Defense dominates CHL prospect pool for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Defenseman Simon Despres is one of the top prospects for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Signed to an entry-level deal, he’ll be expected to play in the AHL next season. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a small contingent of players playing in the Canadian major junior ranks, headlined by 2009 first-round pick Simon Despres. There are several other junior prospects of promise in the Penguins’ pool, most notably German-born forward Tom Kühnhackl.


QMJHL

Simon Despres, D, Saint John Sea Dogs
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2009


Since being drafted in 2009, Despres has impressed Penguins management and fans alike with his large frame and smooth, effortless stride. One of the key defensemen on a Saint John team that lost only seven games in regulation, allowed an average of only 2.42 goals per game, and scored an average of 4.76, Despres saw his profile rise considerably over the course of the 2010-11 season.

Statistically, he managed a solid 13 goals and 28 assists in 47 games while frequently playing over 25 minutes a game. He also took a regular shift on the league’s top penalty killing unit and saw some time on the second-unit powerplay.

Despres also saw time at the WJC U20 in Buffalo this past winter and although he only registered three assists in seven games, the big blueliner was asked to play a shutdown role against the top opposing forwards.

Saint John has a realistic chance of making a Memorial Cup appearance this season so Despres’ post-season could be going on for quite awhile longer. He currently has four goals and six assists through 15 playoff matches. Despres was signed to an entry-level deal in 2009 so there will be no question he will be playing with the Penguins organization next year, likely in the AHL. He projects as a number two defenseman, capable of playing over 20 minutes a game and on both special teams.

OHL

Andy Bathgate, C, Belleville Bulls
Acquired: 5th round, 151st overall, 2009

In what will likely be his last season playing in the OHL, Andy Bathgate, for the first time in his three years of OHL play, managed to remain relatively injury free, and appear in 64 games this season. Over those 64 games he managed 25 goals and 35 assists, both career highs for the center, and a minus-30, which while gaudy, was not the worst on a weak Bellville team that finished 21-43-4.

The Bulls miraculously made the playoffs but were ousted in four games. Bathgate was held off the scoresheet but in his defense, Belleville scored only one in four games.

With his season over Bathgate signed an amateur try-out contract and joined the Penguins AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He appeared in two games and while he didn’t post a point, he showed off his slick skating and good offensive anticipation. He remains fairly slight in frame but showed a willingness to get to the puck in the greasy parts of the ice.

Tom Kühnhackl, C/W, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

A first-year OHLer, Kuhnhackl quickly established himself as one of the top goal-scorers in the league. He had a relatively slow start to the season, going pointless in his first seven games, but managed 39 in his next 56. Of the 39 goals he potted, 15 were on the powerplay, six were the first goal of the game, and five were game-winners.

The German forward was frequently recognized by the Windsor Spitfires over the course of the season for his accomplishments. In March, the Spitfires named him their player of the month, in part because he scored multiple game-winners (including two shootout victories) but also because of the heroics he showed in the playoffs. After leaving a March 28th playoff match against the Erie Otters with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, Kuhnhackl would return the next game in a dominant fashion, posting two goals and two assists. He would sign an entry-level deal with the Penguins several days after that impressive showing. The young forward would finish the playoffs with 11 goals and 12 assists through 18 games, still among the tops in the OHL. He would also be recognized as the OHL Player of the Week ending April 10th.

There is not much left for Kuhnhackl to accomplish at the Canadian junior level. His conditioning was below average at the beginning of the season though the young German didn’t show signs of fatigue as the season wore on. If anything he elevated his play as the season wore on.

There is a good chance he could start the 2011-12 season in the AHL although expectations should be tempered as the transition to the AHL will be far more difficult than it was for him to transition from German second-tier pro to Canadian major junior. Regardless, he has the skill, pedigree, and personality to be a solid contributor to the Penguins organization for a long time. If he can find his offensive game at the North American professional level, than he could look like a fourth-round steal for the Penguins.


Reid McNeill, D, London Knights
Acquired: 6th round, 170th overall, 2010

A defensive defenseman by trade, Reid McNeill plays a simple game predicated around blocking shots, and moving the puck up ice to his forwards.

Although his game is almost completely played in the defensive end of the ice, he does possess crisp, accurate passing ability and although he is fairly large at 6’3 195 pounds, is a smooth mobile skater.

He’s only recently turned 19 so expect him to spend another year in the OHL before thinking of going pro. It’s still early, but the Penguins could very well have unearthed another promising defensive defenseman in the mold of Rob Scuderi or Brian Strait.


Joe Rogalski, D, Sarnia Sting
Acquired: 6th round, 152nd overall, 2010

Drafted for his combination of size and puck-moving ability, Rogalski has dramatically improved his game over the past year. Offensively he continued to be strong, posting seven goals and 25 assists through 63 games. The defensive side of the puck is where he improved the most, going from a minus-38 in 2009-10 to a minus-14 this past season. The numbers aren’t stellar but he dramatically improved his ability to read the play and play a more positionally sound game.

Rogalski was signed to an amateur try-out contract in late March and while he did not appear in any games, practicing in the professional environment should be beneficial to his long-term growth. Expect him to play in the CHL for one more season before making the transition to the pros.


USHL

Alex Velischek, D, Sioux City Musketeers
Acquired: 5th round, 123rd overall, 2009

Nine games into his sophomore year with Providence College, Alex Velischek left the program to join the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. The departure was on amicable terms, Velischek simply wanted to play a greater on-ice role with his team and was not going to get the opportunity at Providence.

Still, the quality of competition at the USHL level does not compare to the NCAA. Velischek has an up-hill battle developmentally. With the Musketeers, Velischek posted two goals and eight assists through 33 games.

As far as his future is concerned, Velischek remains NCAA eligible because he is playing in the USHL and a return to Providence would not be unheard of. The school recently brought in a new coach in Nate Leaman, who has talked about reaching out to Velischek’s family about a possible return.

Central Hockey League

Alexander Pechurskiy, G, Mississippi RiverKings
Acquired: 5th round, 150th overall, 2008

One prospect who has seen his stock drop considerably over the past year is Alex Pechurskiy. After playing for the Tri-City Americans for most of the 2009-10 season and the start of the 2010-11 season, Pechurskiy was dropped from Tri-City roster in favor of a different overage player.

Pechurskiy eventually ended up with the Mississippi RiverKings of the Central Hockey League, a single-A professional league. With the RiverKings, Pechurskiy posted a 3.04 goals against average, a 17-14-2 record, and a .874 save percentage.

The Penguins will maintain his rights for another season but considering the emergence of Brad Thiessen and Patrick Killeen in the system, Pechurskiy will be at the bottom of the depth chart for the foreseeable future.