The Pittsburgh Penguins organization injected their prospect pool with a massive amount of talent at every level this past off-season and will consequentially head into the 2012-13 season with many questions. There will be eight new additions to their minor-league roster, but there will also be many eyes on 2012 first round draft picks Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maata, both of whom recently signed entry-level contracts.
Below are some of the more intriguing stories headed into the 2012-13 season:
Though the Penguins have several top prospects with professional experience, Simon Despres might be the most valuable. Possessing a thick 6'4 frame, great mobility, and good puck distribution, Despres has the tools to be a top four defenseman who can provide offense from the back end, play on both special teams, and use his skating and size to shutdown opposing forwards. He is also not afraid to play physically and is quite skilled at throwing hip checks.
On most other teams Despres would be fast-tracked to the NHL, as he has little left to prove in the minors. However, because Pittsburgh is fairly deep with mobile defensemen, he would have spent most of 2012-13 in the AHL regardless of a lockout.
Unsigned for 2013-14
Alex Grant, D, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
After two fairly unremarkable seasons split between the AHL and ECHL, Alex Grant exploded offensively in 2011-12, managing 10 goals and 27 assists in 61 AHL games. By the end of the season, Grant was leader of the powerplay and worked his way into the top four defensive rotation. For the 2012-13 season, Grant will have to not only replicate his production from the previous season, but be a more dominant all-around defender. Recently re-signed to a one-year deal, Grant will be a restricted free agent in 2013-14, and with so many defensemen in the Penguins' system, several of which are scheduled to go pro in 2013-14, he must make his mark this coming season or risk no longer being a part of the Penguins' long-term plans.
Eric Tangradi, RW/LW, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
By the end of the 2011-12 seaason, Eric Tangradi appeared to have finally cemented a spot in the NHL lineup. Playing mostly on the fourth line in his 24 NHL games last year, Tangradi slowly developed into the type of player who is able to make an impact every shift he played. He also dramatically improved his ability to play on the forecheck and on many occasions helped generated scoring opportunities from behind and around the net.
The next step in Tangradi's development is to start converting the chances he gets into points, a task that could be made significantly easier if he finds chemistry with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. That is of course assuming there will be some sort of NHL season in 2012-13.
The Penguins have numerous defensemen with good pedigree but none at the Canadian Major Junior level can match the overall potential of defenseman Derrick Pouliot. Brimming with poise, Pouliot is equally adept at passing and rushing the puck up ice and does an excellent job of putting his teammates in a position to score. He also possesses good skating ability and plays a solid game in the neutral and defensive zones of the ice. Headed into the 2012-13 season, Pouliot will look to round out his defensive game, develop more explosiveness, and become a leader for a Winterhawks team that recently shed several veterans.
Riding a wave of confidence that saw him manage 23 points in 19 OHL playoff games, Olli Maatta seems poised for a breakout offensive season in 2012-13. The Finnish-born Maatta struggled at points in 2011-12, his first season in North America, as the smaller ice surface and physical style of play were two things he was not accustomed to. As the season wore on though, he grew more comfortable and improved to the point where he was at times dominant for the London Knights, especially during the post-season.
Maatta will be hard pressed to replicate the prolific pace he set during the playoffs, but a substantial jump in his offensive totals should be expected, especially with him likely seeing more time on the powerplay.
Matia Marcantuoni, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Once thought to be a potential first-round talent for the 2012 NHL Draft, Marcantuoni suffered a shoulder injury early in the 2011-12 season and saw his season end after only 24 games. A world class skater who possesses blistering acceleration and strong power skating ability, Marcantuoni also possesses a strong compete level and above average offensive talents.
Expect the 18-year-old forward to start the 2012-13 season highly motivated. He needs to play a full, healthy season, but also must bring more consistency to his game, something that was occasionally lacking in prior years.
Top Amateur Prospect
Ben Hanowski, C/W, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted in 2009 as a scoring forward, Ben Hanowski needed two full seasons of college hockey before he finally exploded offensively as junior in 2011-12, managing 43 points in 39 games. Now headed into his senior season, there are no longer questions surrounding his offensive ability, instead only as to whether or not that talent can translate to the professional level.
Playing both center and wing for St. Cloud, Hanowski has demonstrated excellent offensive awareness and soft hands in tight. He is particularly effective on the powerplay, where managed seven goals and 10 assists, but is dynamic enough of a player to be able to produce in even strength situations both off the rush and through cycling the puck.
Expect the Penguins to sign him as soon as his amateur hockey career has ended.
Unsigned for 2013-14
Alex Velischek, D, Providence College Friars (Hockey East)
It has been a somewhat tumultuous amateur playing career for Alex Velischek. After a fairly non-descript freshman year, he left Providence eight games into his sophomore season, citing differences in how he was played. Velischek returned for his junior season and while he saw an increase in ice time, the results were not much better.
Providence owns an anemic offense and their combined record over the past three seasons is 32-58-16, so Velischek's numbers (21 points in 75 games) and performance have not always been indicative of his talent. That being said, he must have a stellar senior year or risk being the odd man out of a very deep defensive pool in Pittsburgh.
Freshman to Watch
Teddy Blueger, C/W, Minnesota State Mavericks (WCHA)
It is rare for a freshman forward to make a significant offensive contribution but Teddy Blueger is a rare type of talent. Possessing sublime puck-moving abilities, Blueger is an industrious forward with natural hockey talent that can not be taught. However, it is his excellence in faceoffs and foundation of good fundamental hockey that will allow him to make a quicker impact than some freshman.
Even if Blueger does not see much time in a scoring role in 2012-13, he has the mean streak and defensive awareness to be a solid checking forward.
The Penguins do not commonly draft players out of Europe but it is easy to see why they took a risk on the rangy Sundqvist. Hailing from Skelleftea's junior program, Sundqvist plays a power forward style of game but also has good offensive instincts and soft hands. At this point however he remains a long-term project. The first time he played any sort of substantial amount of time on a North American ice surface was during the Penguins 2012 prospect development camp. Before he can start adapting to the North American game however, he needs to simplify his game, take fewer penalties, and excel at higher levels of Swedish hockey.