Pittsburgh Penguins depth analysis, Fall 2010

By Ian Altenbaugh

The Penguins are currently in a period of transition with their prospects. With the NHL squad icing a young but experienced group of defenseman, most of who are locked up for the next three seasons, and there being a similar situation at center and in net, the emphasis is now on providing affordable yet effective complimentary talent to the NHL club.

Power forward Eric Tangradi has already seen nine games of action this season. However, with as many as seven forwards scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of 2010-11, expect several more forward prospects, including center Dustin Jeffrey and winger Nick Johnson, to see NHL spot duties this season.

Left Wing

Because of an injury to young veteran Jordan Staal, Eric Tangradi made his 2010-11 NHL debut out of training camp, mostly playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin as well as seeing spot duties on the power play. He has the physical gifts and on-ice responsibilities to develop into a long-term offensive weapon in the Penguins top-six but in the meantime, has to continue to prove he is ready for regular NHL duties. In late October Tangradi was returned to the AHL. While he did create offensive opportunities, his production was limited to a goal and an assist, and he was relegated to fourth-line duties in the games leading to his minor-league re-assignment. Nonetheless, he showed the flashes of skill and physicality that make him among the Penguins most prized prospects.

Collegiate wingers Ben Hanowski and Ken Agostino bring some intrigue to the position. Hanowski, after a middling freshman season with St. Cloud, will be expected to take on a greater amount of offensive responsibility. He possesses dynamic goal-scoring ability and is particularly offensively adept when the puck is on his stick.

Agostino on the other hand comes from Delbarton High School in New Jersey where in four years he registered 247 points and helped the team to a 103-7-5 record. He will begin his freshman season playing for the offensively prolific Yale Bulldogs.

Rounding out the position is undrafted prospect Joey Haddad. Now in his second professional season, the forward has spent his career thus far primarily in the ECHL. Part of the reason is because the Penguins have a great deal of wingers under contract and there is only enough space to go around. On the other hand, Haddad has not made the choice for the Penguins to assign him to the ECHL particularly difficult. The main knock on him being that he remains mostly a perimeter player and that he does not make smart decisions on the ice. Still his blend of strength and skill could become a great asset for the Penguins if he is to continue develop his game.

Center

With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal locked-up in long-term contracts and all under the age of 25, the Penguins have not placed a great emphasis on drafting and developing talent at the center position. Still, several players such as Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale look like they will develop into at the very least, viable NHL quality forwards.

Jeffrey is something of a wild-card. Characterized as a utility player because he can play all forward positions and in all situations, Jeffrey has shown at every level of hockey he has played that he can also contribute offensively. He was among the final cuts in training camp and should be expected to see some spot duties in the NHL this season. To what capacity he can ultimately contribute is not quite known, but there is no doubt about his strong work ethic and versatility.

Vitale on the other hand epitomizes what the Penguins look for in their bottom-six. The 25-year-old center brings a blend of two-way play, abrasiveness, and skill that distinguishes him from the Penguins other prospects. Now in his third year of minor-league play, Vitale has carved out a niche as a checking forward who is able to both match up against opposing team’s top lines and kill penalties.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Keven Veilleux are two other centers within the organization who could both be described as still being in the project stage of their development. Pierro-Zabotel possesses good play-making ability and is considered strong on his skates but is painfully inconsistent and is considered to have a poor hockey IQ. Drafted because he was an offensively prolific forward in juniors, the 21-year-old has struggled to replicate those totals at the AHL level, although he averaged almost a point-per-game last season in the ECHL. He has started the 2010-11 season in the ECHL.

Veilleux on the other hand is simply brittle. A player with a massive frame, adequate skating, and as high an offensive upside as many other players in the organization, Veilleux’s biggest impediment to his development as a hockey player has been his health. In the three seasons since the Penguins drafted him, Veilleux has either played injured or missed substantial time to injury. At this point in his career, the issue of injury does not appear to be a fluke rather than a chronic issue he will have to learn to work around if he hopes to become a successful hockey player.

Finally, 2009 draft pick Andy Bathgate rounds out the Penguins group of centers. When drafted, Bathgate was neither big nor strong enough to handle the level of competition in the OHL. After a relatively healthy 2009-10 season and a strong start to the 2010-11 season, Bathgate has finally started to look the part of an offensively gifted center. His frame, 6’0 and under 180 pounds, needs to continue to fill out, but he already looks stronger on his skates than he did in the past.

Right Wing

The Penguins went to lengths to address the organization-wide dearth of scoring wingers at the 2010 draft and drafted three players capable of playing right wing in Beau Bennett, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl.

Bennett, drafted 20th overall, is an offensively dynamic player who is a freshman at Denver. He was the top point producer in the BCHL last season and while he will not be expected to contribute at that level right away, he will still be expected to contribute to a Denver team that graduated many of their top talents from last season. Bennett has made it clear he plans to play two seasons of collegiate hockey so expect to see him sign with the Penguins in the 2012 off-season.

Rust, another collegiate winger, is in his freshman season with Notre Dame. A chippy two-way player, he seems to play a different game when the puck his on his stick. When carrying the puck, Rust is fairly conservative, normally dumping the puck into the corners or throwing it on net. When he is not carrying the puck however, he plays an aggressive, physical game, finishing every check and crashes the net. He is also considered a strong defensive player, frequently given low man responsibilities and penalty killing duties.

