Pittsburgh Penguins 2012 draft preview

By Ian Altenbaugh
Penguins defenseman Scott Harrington at 2011-12 NHL training camp.

Photo: Selected 54th overall in 2011, Scott Harrington was one of the first players in his draft class to sign an entry-level contract. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

 

The Pittsburgh Penguins will be hosting the 2012 NHL Draft and, following another early playoff exit, rumors surrounding the future of some of their key players is once again a hot topic. Seemingly not to be outdone by the Rick Nash trade rumors which have reignited over the past two weeks, members of the local and national media have started to rampantly speculate over the future of Penguins center Jordan Staal. 

It would be a surprise to see the Penguins make much in the way of big moves on draft day, however. They have traditionally been low-key in their draft-day trades and this year should be no exception. Unlike the 2011 NHL Draft host team, the Minnesota Wild, the Penguins have no need to shake up their current roster. They have not had a losing season since 2005-06, and following a new CBA, the organization intends to lock-up many of their young players for the long-term.

Top 10 Prospects:

1. Joe Morrow, D
2. Simon Despres, D
3. Beau Bennett, RW
4. Eric Tangradi, RW/LW
5. Scott Harrington, D
6. Tom Kühnhackl, RW/LW
7. Robert Bortuzzo, D
8. Brian Strait, D
9. Ben Hanowski, C/W
10. Ken Agostino, LW/RW

Teem Needs

The Penguins already addressed one of their primary needs in trading for and subsequently signing former Washington Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun. A veteran of over 10 seasons, Vokoun should provide an adequate presence to not only backup starter Marc-Andre Fleury but push him if he falters. Fleury has played over 65 games in his past three seasons and has typically been fatigued by the time the post-season rolls around, so figure for Vokoun to see more starts than previous backup Brent Johnson.

The Penguins other need is another defenseman who can play smart and physical in his own zone, although in fairness, the same could probably be said for several other teams in the NHL. Brooks Orpik is among the most physical defensemen in the NHL, but the only other feared presence on the Penguins blue line is Deryk Engelland, who is prone to turnovers and, in terms of his overall quality of play, is more of a number seven defenseman rather than a six. It is unlikely the Penguins will address this need, however, as they already have six defensemen on NHL deals and will almost assuredly re-sign restricted free agent Matt Niskanen.

The Penguins owned the best offense in the NHL by a significant margin last season, but if Jordan Staal is to remain a third-line center for the team, they need to surround him with slightly more talent. Not a significant upgrade, but perhaps someone who can create more offense off the rush and better complement Staal's size and offensive gifts.

Organizational Strengths

Since GM Ray Shero took over in the Spring of 2006, the Penguins have been one of the best teams in the NHL at developing two-way defensemen. Whether it is draft picks like Joe Morrow or Simon Despres, or free agent signings such as Engelland and Ben Lovejoy, the organization has been able to consistenty provide an affordable group of homegrown blueliners for the NHL squad, a crucial need for a team with much of their cap space tied up in a small group of forwards. Among those ready to take the next step are Despres, Brian Strait, and Robert Bortuzzo, all of whom saw some time in the NHL this past season. Dynamic two-way defenseman Joe Morrow possesses NHL-caliber skating and puck distribution but could benefit from at least a year in the AHL.

Another strength of the organization is their ability to develop bottom-six forwards. Last year, Joe Vitale made a name for himself as a physical, reliable NHL player and several players such as Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi are poised to do the same in 2012-13.

Organizational Weaknesses

The Penguins are seemingly incapable of drafting and developing a complementary winger for their trio of star centers. Beau Bennett was drafted in 2010 in hopes to be just that and while he has recently signed an entry-level deal, he has a long way to go to be an NHL forward.

In general the Penguins are not particularly successful at developing top-nine offensively minded forwards. Part of it is by design, as they tend to identify and develop defensive and two-way talent in the minor-leagues, and some is due to bad luck, as many of their most talented forward prospects such as Tangradi and Jeffrey have suffered serious injuries. But it is nonetheless an issue they are seemingly unable to fix. Furthermore, they seem to value players who perhaps play a more team oriented style of game over those with impressive individual talents.

Draft Tendencies

The Penguins have selected 20th or lower in the first round of the last five drafts and have traditionally taken the player they view to be the best available on their draft board. The organization also drafts for needs in the later rounds, though they do not allow a particular need to prevent them from taking a player they highly regard.

There is a perception that the Penguins do not draft Europeans, or rather hold a preference towards North American players, but if they do, it is no greater than the majority of teams in the NHL. They have drafted at least one European born player in the last four drafts.

The Penguins only real bias is towards players who are very good at playing within a team or a system, rather than individual talents. Defenseman Scott Harrington, a second round pick from 2011, is a perfect example of this. Taken 54th overall, there were numerous players available in the draft who were perceived to have a higher skill level than Harrington. The defenseman proved to be an exceptionally quick study, however, absorbing the Penguins system and style of defensive play during their prospect camp, and was one of the first picks of the 2011 draft to earn an entry-level deal.

The Penguins have the 22nd, 52nd, 83rd, 92nd, 113th, 143rd, and 173rd picks in the 2012 NHL Draft. It will be the third time under Shero the Penguins had a pick in each of the first three rounds.

Hockey's Future Staff Mock Draft Results:

No. 22: Brady Skjei, D, USNDTP

Arguably the best pure skater in the 2012 draft, Skjei brings the combination of size, skating, and puck distribution the Penguins can not seem to get enough of.  In many regards he is very similar to Penguins prospect Simon Despres. He does not play a particularly physical brand of hockey at this point in his development, but with the proper mindset can be absolutely punishing. He also has a wide wingspan and is good at getting the puck up ice. He is very raw at this point, so the kind of defenseman he ultimately could develop into is hard to tell. He does possess the ability to be a top-four defenseman capable of playing both special teams, however.

Written by Ian Altenbaugh