Several prospects in Pittsburgh Penguins top 20 ready for NHL duties

By Ian Altenbaugh

Photo: Scott Wilson scored 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) in his first season of pro hockey with the AHL Penguins last season. (Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Photo: Scott Wilson scored 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) in his first season of pro hockey with the AHL Penguins last season. (Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

10. (NR) Adam Clendening, D, 6.0 B
Trade with Vancouver Canucks, July 28th, 2015

A puck-moving, defensive defenseman, Clendening has neither ideal size nor elite skating, but he does possess a high hockey IQ, which has allowed him to be a productive player at every level he’s played at except the NHL. He split the 2014-15 season between the Chicago and Vancouver organizations, where he combined for two goals and 16 assists in 49 AHL games and a goal and three assists in 21 NHL games. He does not really project as a major offensive force in the NHL, but he is able to move the puck quick enough that he should be able to serve in a depth role.

Clendening is waiver eligible, but with eight defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart, it is likely the Penguins will try to sneak him through waivers to start the 2015-16 season in the AHL. He looks like he could eventually develop into a depth defenseman for the Penguins, but has a way to go.

9. (9) Bryan Rust, W, 6.0 B
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010

Rust is one of several prospects who is vying for one of the final spots on the Penguins NHL roster. One of the best skaters in the organization, Rust’s game is built on speed and mobility. He has a very explosive first step, which allows him to create space and offensive opportunities. He is not a particularly skilled playmaker however, which limits the impact he is able to make on the scoresheet.

The Notre Dame grad made his debut with the Penguins last season and it did not take long before he was recalled to the NHL and scored his first goal. For the 2015-16 season, he managed a goal and an assist in 14 NHL games, as well as 13 goals and 14 assists in 45 AHL games. Rust has limited upside as an NHL forward, but his speed an d straight line style of play should be an asset in a depth role and on the penalty kill.

8. (5) Teddy Blueger, C/W, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012

Heading into his senior year with Minnesota State, Teddy Blueger has put together several solid seasons at the college level and looks like he will join the Penguins organization at the end of the hockey 2015-16 season.

The Latvian-born forward plays a smart two-way style of game, though he possesses a fair amount of skill as well. He’s extremely versatile—able to play all three forward positions—but seems like an ideal fit at center given his playmaking ability and skill in the faceoff circle.

Blueger is poised for a breakout season in 2015-16. He managed 56 points in 77 games over the past two seasons and could realistically surpass the 40 point marker in his senior year. He does not project to play a high offense game in the NHL, but has the makings of a very solid middle-six forward who can chip in on special teams and play a variety of different roles.

7. (NR) Sergei Plotnikov, LW, 6.5 B
Signed as a free agent, July 1st, 2015

With a prospect pool bereft of talent and an organization that is right up against the NHL salary cap, Penguins management has had to get creative in how they augment their NHL and minor league rosters. One such way is to sign young free agents—such as Plotnikov—out of Europe.

Plotkinov is a big, physical forward who has been fairly productive in the KHL, where he has managed 101 points in 159 games over the past three seasons. The Russian-born forward does not possess a particularly high level of skill, but it is believed he has enough offensive talent to chip in at the NHL level on at least an occasional basis. He has good size for an NHL forward at 6’2 and over 200 pounds, and plays a heavy type of game on the forecheck. He is not a particularly explosive skater—an issue he will have to work on—but he has serviceable enough top speed that he should be able to get by in the NHL.

Plotnikov will start the 2015-16 season in the NHL, but it is unclear what role he will play. He has an out-clause in his contract with the Penguins, meaning if things do not work out in North America, he can leave for Europe and Pittsburgh can terminate his contract.

6. (7) Scott Wilson, W, 6.5 B
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011

Wilson is one of several Penguins forward prospects, along with Rust and Oskar Sundqvist, who is expected to push for time in the NHL in 2015-16. He is a smart two-way forward who plays the same game whether he is on the fourth line or in a scoring line role. He is an extremely hard hitter and generally plays a physical game for his size.

