2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins Youth Movement I: The Forwards
The 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins will, most certainly, be one of, if not the youngest teams in the NHL. They have shed most of their more experienced and more pricey veteran players in favor of youth and have, finally, embraced the inevitable rebuilding of the franchise. Let’s hope the Penguins commit to this youth movement, rather than saturating the club with mediocre veterans, as has been the case the past two years. Errors of youth are far easier to swallow than failures of mediocrity. Thus far, management is going about it the right way. All of the deals made at the 2003 trade deadline, save one, strengthened the already impressive foundation of prospects in the franchise. An argument can be made that the franchise lacks the one clear superstar. However, those have been few and far between for every team over the last decade. Indeed, there are always more first round busts than success stories.
Suffice it to say, there will be few familiar faces on the 2003-04 club who began the previous campaign with the Pens. Following is a look at many of the forwards in the Penguins system and their possible place in the near-future of the club:
Eric Meloche – Gilles’ son has a shot to make the club and, despite my misgivings, has made an impact since his recall in the latter stages of this season. He will be 27 when he returns to camp in 2003, so he can hardly be considered a youngster (by NHL standards), though his NHL experience is very limited. His inability to improve his scoring touch despite three seasons in the AHL, all of which with considerable ice time, doesn’t bode well, though his speed is top notch.
Rico Fata – His play of late has been very impressive, he may have finally found some patience (think he was watching Mario?) to go with that blazing speed. If so, watch out. He’s ready to be a second line right winger in the NHL and will get his shot to be just that with the Penguins.
Milan Kraft – Krafty showed flashes of brilliance this season and I believe he’s ready to put it all together. With improved skating and a 215 lb frame, he’ll be formidable. He could get his shot at centering the top line between Straka and Morozov in 2003-04. It’ll be about time.
Ramzi Abid – The kid wasn’t healthy when the Pens acquired him. When this 210lber comes to camp next year, he will make an immediate impact with his forechecking and strength in front of the net. He’s ready to be the second line left winger, and will not disappoint.
Matt Bradley – Bradley will impress with his size and strength, though he’ll need to shake off some rust this summer after missing much time with an injured wrist. A third or fourth line right winger with attitude is his projection. He’ll fit in well.
Kris Beech – It’s time KB made his mark. He’ll come to camp at 210-215lbs, that’s a good sign. He is beginning to dominate at the AHL level which, I strongly feel, is a necessity for a kid to accomplish before being expected to produce at the NHL level. Beech will be given the shot to be either a second or third line centerman in 2003-04. That, and we need to see a return on the Jagr trade…now.
Michal Sivek – See Kris Beech…ditto.
Matt Murley – After a slow start in his first pro season in Wilkes-Barre, Murley displayed both a maturity and play-making ability that surpassed most of his peers. He can score, forecheck, fight, his game really lacks nothing but pro experience. His frame can easily carry 200lbs, and with the added strength he is ready to become a second or third line NHL left winger.
Tom Kostopoulos – TK doesn’t have the greatest wheels, but has this guy taken so much as a single shift off in his entire life? That kind of energy is both invaluable and contagious. He forechecks, takes the body, is responsible defensively, will fight when necessary, he’s an ideal fourth liner or 13th forward. However, his contract is up this summer and the jury is still out on whether TK will return to the Penguins. Indeed, it is time to either give him his NHL shot here or let him seek it elsewhere.
Guillaume Lefebvre – It wouldn’t hurt this kid to start the season in WB/S. He has been impressive since his acquisition – like so many of the other youngsters that were called up, Lefebvre started with a flash – but he has yet to establish a consistent scoring touch at even the AHL level. Let him work on that there. He is not far from being a solid, NHL caliber two-way forward.
Tomas Surovy – Like Lefebvre, it wouldn’t hurt Surovy to start in WB/S. His initial rush of adrenaline (and his goals) after his call-up was refreshing, but he began to lose many physical battles as the season wore on. Adding some bulk to his 190lb frame and learning how to use it would benefit this very promising prospect immensely. At about 200lbs, Surovy will be scary.
Konstantin Koltsov – The wheels, oh my, the wheels. When his hands catch up to them, watch out. But they need to catch up, and another season in WB/S is the place for them to do it.
Shane Endicott – When he’s done, at 6’4″, he’ll be about 220-225lbs. This kid is still very young and growing into his huge frame. It always takes the bigger guys longer to develop, learning to play with an additional ½ inch of height and five pounds every summer can really discombobulate a kid! Endo will get there, but he’ll need another season in WB/S to do it. His projection as a solid two-way NHL forward isn’t unrealistic by any means.
Ryan Malone – He’ll be nearly 24 yrs-old as a rookie, and a dangerous one at that. He goes to the net with the zeal of impunity and can finish, and led St. Cloud State in PIMs this season. With his maturity, scoring ability and grit, Malone’s got a real head start on the pro learning curve.
Erik Christensen – The WHL scoring champ will make an impact. But he’ll be a very young rookie, he’ll need at least one full season in WB/S to get a feel for pro hockey.
Toby Petersen – Toby may not have a place in Pittsburgh, but he is captain material in WB/S. Whether his contract is renewed or not remains to be seen. His attitude is beyond reporach.
Michel Ouellet, Steve Crampton, Zenon Konopka, Matt Hussey & Jim Abbott will all make solid contributions to the franchise’s farm system.
Maxime Talbothad an excellent third season in junior and has one year of junior eligibility left of which he, and the Penguins, would be best served to make use.
Ben Eaves is a Hobey Baker candidate as a junior in college and, as with Talbot, would be advised to utilize his one final season of amateur eligibility.
Patrick Bartschi also had an excellent 2002-03. He’s a solid 200lbs despite being only 5’10”. That said, the Penguins feel that he needs to be a bit more explosive in his attack before coming to North America. As he’s very young, another season in Switzerland won’t stunt his development.