Starting at 2010 draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins have spent the past year aggressively addressing an issue that has dogged them over the past four seasons, finding skilled wingers to compliment NHL centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. These actions are best illustrated in their NCAA prospect pool, where last year the organization drafted three scoring wingers in Beau Bennett, Bryan Rust, and Ken Agostino and signed two more in NCAA standouts Paul Thompson and Brian Gibbons.
The organization has taken a decidedly conservative approach to drafting or signing players out of Europe, with Viktor Ekbom one of only two players drafted out of Europe in the past four years.
Beau Bennett, RW, 19
Acquired: 1st round, 20th overall, 2010
Bennett is a smart and talented center to wing convert, having recently finished his freshman season of NCAA hockey with DU. Offensively, his ceiling is as high as any Penguins prospects for many years, as he demonstrates a high level of creativity with the puck and deft goal-scoring ability.
After a scary looking knee injury on December 3rd that caused Bennett to miss over a month of hockey, the young forward seemed to return with an elevated level of play. He posted six goals and nine assists in 20 games playing mostly alongside fellow freshmen center Nick Shore and winger Jason Zucker (MIN).
The Denver Pioneers made it into the second round of the NCAA tournament and eventually bowed out to North Dakota in a 6-1 blowout. Bennett’s playoff performance was less than stellar although he often created offensive opportunities that were never finished. The post-season shortcomings however should not taint what was an otherwise strong rookie season.
The impediments keeping him from the NHL primarily are his strength and timing. The strength part should come at least partially from continued physical maturity but also conditioning. He needs to improve his timing with the puck as well, release it faster, and generally play with more confidence. He creates lots of open ice and offensive chances with the puck but is not able to capitalize on nearly as many as he probably should.
Bennett will spend at least one more year in DU before signing with the Penguins.
Ben Hanowski, C/W, 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009
A standout in high school, Hanowski has not quite lived up to his abilities at the NCAA level. Thus far through two seasons he has developed into a one-dimensional offensive forward. He has shown great effectiveness on the powerplay, posting six man-advantage goals, which is tied for tops on the St. Cloud Huskies. But his overall play, particularly in the defensive zone, leaves something to be desired. His minus-13 rating is the worst on the team. His skating also needs work, although a switch to wing could compensate for some of those issues.
Part of his growing pains can be attributed to playing large minutes at a lower level of hockey. Players who see lots of time against lesser competition can often develop bad habits, which can later lead to issues when they play fewer minutes in a more structured, up-tempo environment.
While his first two collegiate seasons have been something of a disappointment, Hanowski is only 20 years of age and was not expected to immediately develop into an NHL capable forward. He will almost assuredly return to St. Cloud for his junior year.
Ken Agostino, C/W, 18
Acquired: 5th round, 140th overall, 2010
Although Agostino was a highly regarded high school player, it is safe to say there was at least some question regarding his ability to immediately contribute at the NCAA level. Instead he contributed right away and continued to progress as the season went along, posting 11 goals, 14 assists, and a plus-17 rating through 31 games. Aside from the offensive output, Agostino plays with a great deal of moxie, and is not afraid to engage in battles for the puck. He is also a decent north-south skater and displays solid decision making with and without the puck.
Agostino has progressed nicely this season but is still some ways away from contributing at the professional level. He plays in an up-tempo system at Yale that should prepare him well for when he eventually does sign with the Penguins.
Paul Thompson, LW, 22
Acquired: Free agent, 2011
The Penguins acquired two high-profile collegiate free agents this spring, the first being sniper Paul Thompson. The Derry native spent four years with the University of New Hampshire where he played in over 140 games posted 57 goals and 55 assists. Most impressive were his junior and senior campaigns where he posted 39 and 52 points respectively.
Along with the team’s other collegiate signing Brian Gibbons, Thompson skated at the organization’s prospect camp in July. Even then it was known that he was a burgeoning goal-scoring talent although his senior season, where he posted 28 goals in 39 games, suggests he has elite goal-scoring potential. He was a model of consistency too, never going more than three games without a point and posting points in all but 11 games. His shoot-first style has drawn comparisons to former teammate Bobby Butler (OTT) although Thompson is about 20 pounds heavier. He figures to season in the AHL for the majority of next season but with a strong training camp, he could push for a roster spot in the NHL.