As a rookie pro, Wilson managed 19 goals and 41 points in 55 AHL games, and he also saw several games at the NHL level. That level of production likely will not translate to the NHL, but Wilson does have good enough hands and enough skill to chip in offensively.

5. (4) Brian Dumoulin, D, 6.5 B
Trade with Carolina Hurricanes, June 22nd, 2012

Dumoulin is among the last of what was once a formidable group of defensive prospects in the Pittsburgh Penguins system. A two-way, puck-moving defenseman with good size, Dumoulin is coming off his best season as a pro hockey player, where he managed 33 points in 62 AHL games, and played a handful in the NHL, including five in the playoffs.

The 23-year-old is not going to be a high impact player in the NHL, but he has the size, skating, and hockey IQ to be a solid middle or bottom-pairing defenseman. He is on a one-way NHL deal, so he is all but assured to start the 2015-16 season in the NHL, likely as a sixth or seventh defenseman.

4. (2) Oskar Sundqvist, C/W, 6.5 B
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2012

The 21-year-old Swede is one of the few promising homegrown forwards the Penguins have in their system. He has good size at 6’3 and possesses a long reach and wingspan, which he uses to protect the puck. Sundqvist is a fair skater, especially for his size. He’s not the most explosive skater, but has good top speed and a long stride, which allows him to get from point A to point B in short order. He is coming off a solid season in Sweden, where he managed nine goals and 10 assists in 41 games with Skelleftea.

Projected to be a depth forward in the NHL, the Penguins believe Sundqvist has a fair amount of offensive upside. He possesses a high hockey IQ and is smart with the puck, which should allow him to be effective in the offensive zone, especially when combined with his size and physical style.

3. (3) Matt Murray, G, 7.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2012

Few goaltenders at any competition level had the type of season Matt Murray had in the AHL last season. In his rookie pro season, Murray led the league with a 1.58 goals-against average, 12 shutouts, and a .941 save percentage. He was also named to the AHL All-Star team and awarded AHL Rookie of the Year and Goaltender of the Year honors.

Expectations should remain tempered for Murray, as he heads into his second season. He has the obvious skill and physical talent, but he still lacks experience. He will likely man the AHL crease with Jarry in 2015-16, but expect Murray to play the bulk of the starts. Furthermore, if Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury goes down with injury, Murray will be recalled and likely leapfrog backup Jeff Zatkoff for NHL starts. The Penguins are very high on Murray and expect great things from him in the future, but want to manage his manage his development closely and make sure his confidence does not waver.

2. (NR) Daniel Sprong, RW, 7.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2015

Sprong is one of the few forwards in the system who projects to be a top-six scoring winger. Hailing from the Netherlands, Sprong has lived in Canada for the majority of his life and has developed into a very talented forward. He has natural goal-scoring ability, as well as good overall speed. He spent the previous two seasons with the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL, where he has managed 69 goals and 156 points in 135 games.

The 18-year-old needs to improve his defensive game and become a better two-way player, but he also needs to get stronger and continue to fill out physically. His upside is very high, and he could develop into a  complementary scoring winger in short order with proper development. Expect him to return to the QMJHL for the 2015-16 season, where he will probably share a line with Ottawa Senators prospect Filip Chlapik.

1. (1) Derrick Pouliot, D, 8.0 B
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2012

Pouliot has gradually emerged into one of the more dynamic young defensive prospects in the NHL. An immensely talented, mobile defenseman, Pouliot has the skill to develop into an anchor on the Penguins blue line for years to come. While there are many facets of his game that stand out, it is the young defenseman’s ability to move the puck and create offensive plays that sets him apart from other prospects. He has the vision and skating to run the powerplay, but is also a solid player in his own end. He will need to continue to add strength and simplify his game, but Pouliot will be an important part of the team’s future.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh

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