Kuhnhackl is a German-born forward who is currently plying his trade with the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL. He was actually invited to join the team in 2009-10 but instead opted to stay in Germany for another season. He subsequently saw little ice-time and suffered a shoulder injury. In the OHL however, Kuhnhackl looks to be getting a healthy amount of ice-time in a top-six role. He started the season slowly, but gradually found his offensive touch. The young German has on occasions shown great strength on the puck and good ability to find open shooting lanes. He has spent a decent amount of time on a line with Alexander Khokhlachev, a brilliantly skilled 17-year-old Russian center, and has also seen time on the Spits powerplay.

Entering his first professional season is 21-year-old Nick Petersen. Drafted as an overage forward in 2009 because of his ability to put the puck in the net, Petersen was recently assigned to the Penguins ECHL affiliate in Wheeling following the re-assignment of Eric Tangradi. He struggled for minutes early on at the AHL level and will have to prove himself with an increased workload in Wheeling.

Rounding out the crop at right wing is 25-year-old AHL forward Nick Johnson. Now in his third full season of AHL duties, Johnson will be looked at to not only help shoulder the offensive duties for the Penguins AHL affiliate, but also contribute at the NHL if called upon. His frame and package of skills suggest he could be an effective top-six forward but he is physical and defensively responsible enough to contribute anywhere in the lineup.

Defense

The Penguins also boast a diverse group at defense, headlined by QMJHL standout and potential top-pairing defenseman Simon Despres. The system is also fairly deep, with players of various degrees of talent in every stage of development from recently drafted to nearly ready to contribute in the NHL. The one thing all of the defensemen have in common is they are relatively mobile skaters as well as capable of moving the puck up ice.

Two of the most NHL ready defensemen in the system are Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait. Both are tough, steady defensemen who are currently honing their craft in the AHL. They also happen to be frequent linemates, making an effective shutdown pairing for the Baby Pens. Strait plays a simple game predicated on smart puck-distribution. He is also a tough presence in his own zone, not afraid to physically engage opponents or block shots.

Bortuzzo, while also smart with the puck and tough in his own zone, brings a little more size to the position. He has a long reach, which he can use to break up passes, but also plays with more of an offensive bend to his game.

Alex Grant is a puck-moving defenseman for the Penguins minor-league affiliate. Grant was on the wrong end of a brutal hit during the Penguins pre-season prospect tournament in Kitchener, which resulted with a minor concussion and a broken wrist. Where he will fit into the Penguins immediate plans has yet to be determined but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in the ECHL to start the season.

Carl Sneep, fresh off a Frozen Four victory with Boston College, is in his first season of professional hockey, playing alongside Bortuzzo and Strait in the AHL.

The Penguins have several defensemen currently plying their trade at the NCAA. The one with the most name recognition is Philip Samuelsson, son of Penguin legend Ulf and former teammate of Sneep. Samuelsson is currently in his second season with Boston College, and while he brings a physical and aggressive style of play to the rink, it is not on the same level that made his father infamous. The 19-year-old is sturdily built and strong on his skates. He is also equally comfortable carrying the puck out of the zone or making a first pass. Aside from seeing a healthy amount of even-strength time, he also sees regular penalty-killing duties. That said, he occasionally overplays the puck or makes erroneous passes in his own zone. He could also stand to maintain a higher and more consistent level of focus during games.

The other collegiate defensemen are Alex Velischek and Nicholas D’Agostino. Velischek, a puck-moving defenseman, is currently in his sophomore season with Providence College while D’Agostino his sophomore year with Cornell. Both bring a combination of good puck-sensibilities, smart zone play, and two-way offensive abilities to their respective teams.

Swedish defenseman Viktor Ekbom is a 21-year-old two-way defenseman currently playing for Linköping in the SEL. His SEL contract will be up at the end of the 2010-11 season so there is a chance he could be playing in North America as soon as next 2011-12.

Recently drafted Joe Rogalski and Reid McNeill round out the Penguins defensive depth chart. Both are OHL defensemen who are fairly mobile and good at moving the puck up ice. Rogalski however plays an offensively inclined game and is relied upon by his team, the Sarnia Sting to create offense from the back-end. McNeill on the other hand plays for the London Knights and is relied upon more to be a steadying defensive presence.

Goaltending

With NHL starter Marc-Andre Fleury in his mid-twenties, there is no rush to draft and develop a franchise goaltender. The Pens have nonetheless gone to lengths to address their depth in goal, adding Swede Mattias Modig to a stable that already included Brad Thiessen, Patrick Killeen, and Alexander Pechurskiy.

At the AHL level, Thiessen is currently in a goaltender platoon with veteran John Curry. Both are playing stellar hockey at the moment so there is no reason to expect the goalie rotation to stop.

Killeen and Modig meanwhile make up the goaltending tandem for the Penguins ECHL affiliate the Wheeling Nailers. Both have been effective but Killeen has proved to be the better of the two early on.

Pechurskiy meanwhile was recently released by the Tri-City Americans because he took up a spot for both an overage player and for an import on their roster. He is currently looking for work in the WHL.