Pittsburgh Penguins Depth Analysis, Fall 2011

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: (From left to right) Carl Sneep, Alex Grant, and Robert Bortuzzo are all currently playing for the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. (Photo courtesy of Ian Altenbaugh/HF)

The Pittsburgh Penguins are perennial Stanley Cup contenders because of a young veteran core including Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Consequentially the Penguins have built their prospect pool with an eye on long-term potential rather than short-term needs. This is partially a byproduct of drafting lower in the first round, but also because the types of prospects they have drafted over the past several years simply take longer to develop.

The organization has proven in the past it is quite adept at developing mobile, two-way blueliners, and has drafted to that strength, with defensemen Simon Despres, Joe Morrow, and Scott Harrington among the top players in the system.

The Penguins have also gone to great lengths to develop solid utility forwards, from players who can play in top-nine situations like Dustin Jeffrey, to faceoff aces like Joe Vitale.

If there is any glaring weakness in the prospect pool, it is a lack of offensively creative prospects. The company line has and will remain that as long as they have their three star centers healthy, offense isn’t a giant concern. That said, there are several players, Beau Bennett and Tom Kuhnhackl in particular, who could develop into special offensive talents.

Left Wing

Playing wing in the Penguins organization often entails playing both wing positions, so while certain players may be listed here under left wing, they could inevitably finish the season on the right wing.

The most prominent left winger in the system is the big, offensively talented Eric Tangradi. He remains one of their higher pedigree offensive prospects, but so far the sum of his abilities remains less than the pieces. If he can learn to be more economical with his skating and show a greater interest in defensive play, Tangradi should still develop into a power forward who can play up and down the lineup.

Behind Tangradi is Ken Agostino. Playing in the NCAA for Yale, Agostino was impressive in his freshman season and lights out in the August USA National Junior Evaluation Camp. Agostino brings a similar blend of speed, skill, and hard work as current Penguins forward Chris Kunitz. He needs to add strength though.

Free agent signee Paul Thompson was brought in with the hope that down the road he could provide secondary scoring at the NHL level. Thompson has good hands in tight and a strong offensive IQ but also possesses the size and straight-line skating to play a checking role. His forte while playing with New Hampshire in the NCAA was on the powerplay, a skill the Penguins organization would love to see translate to the pros.

Behind Thompson is offensively gifted forward Ben Hanowski, who is currently cutting his teeth with St. Cloud State. Hanowski is something of an enigma. After a fairly strong freshman season, Hanowski’s development hit a plateau in his sophomore year. Several weeks into his junior season, Hanowski looks to have found his comfort zone and has been statistically productive. Ultimately, he looks to be the type of player who will either crack the NHL as an offensive player or not at all.

Scott Wilson, a freshman with UMass-Lowell, brings a familiar combination of hard work and offensive skill to the Penguins prospect pool. A seventh round pick, Wilson for the moment is a long-term project so expect him to play four full years at UMass-Lowell.

Defensive forward Zack Sill rounds out the left wing spot. Sill actually played a decent amount of center in the AHL last year and could be in for another extended stay in the middle with the recent injury to teammate Keven Veilleux. However, if Sill was to ever make the NHL, it would be playing on the wing, as the Penguins already have a couple of strong young checking centers in Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale.

Centers

While the center position is devoid of any first or second line prospects, that is because the Penguins boast three NHL centers who are 25 or younger. The lack of offensive skill however does not imply there is an overall lack of talent at the position.

Joe Vitale and Dustin Jeffrey are both currently playing in the NHL and look to stick for the season. Vitale has assumed the fourth-line center role vacated when Max Talbot left via free agency and has excelled. He has consistently won over half his faceoffs, played physically, and forechecked effectively.

