the season.

16. (17) Brad Thiessen, G, 24
Signed as a free agent, 2009

By the end of the 2009-10 AHL regular season, Brad Thiessen was the uncontested starter for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. However, once the playoffs rolled around, AHL coach Todd Reirden opted to start minor-league veteran John Curry. Once the Baby Penguins were knocked out of the playoffs, Thiessen, along with numerous other AHL players, were assigned to the Penguins NHL playoff taxi squad. Thiessen did something similar the season earlier.

Curry did start for the Baby Penguins in the AHL playoffs but that should not be an indictment on Thiessen as a goalie. He plays with a calm poise in the net, and is sound in his positioning. With veteran backup Brent Johnson currently in the NHL and behind starter Marc-Andre Fleury, Thiessen will have to either earn his shot at the NHL through incredible play, or through the misfortune of those ahead of him. He does however make a nice insurance policy in case injury should befall the Penguins netminders. 

17. (18) Keven Veilleux, C/RW, 21
Drafted 51st overall, 2nd round, 2007
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There is no questioning his 6’5, 218 pound frame or his offensive abilities, the only major question for Keven Veilleux is his health, and how over the past three seasons, he was either afflicted with or recovering from a shoulder injury. 

Now apparently close to 100 percent, Veilleux will be expected to take the next step in his development. The organization would like to see him improve his play on the wing, and learn to use his large frame with greater physical authority. Expect the towering forward to spend the next few seasons learning his game in the AHL before getting a glimpse of the big stage.

18. (13) Alex Grant, D, 21
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2007

After starting the season for the Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, Grant was eventually called up to the AHL where he finished the season. While the young defenseman had minor success in the AHL, showing a willingness to shoot the puck, and contribute in the offensive zone, he frequently makes poor decisions with the puck.

The Penguins NHL and AHL teams play an up-tempo style of game and they expect the players to make smart decisions with the puck. That is why they value prospects such as Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo so much. If Grant doesn’t learn to improve his puck-distribution, then he will be hard pressed to move up the team’s depth chart.

He should return to the AHL for several more years of seasoning. With the right coaching and patience, he could develop into a two-way defenseman able to contribute offensively.

19. (14) Nicholas D’Agostino, D, 20
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2008

D’Agostino finished his freshman season at Cornell with 4 goals and 14 assists in 32 games, playing in all situations for the Big Red. The young defenseman will not turn heads with bone-crunching physicality nor will he bring people out of the seat with electric offensive play. He does however play a smart, two-way game, predicated on making smart decisions in his own end, bringing the puck up ice, and chipping in offensively.

At 6’2 and 181 pounds, D’Agostino has good size and a long reach. He is not known for rubbing players out, but will use his size and strength to pin players against the boards, and battle for the puck.

The young defenseman suffered a minor injury during the off-season but should be healthy for the beginning of his sophomore year with Cornell. Expect him to at least play one or two more years, if not finish out his time with the Big Red, before exploring his options with the Penguins.

20. (NR) Joe Rogalski, D, 18
Drafted 6th round, 152nd overall, 2010

In his third season in the with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, Rogalski finished with six goals and 23 assists in 66 games on team that was second worst in offense. Problem is he finished a minus-36, a worst on a team that was second to last in defense.

An argument could be made that Rogalski could be a special talent who if played on more talented team, would have a higher level of success. The opposite side of this argument is he could simply be a moderately skilled prospect given an amount of ice time he would not see on a deeper or more talented team.

Either way the Penguins have two years to assess Rogalski as a defensive prospect, and see if he can continue to grow his offensive game, while tightening things up in his own end.

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