The hockey world is bursting with anticipation as the new season dawns, and perhaps the most anticipated player is Pittsburgh’s new young star, Sidney Crosby. When the Penguins made history by drafting the junior sensation, they added another cornerstone to their rebuilding plan.
With time ticking down before training camps open for the 2005-06 season, we take a look at the Top 20 prospects within the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. The addition of Crosby gives the Penguins three of the top seven NHL prospects as rated by Hockey’s Future. Pittsburgh’s top three of Crosby, Russian center Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury have a solid lock on the top of this Top 20 list, and create the platform for Pittsburgh’s NHL line-up in the foreseeable future.
Importantly, this list of prospects is not just top heavy. There is solid talent throughout the Top 20 with prospects like Ryan Whitney and Noah Welch.
Matt Murley and Michael Sivek exit this edition of the Top 20 by passing the age limit, as do Tomas Duba and Guy Lefebvre (see HF prospect criteria). They are joined by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman Ross Lupaschuk who has turned his back on North America to sign in Sweden.
The players making moves up the list include Alex Goligoski, Erik Christensen, Johannes Salmonsson and Ryan Stone, who all had sensational seasons in 2004-05. Shane Endicott returns to the list, as well as newcomer Michael Gergen who was drafted with Pittsburgh’s second choice in the 2005 draft.p>
Key: Rank (previous rank) Name, position
Acquired, height, weight, age
1. (NR) Sidney Crosby, C
1st Round, 1st Overall 2005, 5’11, 193 lbs, 18
Sidney Crosby is the finest talent to arrive on the NHL scene in years and has all the skills to be among the top echelon in the world within a few years. Crosby amazes crowds with plays that only the special few can make.
His arrival in Pittsburgh was met with a media frenzy as the city gears up for the dawn of a new era, the likes of which have not been seen since Mario Lemieux was drafted first overall in 1984. The anticipation of him hitting the ice has also created a massive surge in ticket sales, with the Penguins now likely to sell out almost every home game throughout the season.
Pressure like this would crush a lesser person, but Crosby seems to take it all in his stride. All that is left now is to sign a rookie contract and begin training camp.
2. (1) Evgeni Malkin, C
1st Round, 2nd Overall 2004, 6’3, 180 lbs, 19
Most of the talk around Malkin over the off-season has been whether or not he would make the trip across the pond to make his North American debut this season. Malkin’s contract with his hometown club Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League as well as Russia’s dispute with the IIHF regarding Russian draft picks has ended up preventing him from leaving for at least another season.
Another year in Russia will not do his development or his future with the Penguins any harm in the long term. Still just 19, Malkin will enjoy another season in his hometown where he is a local hero before a likely venture to the NHL in 2006.
There is no doubt that this young man will be a force at NHL level when he does arrive. He possesses fantastic offensive skills but does not shirk on his defensive responsibilities. He has amazing vision and playmaking ability and is becoming more of a physical presence as he grows into his tall frame. As an 18-year-old in 2004-05, Malkin’s 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) meant he finished 24th in league scoring – a terrific effort considering the caliber of player that arrived in the RSL during the lockout. Malkin will now likely take on either the first or second line center role with Magnitogorsk and will get more experience on the power play and the penalty kill.
3. (2) Marc-Andre Fleury, G
1st Round, 1st Overall 2003, 6’2, 172 lbs, 20
The addition of Sidney Crosby to the Penguins may have a very good outcome for Fleury as he approaches his third season as a pro. Touted as the future of the franchise when he was chosen with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft and thrust immediately into the starter’s role on opening night, Fleury has had a great deal of pressure on him. The drafting of Crosby means that a lot of the spotlight moves off Fleury in the short term, perhaps allowing him to knuckle down and work on his game with new Penguins goalie coach Shane Clifford.
More pressure was removed from Fleury when the Penguins pulled off an off-season trade to secure the services of 30-year-old Chicago goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. This puts the organization into a situation where they can send Fleury to Wilkes-Barre for another season and bring him up for short-term spurts in the NHL.
Fleury will be 21 in November and still has a few years before he hits his projected peak. Another season in the AHL will surely help him improve his confidence and he will attempt to break some of the records he set in 2004-05. He played 54 games for the Baby Penguins for a team record 26 wins and five shutouts, but suffered from inconsistency at times. He would want to improve his goals against average of 2.52 and save percentage of .901, but a goaltender with the natural skill of Fleury will improve over time.
4. (3) Ryan Whitney, D
1st Round, 5th Overall 2002, 6’4, 202 lbs, 22
Ryan Whitney was the most impressive rookie on the Wilkes-Barre roster in 2004-05 and will likely get his first shot at the NHL this season. Whitney showed maturity beyond his years as he led all Baby Penguins defensemen in scoring with 41 points (six goals, 35 assists) and was given more responsibility as the season went on after a slow start in his rookie year. Whitney proved excellent on the power play and made fantastic outlet passes to give the team attacking opportunities.
