Defense reigns in Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2012 Fall Top 20

By Ian Altenbaugh

Brian Dumoulin - Pittsburgh Penguins

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin is one of 12 prospects the Penguins added in the 2012 off-season through either trade, draft, or free agency. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

With the addition of 12 new prospects to the pool, including nine draft picks, the Pittsburgh Penguins underwent a transformative off-season. The organization addressed not only their various weaknesses, but also added substantially to their defensive prospect depth, something that was already a great strength.

"We've got an outstanding group of [NHL] forwards in place for a number of years here (and) we got to make sure they get the puck," said Penguins Assistant Coach Todd Reirden. "We want to make sure we put an emphasis on defensemen that are mobile, who can defend, and can take the place of some of our older defensemen as we move forward here."

Aside from complementing their group of NHL forwards, the stockpiling of mobile defensemen allows the Penguins flexibility to move assets to address other needs. 

"We've wanted to target defensemen and as we've seen, those assets are the most valuable around the [NHL]," said Reirden.

"You take a look at the fact we can move a guy like Alex Goligoski who spent a few years with Dan [Bylsma] and myself in Wilkes-Barre. We were able to turn him into a National Hockey League defenseman and then in exchange we get a forty goal scorer [in James Neal] back and a defenseman in Matt Niskanen, so that's the idea here."

In addition to enviable depth on defense, the Penguins have stockpiled a nice collection of hard-working, talented forwards.

1. (1) Joe Morrow, D, 8.0C
1st round, 23rd overall, 2011

In his first full season as a Penguins prospect, defenseman Joe Morrow quickly emerged as the Penguins top prospect and among the top defensive prospects in the 2011 draft class. Possessing high-end mobility and vision, Morrow quickly made a positive impression with the Penguins organization and almost made the 2011-12 NHL roster out of training camp. Ultimately the Penguins decided to return Morrow to the WHL, where he would anchor the blue line for the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks.

"It was a good experience going back," Morrow said about returning to Portland. "I can't lie to you and say that I didn't wish I stayed [in Pittsburgh] but it was probably for the best. I got to develop with really good coaches and another good year in the league."

A late 1992 birthday, Morrow has already played four full seasons in the WHL, and consequentially can start the 2012-13 season in the AHL despite being only 19 years old. In Portland he played a more individual or less system-oriented brand of hockey, so he is likely to experience some hiccups transitioning to the professional game. That said, as long as he continues to skate with lots of confidence and emphasizes making simple plays up ice, his tenure in the AHL should be relatively short. 

2. (2) Simon Despres, D, 7.5B
1st round, 30th overall, 2009

It is extremely rare for a 21-year-old defenseman to be NHL ready but defenseman Simon Despres is a rare bird among the flock. Possessing a massive 6'4 frame and fluid, mobile skating ability, Despres quickly established himself during the 2011-12 season as a prospect who can one day be a promising shutdown defenseman in the NHL.

"I think when you saw him come up (to the NHL) and play, he showed defensively against good people, good lines, and tough places," said Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma, referring to the 18 regular season games Despres spent in the NHL. "We saw him match up at times against [Alex] Ovechkin and other team's top lines."

As willingly as Bylsma is to heap praise on the young defenseman, he is just as quick to point out Despres remains very raw, particularly on the offensive side of the puck.

"I think Simon is learning the pro game. [He] has to be able to learn how to defend and play in those situations in addition to being obviously a gifted guy with the puck and being able to make plays. Our guys here in Pittsburgh liked Simon as a guy who can make a pass and make a play. I can see him as being a big body guy being able to defend."

During his NHL call-up, Despres was typically paired with former Penguin Zbynek Michalek, though he also managed to appear in three playoff games, where he was often paired with Kris Letang.

"Putting him next to Kris [Letang] you see a formidable pair where you have big-body guys who both can defend, but also guys who have the ability to make a pass, make a play, and add in every category of the game, so it's an intriguing matchup."

Though Despres showed he is capable of playing at hockey's highest stage, his age and contract flexibility, combined with a defensive logjam at the NHL level, all but assure he will start the 2012-13 season in the AHL.

3. (NR) Derrick Pouliot, D, 8.0C
1st round, 8th overall, 2012

Selected in the 2012 NHL Draft with the pick that was part of the return for center Jordan Staal, few if any Penguins prospects will experience the scrutiny that Derrick Pouliot will over the next several years. Playing for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, Pouliot has been a teammate of Joe Morrow for two seasons and the two were frequently partners on the powerplay.