Jeffrey recently made his 2011-12 NHL debut after missing the final third of last season to a knee injury. The 23-year-old center is an interesting case because everyone still has yet to figure out what he is capable of. He has so far proved to be an effective two-way NHL center, good on draws, and able to elevate his game offensively when called upon. What is still unknown is how much offense Jeffrey is capable of. Currently in the AHL on conditioning stint, the forward’s role still has not been defined at the NHL level. He seems at the very least to be a skilled forward who can play the wing but also line-up to take faceoffs.

Brian Gibbons could possibly possess the most offensive upside of any of the Penguins center prospects but will have to prove his 5’8 frame is up for the rigors of the professional game. In terms of his speed and hockey IQ, he is at least talented enough to be a regular point-getter in the AHL.

Keven Veilleux tragically went down with a knee injury before the 2011-12 season could get under way. Tragically because last season, he was not only durable, appearing in 66 of 80 games, but was finally starting to look the role of a power forward center. Since Vellieux had to get surgery on his knee, his season could be done before it even started. The best case scenario has him returning before the AHL playoffs begin.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel is a Penguins prospect in name only. He was loaned to the Nashville Predators organization mid-way through last season and has remained there ever since. The Penguins will let him play the last season of his contract with no intentions of renewing it.

Right Wing

The right wing position seems to be where the Penguins have their greatest deficiency at the professional level, but possibly the most offensive potential of any position on the depth chart.

There are currently three right wingers, Beau Bennett, Bryan Rust, and Josh Archibald playing at the NCAA level. Of the three, Bennett easily has the most offensive potential. Coming from Gardena, California, Bennett played his fair share of ice hockey growing up but developed his offensive game from playing roller hockey. The result is a player with immense creativity in the offensive zone and a bit of a gambler mentality with the puck. Bennett has been projected as a two-year player since drafted in 2010. While he has developed on pace, injuries have somewhat limited his time in the NCAA, so it remains to be seen whether he will sign a pro deal at the end of the season or not. Bennett projects early on as a similar player as Buffalo Sabres winger Jason Pominville.

Versatile winger Bryan Rust is currently in his second season with Notre Dame where he is playing on a line with T.J. Tynan (CLB) and Anders Lee (NYI). Rust very much epitomizes what the Penguins look for in their forward prospects. He works very hard, possesses a very high hockey IQ, can play any role assigned to him, and contributes with timely offense.

Josh Archibald is in his freshman season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Archibald possesses a lot of characteristics the Penguins seem to covet in forwards, he has a high motor, plays physical for his size, and is able to play effectively at both ends of the ice.

Another forward who is able to play both wings, Tom Kuhnhackl was among the most explosive players in the OHL by the end of the 2010-11 season. To start the 2011-12 season, Kuhnhackl experienced a lower-body injury and missed a month of hockey. He was later traded from the Windsor Spitfires to the Niagara IceDogs where, on a stronger team, he was expected to explode offensively. Instead, he exploded physically into defenseman Ryan Murphy (CAR), rendering the blueliner unconscious, and earning himself a 20 game suspension in the process. He also sustained another knee injury and depending on if he needs surgery, could miss 20 games anyway. Signed to an entry-level deal, Kuhnhackl will likely join the Penguins organization for good following his 2011-12 junior season. He’ll have to prove he can do it at the NHL level, but he has the toolbox to develop into a complementary scoring forward capable of potting 20-30 goals.

Dominik Uher appears to be a solid checking forward with good offensive instincts. From a skill-set standpoint, Uher seems like a safe prospect in that he should at the very least develop into a serviceable energy forward. He does however possess the hands and offensive instincts to have top-six potential.

Rounding out the right wing depth position is sniper Nick Petersen. In his second professional season, Petersen must prove that he is a capable scorer at the AHL level.

Defense

The defensive of the Penguins system is the real strength, with four prospects who appear very close to being NHL ready and several more of high pedigree who are not far away either.

Headlining the prospect pool is Joe Morrow. An offensive, two-way defenseman, Morrow possesses veteran poise and solid, mobile skating. He looks like could develop into a true powerplay quarterback, able to carry the puck the length of the ice, distribute from the blue line, and play the point. He is able to play a poised, smart defensive game as well though. Playing for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, Morrow could compete for an NHL roster spot as soon as next season.