Whitney’s physical game is also improving, which will help him at the top level. The 22-year-old has a smart head on his shoulders and is sure to benefit from rule changes in the NHL that favor the long passing game that he enjoyed in college.
5. (4) Noah Welch, D
2nd Round, 54th Overall 2001, 6’4, 212 lbs, 23
Noah Welch has been a force in his four seasons with the Harvard Crimson, but now faces the new challenge of making it as a pro. Welch has long been heralded as a future top-four defenseman in the NHL after dominating at college level where he was consistently one of the finest blue liners in the NCAA.
Welch will bring those talents to Wilkes-Barre this season where he will continue his focus on his defensive game despite also having an offensive role with Harvard. Welch scored a three-year low 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) last season, as he scaled back his offensive contribution to become Harvard’s most reliable defenseman.
Welch will benefit from minor league seasoning like all defensemen, but already has the size and smarts to make an impact in the NHL. As Welch gets used to the speed of the pro game, don’t be surprised to see him in a Pittsburgh jersey before the season is out.
6. (7) Maxime Talbot, C
8th Round, 234th Overall 2002, 5’11, 176 lbs, 21
Maxime Talbot’s stock has taken another jump after a very impressive rookie campaign at AHL level. A prestigious scorer at junior level, Talbot is learning to adjust his game to suit the pro arena to maximize his chances of NHL success.
Talbot was used mainly on the third line in Wilkes-Barre where he was expected to do all the things that kept the team’s engine running smoothly. Talbot made himself into a serial pest by getting in the faces of his opposition and working hard in the corners and on the back check.
The 21-year-old has a good head on his shoulders and is known as a bit of a character in the locker room. He is believed to be a strong leader who may one day come into captaincy calculations. Talbot is likely to be given another season in the AHL in 2005-06 to continue his development towards a possible future position as Pittsburgh’s third line center behind Crosby and Malkin.
Talbot scored seven goals and 12 assists last season.
7. (5) Colby Armstrong, RW
1st Round, 21st Overall 2001, 6’2, 185 lbs, 22
Colby Armstrong is another Penguins prospect who projects as a reliable role player at NHL level. Armstrong has good speed and vision as well as a decent shot and playmaking ability. Armstrong’s two-way game is his best asset, giving him value at the highest level on the penalty kill and against opposition scoring lines. His frame is still quite light, but it is something he has worked hard at and he does play above his weight on the ice.
The 2001 first rounder had a breakout season in 2004-05, and was frequently used in Wilkes-Barre in important situations on special teams and late in the game. Perhaps most importantly for Armstrong is that he has added a stronger scoring dimension to his game, posting career numbers of 18 goals and 37 assists for 55 points playing on the Baby Penguins second line in all 80 regular season games.
His strong season means he is pressing for a roster spot in Pittsburgh in 2005-06, but faces a tougher battle following the big name signings the Penguins have made.
8. (12) Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C
2nd Round, 31st Overall 2004, 6’2, 183 lbs, 19
The 2005-06 season will prove a turning point in the career of talented Swede Johannes Salmonsson as he makes the move from Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League to the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. The Chiefs selected Salmonsson with the 15th overall selection in the CHL import draft in June, and he is expected to make a big impact in a league where he will be playing against junior players rather than men in the SEL.
After struggling to get any quality minutes in Djurgarden over the last two seasons, Salmonsson relished the opportunity against similar opponents in the most recent World Junior Championships where he starred for a Team Sweden side that struggled overall in the tournament. Salmonsson scored five goals and three assists in six games, impressing Penguins scout Mark Kelley who made this comment to Hockey’s Future: “He has come over here and is playing very well. He works very hard. He’s been very effective on the forecheck, going to the net. He forces things to happen.”
Salmonsson has plenty of offensive skill and an obvious nose for the net. He has good size and speed and shows defensive responsibility. Salmonsson should thrive in the WHL and he is expected to put up some big numbers this season.
9. (6) Sergei Anshakov, LW
Acquired in trade with Los Angeles, 6’4, 196 lbs, 21
There is no doubt that Sergei Anshakov is very skilled, it’s just he doesn’t get much chance to show it. He struggled through 11 scoreless games with CSKA Moscow in the Russian Super League after being forced down the depth chart by the arrival of locked out NHL players, and was shipped off to the struggling Salavat Yulayev. There he was able to get some more quality minutes and ended up scoring nine goals and three assists from 23 games.
With the NHL resuming, Anshakov should get some better opportunities in 2005-06. This may be his last season in Russia as the Penguins may want him to come over with Malkin in 2006 with fingers crossed that they can make Russian magic on the ice in Pittsburgh.
10. (11) Andy Chiodo, G
7th Round, 199th Overall 2003, 5’11, 192 lbs, 22
Andy Chiodo is fast proving himself as a goaltender that can come up with the goods when it matters most. After leading the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to the Calder Cup final in 2004, Chiodo returned to the crease in last season’s playoffs to lead the Penguins to a stunning first-round upset of the top ranked Binghamton Senators.