Unlike Morrow however, Pouliot is far away from being NHL ready. Though not big, he possesses a stocky build and thick frame, so size is not a major issue. However, given his penchant for the puck, he will need to get quicker and stronger or otherwise risk getting his head taken off going back for retrievals. He needs to sharpen his defensive game and play grittier as well; two things he believes will come with continued maturity.

Ultimately what type of player Pouliot develops into will largely be determined by how he develops over the next season in the WHL and how the Penguins choose to develop him in the pros. A lot of it will be up to Pouliot as well. If he dedicates himself to conditioning and trying to be a complete player, he could develop into a top-four offensive defenseman similar to current Penguin Kris Letang.

Pouliot will be returning to the WHL to play for the Portland Winterhawks, where he will be expected to take on the leadership role vacated by Morrow.

4. (3) Beau Bennett, RW, 7.5C
1st round, 20th overall, 2010

Though the Penguins have owned arguably the most talented group of centers in the NHL for the past five years, the organization has lacked the means to complement those centers with homegrown talent on the wing. That however might change with the arrival of Beau Bennett, who after two years in the NCAA with Denver, signed a NHL entry-level contract.

"You hear a lot of good things about this guy as a player," said Bylsma. "Certainly he had the [wrist] injury last year. Didn't play a ton of hockey but he's a high-end talented guy that is expected to be able to do that at some point in time." 

The injury Bylsma refers to happened early in the 2011-12 season. Bennett fell on the ice, awkwardly landing on his wrist. After initially trying to play through the pain for several games, he opted for season-ending surgery. He is quick to point out however that the time away from the rink was not wasted.

"I learned a lot, just being away from the game and being in the gym," Bennett said. "It was still a productive year even though I played 10 games."

It was indeed a productive season for Bennett as he added considerable strength and muscle and is now 40 pounds heavier than his draft weight of 170 pounds. Now at a good playing weight for an NHL forward, the next step for Bennett will be to see how his game looks at the professional level and where he fits.

"The one thing that Beau has is the ability to make plays and finish plays offensively in traffic," said Bylsma. "You envision that in him as a pro player. [He is] a guy who you see in a top-six role, with that type of skill and ability. Where Beau is as a professional we're going to see this year in terms of him turning pro."

One thing about Bennett is certain. If his skills translate to the NHL level, he is a lock for an opportunity to play on a line with Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby.

"[Bennett] is a guy that finds open ice. He’s got a great shot, good hands, good release, things like that,” said Player Development Coach Bill Guerin. “He’d be able to make the skill play to get [Crosby] the puck, so he'd be a nice match."

5. (NR) Olli Maatta, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 22nd overall, 2012

A highly regarded European prospect, Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta went through numerous ups and downs in his first season in the OHL. Playing for the London Knights, Maatta initially struggled to adjust to the smaller North American rink and a far more physical brand of hockey. As his rookie season in the OHL continued however, Maatta gradually emerged as one of the top two-way defensemen in the league.

"He's a great two way player," said teammate Scott Harrington, who was occasionally partnered with Maatta on London's second defensive unit. "He's very responsible defensively but he has no problem jumping up in the rush. (He is a) quarterback on the powerplay, which I guess has Penguins defenseman written all over it. He'll definitely transition well to the Penguins game and pick up on the systems quickly."

Maatta will return to the London Knights for the 2012-13 season where he is expected to build off his impressive post-season totals of 23 points in 19 games.

6. (NR) Brian Dumoulin, D, 7.0B
Trade with Carolina Hurricanes, June 22nd, 2012

After winning two Frozen Four championships with Boston College in three years, towering two-way defenseman Brian Dumoulin opted to sign an entry-level contract and begin his professional career. Originally planning on competing for a spot on the Carolina Hurricanes, Dumoulin had aspirations of making the NHL roster out of training camp.

"Obviously that's my goal. If I work as hard as I can hopefully good things will happen for me," Dumoulin said. "I just got to put myself in good position and make sure when the opportunity strikes take full advantage of it."

"[He is] a kid that shows drive, confidence too," said Guerin. "A lot of times a guy that young doesn't necessarily have that confidence or belief that he can play right away. I like to hear that from guys."

Dumoulin believes he has an advantage over many of the other Penguins defensive prospects because Boston College runs similar puck retrievals and breakouts as Pittsburgh.

"They run a similar style to what we did at BC," commented Dumoulin. "I remember sitting in the BC locker room watching a tape on Pittsburgh Penguins and Coach Jerry York saying 'This is how we want to play.'"

Dumoulin will start the 2012-13 season with the Penguins AHL affiliate.

