Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)
The inaugural edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect awards reflects the values the organization espouses with their drafting and player development. They look for players of high character who are smart, well conditioned, willing to sacrifice themselves physically, and able to play well within a heavily structured team game. The organization also values defenseman over all other positions, believing that defensive prospects are the hardest to identify and develop.
Prospect of the Year: Joe Morrow, D, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
While many Penguin prospects improved their stock this past season, none did so as much as defenseman Jo Morrow. Almost making the Penguins NHL squad out of training camp, Morrow was eventually returned to the WHL where he was a key part of a Winterhawks team that went 49-19-3-1 and scored almost 100 more goals than they allowed.
The obvious indicator of Morrow's success this season is his 17 goals and 47 assists in 62 games, second most among defensemen in the WHL. He also however ratcheted up his physical play and has become a better all-around defenseman.
Morrow has nothing left to prove at the Canadian junior level and will join the Penguins organization in 2012-13.
Most Improved Prospect: Ben Hanowski, C/W, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Hanowski exploded offensively in his junior year with St. Cloud State after two relatively quiet seasons. Coming out of the Minnesota High School hockey ranks, Hanowski had to adjust to playing around half of every game in high school to fewer but more intense minutes in the NCAA. It took him awhile to make the adjustment but it seems to have finally paid off as he looks like the offensive player the Penguins had hoped for when they drafted him in 2009.
Though 2011 pick Joe Morrow may have the greater overall upside, Despres is the only defenseman in the Penguins system who brings the unique combination of size, skating, and innate defensive zone awareness. He had numerous cups of coffee during the 2011-12 NHL regular season and will likely get more next year, as he tries to fight his way up a deep Penguin defense.
The Penguins seem to value character and hard work more than just about any other trait in their prospects so there are numerous players quite deserving of this honor. Still, few have had to climb as big of a mountain as Czech forward Dominik Uher.
Just three years ago Uher was playing Czech junior hockey for HC Trinec. He couldn't speak English and was contemplating the merits of leaving his friends and family to travel across the world and play Canadian junior hockey. So far the decision has paid off as Uher, who now speaks English fluently, exploded offensively in 2011-12, posting 33 goals and 35 assists in 63 games. He did so as a model of productivity too, never going more than two games without a point.
Almost making the Penguins NHL roster out of training camp, Morrow has continued to prove that he is force to be reckoned with along the blue line. He is tough, mobile, and an excellent puck-distributor. But probably his most noticeable trait is his hard, heavy shot from the point. It is accurate enough for him to have scored 17 goals this season but more importantly, comes off his stick with great force, creating rebound opportunities for teammates.
Fastest Skater: Josh Archibald, W, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (WCHA)
The Penguins tend to favor strong, mobile skaters over pure straight-line burners, as their forwards not only need to be able to win footraces to the puck, but also skate backwards and quickly pivot. Consequentially there are no players in the system with blazing, breakaway speed. There are however several players, Archibald being the most prominent, who possess a strong enough second gear that he can gain separation on opposing forwards and defensemen. Among the other Penguins prospects who are strong, swift skaters are Beau Bennett, Simon Despres, and Joe Morrow.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Beau Bennett, RW, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Bennett epitomizes the concept of a high risk/reward prospect. He is immensely talented, a good skater with soft hands, and has a brilliant mind for the game. He can play at a high speed and is one of the few forward prospects the Penguins have who can theoretically keep up with superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So why is he such a risky venture? Injuries. Simply put Bennett can't stay healthy. He has appeared in just 47 college hockey games over the past two seasons, missing time to a sprained MCL, a broken wrist, and later surgery to repair that wrist.
There is some belief that the injuries which seemed too follow him through college were the result of bad luck and not Bennett being more genetically prone to injuries. Only time can determine whether that is actually the case or not.
Overachiever: Scott Wilson, RW, UMass-Lowell River Hawks (Hockey East)
To say that Wilson overachieved does not give the young forward enough credit for his spectacular freshman season. On the other hand, he will be expected to at least match, if not surpass his freshman totals of 16 goals and 22 assists through 37 games. Though it will be a difficult feat to accomplish, Wilson is the key cog in UMass-Lowell's offense, so the opportunities will be there for him to capitalize on.
Kuhnhackl was traded from the Windsor Spitfires to the Niagara IceDogs early in the season and while he was solid in the offensive zone, he struggled to produce. In early November he collided with Ryan Murphy (CAR) in a brutal fashion, injuring his knee and Murphy's head in the process. Kuhnhackl would get suspended for 20 games because of that hit though it was believed he would have missed around that amount of time anyway because of a knee injury he sustained in the collision. Regardless, he returned in early January and produced seven goals and 17 assists in 28 games, off pace his previous season totals but a vast improvement from the beginning of the season.
It may have been a mostly disappointing 2011-12 season for Tangradi, but he seems to have finally carved out a spot on the Penguins NHL roster, no easy task given the obvious preference the coaching staff has towards veteran forwards. Granted it was as a fourth-line forward, but Tangradi nonetheless created energy most shifts he played, played physical, and created offensive chances off the cycle. For the 2012-13 season, the goal for Tangradi will be to start producing offensively. If he can do that, then he could become a key contributor to the Penguins lineup.