Brian Gibbons, C/W, 23
Acquired: Free agent, 2011
The second of two collegiate free agents to sign with the Pens, Brian Gibbons brings to the organization a solid mix of offensive creativity, skating, and determined play with the puck. A standout at Boston College, Gibbons is a player the Pens are already familiar with, as he is a former (and future) teammate of defensemen Carl Sneep and Philip Samuelsson. He was also an invite to the Penguins 2010 prospect camp.
Standing at 5’8 and 165 pounds, Gibbons does not boast a prototypical NHL frame. His dogged puck pursuit and strong skating should mesh well with what the Penguins ask from their forwards, but his size will remain an impediment until he proves otherwise.
Smaller guys tend to take a little longer to develop at the minor-league level so expect to see Gibbons seriously compete for an NHL spot in the 2012-13 season. He could still realistically see some call-up duties next year but that will be predicated on how he performs at the AHL level.
Philip Samuelsson, D, 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009
It was somewhat of a surprise to see Samuelsson signed out of Boston College after only his second year but the Penguins obviously liked what they saw in the young defenseman’s development.
Drafted for his unique blend of size, snarl, and mobility, Samuelsson is also a fairly good puck-mover, capable of making the type of outlet passes the organization requires in all of their defensemen. He posted 16 points through 39 games with Boston College, so there is some offensive ability there, but he seems destined to play a more stay-at-home role at the professional level.
Considering the organizational logjam at defense, with seven players on NHL-only contracts and others such as Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, and Simon Despres waiting in the wings, Samuelsson could wait quite awhile before seeing some NHL action. Still, he brings nastiness to the rink that can not be taught and could compete for a fulltime spot as early as 2012-13, but more likely in the next two or three seasons.
Bryan Rust, RW, 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010
Rust fits the mold for what the Penguins organization looks for in their forwards. He is an excellent skater, particularly when going north, possesses soft hands, a thick frame, and seems to always make the smart play in both the offensive and defensive zones. He’s not an overwhelming offensive force, posting six goals and 19 assists in 40 games, but his numbers should slightly improve as he matures. What is more important is Rust’s ability to create space for his teammates on the ice. He played all throughout the lineup for Notre Dame this season and never looked out of place, sometimes on one of the top lines next to power forward Anders Lee (NYI) while other times in a bottom-six energy role. He also contributed on the second unit of both special teams.
The Penguins are likely to be patient with Rust. He has a good motor on him and a decent skill level but plays a very cognitive type of game, dependent on positioning and anticipation. Assuming he continues to progress well, expect Rust to develop into a top-nine forward in a mold similar to Pascal Dupuis or Dustin Jeffrey.
Nick D’Agostino, D, 20
Acquired: 7th round, 210th overall, 2008
One of the final picks of the 2008 draft, Nick D’Agostino has developed into a capable two-way defenseman over the past two seasons at Cornell. He possesses a nice package of size (6’2 and 181 lbs), skill, and skating, but is also a smart player who plays within his means and doesn’t make too many costly mistakes.
Playing a conservative brand of hockey in Cornell, D’Agostino posted only seven goals and 10 assists through 32 games, though it was still good for fourth overall on the team in goals and points. He also posted a minus-17 but that was more a reflection of him seeing considerable ice-time for a team who struggled to score goals than an indictment on his play in his own end.
Expect him to play at least one more season at Cornell if not finish out his NCAA eligibility. He was drafted as a project, and while he has made great strides over the past few years, he still remains a developing talent.
Viktor Ekbom, D, 21
Acquired: 6th round, 181st overall, 2009
The Penguins signed Ekbom to an amateur try-out contract on March 28th and he made his AHL debut a few days later on April 1st. Drafted in 2009, the organization has to make a move on him by this summer or will relinquish exclusive negotiating rights, making him an unrestricted free agent.
In three AHL games, Ekbom has shown to be a capable two-way defenseman with good size and reach. He possesses solid positioning, smooth skating, and is capable of creating turnovers in the neutral zone. His anticipation also appears to be above average, as does his play with the puck.
Ekbom lacks a physical element to his game though. At 6’3 and 202 pounds he is more than capable of shrugging off checks from opposing forwards and clearing the crease around the goaltender but is by no means an intimidating presence in his own end.