7. (5) Scott Harrington, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2011

Few players at any level are able to consistently draw as much praise from coaches and hockey personnel as defenseman Scott Harrington.

"The guy has had one year as a Pittsburgh Penguin draftee and has had a remarkable hockey season for himself in a lot of different ways," said Bylsma.

A defensive anchor for the London Knights, Harrington played huge top-pairing minutes, often in a shutdown role alongside Jarred Tinordi (MTL). He was also a key defensive cog in a Knights team that was one victory away from winning the 2012 Memorial Cup.

"[He] is so mature for his age when you watch him play,” said AHL assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, who along with much of the Penguins staff, scouted Harrington at the 2012 Memorial Cup. “He’s the kind of guy that does everything well. He is part of the future [and] another huge asset for our team."

What particularly excites the Penguins about Harrington is his ability to quickly comprehend and implement complex defensive systems. The typically modest Harrington however tries to detach himself from any praise he may receive in that regard.

"As long as you're a good skater, comfortable with the puck, and have good hockey sense I think you'll be able to pick it up pretty quick. It's complicated at first but once you get the hang of it, it really makes you look good on the ice."

Only 19 years old, Harrington will return to the London Knights for the 2012-13 season where he expects to fill a large leadership role with the team.

8. (4) Eric Tangradi, LW, 7.0C
Trade with Anaheim Ducks, February 26th, 2009

After two full seasons of going back and forth between the AHL and NHL, winger Eric Tangradi seemed to finally solidify an NHL roster spot mid-way through the 2011-12 season.

Possessing the ideal frame for a power forward, Tangradi spent much of his junior career and early AHL career playing a skill oriented game. He would not play soft, or shy away from contact, but he would not assert himself physically in the offensive zone. Eventually however the Penguins message sunk in and Tangradi started playing with physical vigor every shift he was on the ice. The energy he created led to more ice time and by the end of the 2011-12 season he was a staple on the Penguins fourth line.

Headed into the 2012-13 season, Tangradi seems destined for an expanded role on offense. There is even a likely chance he (along with Beau Bennett) will get an opportunity early on to skate alongside Sidney Crosby.

9. (9) Ben Hanowski, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

In 2011-12 Ben Hanowski finally emerged into an offensive force at the NCAA level. Playing top minutes for the St. Cloud State Huskies, Hanowski managed 23 goals in 39 games including seven powerplay markers.

Though he will be 22 years old at the start of his senior season, Hanowski remains something of a long-term project. He does not possess NHL caliber skating ability and must get a more explosive first step. He also needs to simplify his game and learn to play better without the puck. Finally, like most high-scoring collegiate players, Hanowski must learn how to play more physically, and learn how to better grind it out for the puck.

Hanowski plays both the center and wing position in college though if he ever makes the NHL it will likely be as a winger.

10. (NR) Teddy Blueger, C/LW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012

Having spent the first 14 years of his life in Latvia, Teddy Blueger moved to the United States in 2009 to join Shattuck St. Mary's. In his three years at Shattuck, Blueger amassed 214 points in 158 games. He also represented Latvia twice in 2012, first for the WJC U20s held in Alberta, then the U18s held in the Czech Republic. It was at the U20 tournament in which Blueger had something of a coming out party. Though impressive in many facets of his game, Blueger particularly excelled at faceoffs. He won 57.62 of his draws, second best among players who had over 100 faceoff attempts and good for 12th overall.

Scheduled to attend the Minnesota State University in 2012-13, Blueger remains a very long-term project. He needs to upgrade most aspects of his game, but more importantly needs to prove he can play against bigger, faster competition in the NCAA, let alone the pros. He possesses the silky puck-handling and two-way ability to suggest he could one day develop into an effective top-six center, but that still remains a far ways off.

11. (6) Tom Kühnhackl, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

After a mixed two year career in the OHL, Tom Kuhnhackl will likely join the Penguins AHL affiliate for 2012-13. Possessing soft hands, good vision, and a high hockey IQ, the German-born forward has the tools to potentially develop into a goal-scoring forward at the NHL level. He owns a hard, accurate shot and can effectively get it on net from anywhere on the ice.

There are two major things Kuhnhackl must work on for his game to be effective at the professional level, the first being strength. He does his best work down low and in traffic and must add considerable strength if that is to remain an asset to his game. The other thing Kuhnhackl must do is learn to play more disciplined. He plays with a substantial edge in his game, which is beneficial for a player who does his best work in high traffic areas, but he goes too far on occasions, the most notable being a headshot he delivered on defenseman Ryan Murphy (CAR) last November which for Kuhnhackl resulted in a 20 game suspension and sprained knee.

