Simon Despres headlines Pittsburgh Penguins junior prospects

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Over the off-season, defenseman Simon Despres went through a physical transformation, adding several pounds of muscle, lowering his body fat, and improving his shot on net. So far in the 2010-11 season, the off-season training looks to have paid off as Despres is currently one of the top defenseman in the QMJHL. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Penguins currently have six prospects at the major junior level including one former first-round pick in Simon Despres. The organization has traditionally drafted heavily from the Canadian major junior leagues, to the point where every one of their picks from 2007 was at one point playing in the OHL, QMJHL, or WHL. While they haven’t shied away from drafting out of those leagues, the team currently has only one player at the CHL level who was drafted in the first three rounds in Simon Despres.


QMJHL

Simon Despres, D, St. John Sea Dogs
Acquired: 1st round (30th overall) in 2009
July 27th, 1991. Ht: 6’4 Wt: 215 lbs.

Among the top prospects in the Pittsburgh Penguins system, Despres was one of the final cuts in the Penguins NHL training camp this past fall. It was widely believed amongst team officials that he was close to NHL ready but would benefit more greatly from playing big minutes and all situations in the QMJHL.

The 19-year-old is a physical specimen, able to log 20-30 minutes a game, match up against opposing team’s top lines, play in all special team situations, and create offense from the blue line. However, it is his skating that is Despres’ greatest attribute. His first step is strong, allowing him to quickly get into full flight and he is able to stop and turn effortlessly. His backward and lateral skating ability, two important facets to a defenseman’s game, are also top-notch.

Despres spent the off-season improving the accuracy and velocity of his shot repertoire and so far it looks to have paid dividends as he has eight goals in 20 games, one shy of his 63 game total from last season. He also spent extensive time over the off-season improving his conditioning, strength, and reducing his body fat.

Signed to an entry-level deal in 2009, Despres will join the Penguins organization when his QMJHL season is completed. Considering the extensive term and dollar the Penguins have committed to their current group of NHL defenseman, expect Despres to be given as much time as he needs to blossom at the AHL level before being called upon to contribute in the NHL.

OHL

Tom Kühnhackl, C, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 4th round (110th overall) in 2010
January 21th, 1992. Ht: 6’2 Wt: 172 lbs.

One of the top ranked European skaters going into the 2010 draft, Kühnhackl slipped to the fourth round and into the Penguins laps for a number of reasons. The main reason being he came from a relatively non-traditional development path, playing in Germany‘s second tier professional league. In the 2nd Bundesliga, Kühnhackl struggled with an injured shoulder and battled for regular ice time.

Now playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, Kühnhackl plays a simple, two-way game that is predicated around hard work. His point totals, 16 goals and 12 assists through 29 games and his laser shot suggest a player with explosive offensive potential but Kühnhackl is more likely to chip the puck up ice and battle for possession than try to carry it through three zones. He does possess the offensive acumen to find open scoring lanes and compliment a talented playmaker.

The young German initially had some difficulty adjusting to the speed and style of the North American game, going pointless in his first seven games and registering a minus-six over that same span of time. The game started to slow down for Kühnhackl though and after scoring his first goal of the season on October 9th, the floodgates opened and over the next 18 games Kühnhackl would post 14 goals and 10 assists. While he may not maintain quite the torrid pace that he set in November, Kühnhackl does have the pedigree and intelligence to remain a consistent offensive threat for the remainder of the season.

Despite his impressive goal totals, Kühnhackl very much remains a work in progress. He is not yet strong enough to dictate his will along the boards and around the net and is occasionally beat by smaller or less skilled opponents. Some of this is physical maturity, as his frame is fairly lanky, but also him simply needing to adapt to the stronger and faster competition in the OHL.

Andy Bathgate, C, Belleville Bulls
Acquired: 5th round (151st overall) in 2009
February 26th, 1991. Ht: 6’0 Wt: 175 lbs.

Now in his third full season of OHL play, Bathgate has finally started to realize the potential the Penguins saw in him when they picked him in the fifth round. The 19-year-old forward currently has 12 goals and 13 assists through 30 games, a goal shy from matching his goal total from last season. Bathgate has also improved his offensive consistency, not going more than three games without a point.

Still lean at 6’0 and 175 pounds, Bathgate will likely never develop into a player who is big and strong enough to physically dictate his will on the ice. He does however possess blazing foot speed which he is learning to use to his advantage.

Given his ability to make plays with his speed and his limited offensive abilities, it is hard to gauge what Bathgate’s ceiling is just yet. He has the tools to develop into an energy forward but there are still questions regarding his durability and offensive upside. The remainder of the 2010-11 season will be telling for the young forward as the Penguins will be forced to make a decision on whether or not to sign him.

Joe Rogalski, D, Sarnia Sting
Acquired: 6th round (152nd overall) in 2010
November 29th, 1991. Ht: 6’2 Wt: 185 lbs.

Currently ranked 14th in scoring among defensemen with four goals and 14 assists through 29 games, there was little doubt of Rogalski’s offensive abilities going into the 2010-11 season. The talented right-handed defenseman was coming off a 2009-10 season in which he posted six goals and 23 assists in 66 games. He was however also finishing with a minus-38 rating on a Sarnia team that won only 17 games and had the second worst
offense and defense in the OHL.

The Sting as a team still have a middling offense and defense but in his fourth season of OHL play, Rogalski has emerged individually, recording a plus-six to go along with his 18 points in 29 games. He has also shown greater patience and discipline in his own zone.

Rogalski possesses many desirable qualities for a defenseman, he has good size, can move the puck up-ice with ease, and because he played on a defensively thin team last year, he experienced playing in almost every situation possible.

Reid McNeill, D, London Knights
Acquired: 6th round (170th overall) in 2010
April 29th, 1992. Ht: 6’3 Wt: 191 lbs.

A mobile defensive defenseman, McNeill possesses many of qualities the Penguins look for in their defensive prospects. He is a strong skater for his size and while not an overly physical force on the blue line, he will not hesitate to engage physically or block shots. He does not create a great deal of offense from the blue line, but possess a strong first pass capable of starting the play up ice.

The 18-year-old is only entering his second season of OHL play so he is still very much developing as a defenseman. He was starting to show top-three potential at the OHL level before falling to a minor injury in late November.


WHL

Alexander Pechurskiy, G, Tri City Americans/Mississippi RiverKings (CHL)
Acquired: 5th round (150th overall) in 2008
August 4th, 1990. Ht: 6’0 Wt: 187 lbs.

For Pechurskiy, the season has been about finding a place to start. In an attempt to boost their struggling defense, the Tri City Americans dropped him off their roster early on in the season because he was taking up a spot on their roster for both an import player and an overage player. He spent the following weeks looking for work and finally signed a deal with the Mississippi RiverKings of the CHL.

Before being dropped from the Americans, Pechurskiy was inconsistent, often showing flashes of brilliance but also giving up soft goals. He had a record of 2-0-1, a 3.60 goals against average, and a .961 save percentage. With the RiverKings, he currently has a 5-3 record, a .907 save percentage and a 2.53 goals against average.

There is no question getting dropped by the Americans was a major setback to the young Russian’s career but he has at least found a team where he can see adequate starts for the remainder of the season. It will be a continued up-hill battle for the young Russian however as the Penguins solid goaltending depth throughout their system.