Defense main attraction in Pittsburgh Penguins’ CHL pool

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Since he was traded to the Barrie Colts, defenseman Reid McNeill has seen an expanded role and increased production. (Photo courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

The Penguins have six prospects playing in Canadian Major Juniors. Defense is definitely the highlight of this particular prospect pool, with 2011 picks Joe Morrow and Scott Harrington headlining the group.

WHL

Joe Morrow, D, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 1st round (23rd overall) in 2011

Since returning to the WHL in early October, Joe Morrow has been solid if not spectacular at times, putting up nine goals and 19 assists in 27 games and playing in all situations for the Winterhawks.

Morrow has seen expanded ice time this season and has responded well, already matching his goal output from last season, but his expanded presence is best felt on the powerplay, where he plays a more integral role in providing offense from the back end. This is important considering Portland has been poor defensively in even-strength situations.

The 19-year-old should continue to grow into his role with the Winterhawks this season and depending on their playoff performance, join the Penguins minor-league affiliate in the spring. Although Morrow did not make the final roster to represent Canada in the WJC, he could an emergency call-up to the NHL if injuries continue to pile up for the Penguins.

Dominik Uher, RW, Spokane Chiefs
Acquired: 5th round (144th overall) in 2011

Uher exploded offensively at practically the onset of the season, registering a point-per-game through October and November and has carried that momentum into December. He currently has 11 goals and 11 assists through 26 games, putting him at roughly the same pace as last season, though he is on pace to surpass the 30 goal mark.

Possessing decent size and skating ability, Uher projects as a top-nine forward, who while possessing soft hands, will create most of his offense through hard work and physical play.

Named to the Czech Republic‘s preliminary WJC U20 roster, Uher could be putting his talents on display at the international tournament level in late December.


OHL

Scott Harrington, D, London Knights
Acquired: 2nd round (54th overall) in 2011

In his third season with the London Knights, Harrington has seen an expanded role, playing on both special teams and generally seeing more ice time in all situations.

A mobile skater who can aptly distribute the puck up ice, Harrington will never be expected to put up monstrous point totals or become a powerplay quarterback. He does however possess the skill package to be a solid number four defenseman and a top shutdown guy.

Harrington made the final cut of Team Canada’s WJC Roster, where he will likely play a similar shutdown role as he does in London.

Tom Kuhnhackl, RW, Niagara IceDogs
Acquired: 4th round (110th overall) in 2011

The season was supposed to be so much different than this. Traded from the Windsor Spitfires to an already loaded Niagara IceDogs team, sniper Kuhnhackl was expected to play in a top-six role with either center Ryan Strome (NYI) or Freddie Hamilton (SJ) as well as contribute on the powerplay. Instead, in only his second game with the IceDogs, he exploded into an unsuspecting Ryan Murphy (CAR) with a vicious check, giving the defenseman a concussion. The collision was violent enough to warrant a 20-game suspension for Kuhnhackl, not to mention a knee injury himself. Despite the nature of the hit and the ensuring punishment, brute physicality is not the foundation of Kuhnhackl’s game nor is he considered a dirty player.

When he returns, which should be in January, Kuhnhackl will likely have to shake off a little rust. Expect him to however eventually slide into an offensive role with the IceDogs and continue to be a prolific offensive player. The young German is already under contract so expect him to join the Penguins organization professional once his OHL season has ended.

Joe Rogalski, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 6th round (152nd overall) in 2010

Leadership is something that can not be measured by statistics so while Joe Rogalski has managed solid numbers thus far, with five goals and eight assists through 33 games, it is the leadership he brings to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds that makes him a valuable prospect.

Aside from being a quality leader, Rogalski plays a two-way style of defense that can best be described as high-risk/high reward. He loves to jump into the play, get pucks on net, and generally do what he can to contribute in the offensive zone.

Rogalski has yet to be signed to an entry-level deal by the Penguins and with the organization having so few contract spots available, the defenseman will have to be particularly impressive during the second half of the season.

Reid McNeill, D, Barrie Colts
Acquired: 6th round (170th overall) in 2010

After two seasons of playing with his hometown team the London Knights, Reid McNeill found himself traded to the Barrie Colts in the off-season, a move that has proved to be beneficial for the 19-year-old defenseman. McNeill has seen an expanded role defensively, playing more minutes and contributing more offensively. He has also played with a little more physicality in the past. The foundation of his game however will always be steady defensive play.

Like Rogalski, McNeill has yet to be signed to an entry-level deal and will be vying for one of the Pens last available contracts.