12. (NR) Oskar Sundqvist, C, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2012

The first Swedish forward drafted by the Penguins since they selected Johannes Salmonsson in 2004, Oskar Sundqvist brings a lot of size and a smattering of skill to the Penguins organization. Playing for Skelleftea's junior program, Sundqvist remains a long-term project. He has impressive size and the wingspan and reach of a pterodactyl.

However, what makes Sundqvist such an intriguing prospect is how he combines all of the aforementioned traits into a nasty, hard to play against package.

The offensive aspect of Sundqvist's game is at this point nearly impossible to project given the lower levels of Swedish hockey he has played at so far. His size, disposition, and on-ice awareness though suggest that offense or not, he possesses a skill-set that is conducive to NHL hockey. Before he can stamp his ticket to the big show however, Sundqvist must adapt to the smaller North American ice surface. He also needs to learn to take fewer penalties, and get more explosive in his first step.

Sundqvist will play for Skellfetea's SuperElit team in 2012-13 though it is also possible he will see some time in the SEL.

13. (10) Ken Agostino, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2010

Having recently finished his sophomore season with Yale, Ken Agostino in many ways embodies what the Penguins look for in their forwards. He possesses enough skill to play on the powerplay, is capable of starting and finishing plays, but what makes him such an appealing prospect, and what he takes pride in the most, is his strong work ethic.

"At Yale our whole culture is work ethic so that's certainly something that head coach [Keith] Allain has instilled in my game," said Agostino.

Combining skill and hard work, Agostino tries to model his game after New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who is widely respected as one of the hardest working players in hockey.

"I love Ryan Callahan's work ethic," he commented. "If you [have that] work ethic you'll be doing alright."

The young forward realizes however, he has a lot of improving to do before he can get to that point in his career.

"For me, one of the biggest areas I need to work on is my d-zone play. That's something I've gotten better at since I've gone to Yale. I feel a lot more comfortable out there and I think my d-zone play has improved tremendously in the past two years [but] that's something I want to keep working on."

Agostino will almost assuredly return to Yale for his junior season but is quick to point out his goal is to make the NHL.

"Whenever you are in a program that has a legitimate shot of every year of winning it's great, but my goal is to be a professional hockey player," he said. "If that opportunity came about, whenever it did, it's something I'd have to seriously consider. But as of now next year I'll be a Yale Bulldog again and I'm really excited for the [2012-13] season. "

14. (NR) Matt Murray, G, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2012

Matt Murray brings a level of physical pedigree to the Penguins goaltending prospect pool that has not been seen since Marc-Andre Fleury was selected first overall in 2003. Standing at 6'4 and possessing exceptionally long arms and legs, Murray also has great athleticism and good down-ice vision.

He is a butterfly goaltender who plays a modern profly style, meaning when he goes down he puts his pads perpendicular to the ice, effectively sealing off the bottom half of the net. It is a style particularly conducive to a player with his long, rangy build, and quick reflexes.

Having played backup at Sault Ste. Marie for two seasons, what Murray needs more than anything is consistent starts. He was briefly the starter in 2011-12 and managed nine wins in 14 starts before the Greyhounds brought in Jack Campbell (DAL) via trade.

"I was playing the best hockey of my career," Murray said. "Then obviously after the trade for Jack my playing time decreased quite a bit. That was a little bit disappointing but I tried to use it as a positive, use it as motivation."

Once relegated to backup duties in early November, he won only four of his next 22 starts. And though he does not make excuses, he does attribute the drop in performance to a lack of consistent starts.

"I thrive on playing as many minutes as I can and playing all the time."

For the 2012-13 season, getting ample starts should not be a concern for Murray. In addition to seeing more playing time, he hopes to improve other parts of his game.

"My footspeed is a really big thing. I think if I can work on my footspeed each and every day and get a little quicker that's going to go a long way to me making the jump [to pros]. Also making my game a little more simple. Controlling rebounds when I can, not having to make too many saves at one time."

15. (7) Robert Bortuzzo, D, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

With 205 AHL regular season games under his belt, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is easily the most experienced prospect in the Penguins pool. Fairly mobile for his 6'4 215 pound frame, Bortuzzo possesses a long reach and active stick which he uses effectively to take away scoring chances for opposing forwards. It is his toughness and willingness to fight however which assures he will eventually see work in the NHL. 