Simon Despres is arguably the Penguins best overall defensive prospect in terms of his combination of size, mobility, and overall physical pedigree. Ridiculously steady in his zone, yet able to move the puck up the ice and possessing a strong shot, Despres seems like an excellent defensive counterpart for Morrow one day. In his first season of AHL play with the Baby Pens, Despres will look to gradually take on more responsibilities as the season progresses. He projects as a number two defenseman, able to shutdown opposing forwards, create offense, and play over 25 minutes a game.

Scott Harrington is another new yet very promising addition to the prospect pool. Harrington possesses a similar skill package as Despres in terms of puck-moving ability and skating but is slightly smaller and considerably meaner. He is cutting his teeth currently in the OHL with the London Knights.

Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo have developed into extremely effective depth defenseman and both are knocking on the NHL door. Strait actually saw an NHL call up early in the season and acquitted himself extremely well before suffering a dislocated elbow. He will have to rehab it for several weeks but is expected to return sooner rather than later. Strait has long been projected as a similar player as former Penguin Rob Scuderi which remains an accurate comparison. He is mobile, defensively sound, and makes smart decisions with the puck.

Bortuzzo brings a similar style of game as teammate Brian Strait, though he plays with more risk, from a both physical and offensive standpoint. He also saw a single game call up to the NHL this season and did not look out of place.

Enter his first professional season is Philip Samuelsson. Coming off two successful seasons with Boston College, Samuelsson will look to round-out and refine his defensive game in the minors. He projects as a number four or five defenseman who is best utilized playing a physical game and shutting down opposing forwards.

Rounding out the defense at the minor-league levels is puck-mover Alex Grant. Possessing good size and a hard shot, Grant has not developed as planned since he was drafted in 2007. Part of it is due to a serious wrist injury he experienced at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, though Grant seemed to have hit a developmental wall before then, appearing disinterested in his own end and not playing the full length of the ice.

Defensemen Nick D’Agostino and Alex Velischek are both currently cutting their teeth in the NCAA, D’Agostino with Cornell, Velischek with Providence. D’Agostino plays a cognitive two-way style of game comparable to former Penguin Mark Eaton while Velischek plays a slightly more physical brand of hockey, similar to his father and former New Jersey Devil Randy Velischek.

Depth defenseman Joe Rogalski and Reid McNeill bring contrasting albeit equally useful skill packages to the Penguins organization. Rogalski is a more offensively inclined puck-rusher while McNeill is more of a stay-at-home type with a crisp first pass.

Goaltending

With starter Marc-Andre Fleury still in his mid-twenties and playing at an elite level, the Penguins do not have much urgency to develop goaltending. That is not to suggest the pipeline is empty, just that the organization does not place the same premium on goaltending as they do defensemen. Currently there are four goaltenders in the system though realistically only two of them have any real shot at being NHLers.

Twenty-five-year-old Brad Thiessen is easily the most accomplished of the Penguins goaltending prospects and also the most likely to have an NHL career. A Northeastern grad, Thiessen is in his third year of professional hockey and is on pace to have a better season than in 2010-11, when he was awarded the Baz Bastien Award for top goaltender in the AHL. With current NHL backup Brent Johnson in the last year of his contract, Thiessen will almost assuredly be given an opportunity to earn the job as Fleury’s backup next fall.

ECHL goalie Patrick Killeen also possesses some NHL potential but is only 21-years-old and first must prove he can play at the AHL level before even considering the NHL. Killeen is a towering netminder who possesses a build more comparable to a power forward than goaltender.

Past those two are Mattias Modig and Alexander Pechurskiy. Modig is currently recovering from a knee injury suffered last December while Pechurskiy is playing for his old club Magnitogorsk Metallurg. Neither figure prominently into the Penguins future.