The 23-year-old has completed his third full season in the AHL and is now eligible for waivers, meaning the Penguins will either have to keep him on their 2012-13 NHL roster or risk him getting claimed by another team. Long-term Bortuzzo projects as a tough stay-at-home defenseman similar to Calgary Flames defenseman Cory Sarich. 

16. (19) Dominik Uher, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2011

A relatively low-risk selection in 2011, Dominik Uher blossomed into a dynamic offensive talent in 2012. Thickly built at 6'0 200 pounds, the Czech native gradually learned how to play on the smaller North American ice surface and over the past two seasons, developed into an effective power forward. In 2011-12, he exploded offensively, managing 33 goals and 35 assists in 63 games. Just as impressive as the output was the consistency in which Uher executed it, never going more than two games without registering at least a point, and managing to produce timely offense on both special teams.

Uher projects as a middle of the lineup forward capable of contributing on both special teams and chipping in timely goals. He turns 20 on December 31st, meaning he is eligible to play in the AHL in 2012-13, if that is the route the Penguins decide to take with him.   

17. (18) Josh Archibald, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011

Standing at 5'10 and 181 pounds, Josh Archibald is not a particularly large or imposing figure on the ice. What he lacks in size though, he makes up for in skill and sheer determination.

"He's not a big guy but his skills stand out," said Nasreddine. "I like his compete and that's something that's sometimes left out.

Archibald is particularly effective cycling the puck down low where he uses his soft hands and puck-protection ability to win 50/50 battles and take pucks to the net.

"The way he competes, the way he goes after [pucks], his whole demeanor," Nasreddine added. "You can see the guy is a competitive guy and that's what I appreciate in a player, especially a skilled player."

Archibald remains a long-term project at this point but has the raw skills to develop into an effective middle-of the lineup forward at the NHL level.

18. (NR) Matia Marcantuoni, C/RW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2012

Upon being selected 92nd overall by the host team of the 2012 NHL Draft, Mattia Marcantuoni declared, "I knew that I'd get picked eventually and whoever picked me would be getting a steal."

While a bold claim, his statement was not without substance. Headed into the 2011-12 season, Marcantuoni was one of the top-ranked draft eligible forwards in the OHL, despite missing half of his 2010-11 campaign to various injuries. Combining excellent skating ability with great puck skills, Marcantuoni brings a unique and difficult set of skills to defend against. Intriguing skill package or not, Marcantuoni injured his shoulder in January, effectively ending his season. Combined with some bouts of inconsistency, his draft stock plummeted.

His speed and love of physical play was too much for the Penguins to pass up though, especially in the fourth round.

"We wanted a competitive guy and his name came up for good reasons," said Nasreddine. "His work ethic was there. His compete level was there. That's how guys stand out. If there's a fifty/fifty puck the guy who comes out of the scrum with it will make an impression."

What kind of player Marcantuoni develops into remains to be seen. He first must put together a healthy productive season with the Kitchener Rangers at the OHL level. He does however have the potential to develop into a complementary top-nine forward who blends speed with physicality and good hands around the net. 

19. (16) Nick D'Agostino, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2008

Headed into his senior season with Cornell, Nick D'Agostino has blossomed over the last four years into an excellent two-way defenseman at the NCAA level. Possessing good mobility and a sturdy 6'2 195 pound frame, D'Agostino is the featured defenseman for Cornell, meaning he sees all situations and is the catalyst for their powerplay. He is also smart and steady in his own end and has tendencies towards making the simple play, which will be hugely beneficial for him in transitioning to the pros.

Though he managed eight goals and 12 assists in 34 games, there is uncertainty on whether his production, or lack there of, is a byproduct of the conservative, defensive-first system employed by Cornell. He has good vision and a blistering shot, but his production at even-strength was limited to only two goals and six assists.

Regardless of his long-term offensive upside, D'Agostino projects as a fairly safe prospect in the sense that he plays a simple game, has good skating, and has many of the intangibles required to make an NHL player.

20.  (13) Scott Wilson, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011

One of the last picks of the 2011 NHL Draft, Scott Wilson quickly established himself as a solid offensive talent in the NCAA, managing 16 goals and 22 assists in 37 games as a freshman. A smart two-way forward with good playmaking ability, Wilson was a feature player for the UMass-Lowell River Hawks and, along with a new up-tempo system installed by new head coach Norm Bazin, a major reason why the team went from 2.44 goals per game in 2010-11 to 3.32 the following year.

Wilson remains a long-term project at this point in his hockey career. He has the size and skill to develop into a top-nine forward but must learn how to play more physically and get stronger. Expect him to spend at least one or two more seasons at UMass-Lowell.