The only problem is that Chiodo is yet to show consistent good form during the regular season. After struggling through the first couple of months in the AHL last season, Chiodo found himself in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers where he spent the majority of his season. An injury to Dany Sabourin leading into the playoffs earned him a recall and he dethroned Fleury as the Penguins go-to guy in net with some more clutch post-season play.
The fan favorite will again face tough opposition for the starter’s job in Wilkes-Barre in 2005-06, with Fleury, Sebastien Caron and the re-signed Sabourin all in the mix. Chiodo was given a brief taste of the NHL in the pre-lockout season, where he won three of his eight starts, including the win which ended the franchise record losing streak.
11. (9) Michel Ouellet, RW
4th Round, 124th Overall 2000, 6’1, 201 lbs, 23
After a fantastic start to his second AHL campaign in 2004-05, it looked as though Ouellet would almost certainly graduate to the NHL this season. He scored 30 goals before the All-Star break to lead the entire league and was on pace to exceed 55 goals before the season was out. If the lockout hadn’t prevented play at the top level last season, Ouellet may already have some NHL games on his resume.
Instead, Ouellet went on a devastating goalless streak, scoring just once more over the remaining 30 games and putting doubt on his immediate NHL future. Despite that bad run, Ouellet has improved his game in all the right areas. His skating and defensive work are much better, but he will need to regain his scoring touch before getting his chance. A true sniper through his entire junior and pro career, Ouellet may be the type of player who would relish the chance to play with the more accomplished playmakers found in the NHL. He is likely to start the season in Wilkes-Barre again, but will get his chance if he can find the back of the net on a regular basis.
12. (16) Alex Goligoski, D
3rd Round, 61st Overall 2004, 5’11, 180 lbs, 20
Alex Goligoski has proven one of the surprise packets of the Penguins stable after a sensational freshman season with the University of Minnesota in 2004-05. A surprise third round selection in the 2004 draft out of high school, Goligoski approached his freshman year aware that he was stepping into one of the finest teams in the NCAA and may have to bide his time before getting quality minutes. Instead, the offensive defenseman proved to be an instant hit, and was among the team’s top scorers for the majority of the season. He finished second amongst defensemen with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) from just 33 games.
His form was rewarded when he made his international debut with Team USA at the World Junior Championships. His opportunities were limited in the tournament and he finished with just the one assist, but performed admirably.
His skill with the puck makes him a valuable member of the Gopher power play, and is sure to earn more minutes in his sophomore campaign. His frame is still light, and he will need to bulk up over the next season or two before making the jump to the pro game.
13. (18) Ryan Stone, C
2nd Round, 32nd Overall 2003, 6’1, 205 lbs, 20
Ryan Stone is another player stepping into the pro arena this season who will be expected to adjust his style from his high-scoring junior days. Stone took on the top-line center role for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL last season and smashed his career numbers with the help of linemate and Washington Capitals prospect Eric Fehr. Stone will be on a much tighter leash in Wilkes-Barre or Wheeling where he will be expected to take on a checking role.
Certainly his offensive talents are an advantage, but don’t expect Stone to get anywhere near the 99 points (33 goals, 66 assists) he scored with the Wheat Kings last season, although he may get some chances with some good talent on his wings if he gets a lot of games in Wilkes-Barre.
In the long term, Stone faces an uphill battle to make it to Pittsburgh where the depth at center could force some great talent out of the organization.
14. (13) Paul Bissonnette, D
4th Round, 121st Overall 2003, 6’3, 210 lbs, 20
Paul Bissonnette is a no-nonsense defenseman out of the OHL who is looking ahead to his first pro season in 2005-06. He should make a good impact at minor league level with his strong body play and ability to deliver the outlet pass when necessary. He uses his size well (6’3, 210 lbs) by blocking the scoring lanes and fighting for the puck in the corners, and can deliver some punishing hits on the ice.
Bissonnette found himself a victim of a struggling Saginaw Spirit team at the beginning of the 2004-05 season, scrambling to just seven points and a -19 rating in only 28 games. A change of scenery was the best thing for him, and a trade mid-season to the Owen Sound Attack paid immediate dividends. He played much better after his arrival there, moving his rating to +1 and he scoring 13 points (2 goals, 11 assists) in 35 games.
Bissonnette’s likely destination this season is Wilkes-Barre if his first training camp two years ago is anything to go by. He went deep into camp mere months after being drafted in 2003, so expect a good performance from him again.
15. (19) Matt Moulson, LW
9th Round, 263rd Overall 2003, 6’1, 212 lbs, 21
Cornell’s Matt Moulson is looking like a late-round gem as he develops into one of the best all-round forwards in the Ivy League. A ninth round pick in 2003, Moulson led his team in scoring for the second consecutive season in 2004-05, setting career marks on the way with 22 goals and 20 assists in 34 games.
Moulson has shown that he can lead a team offensively and taking the responsibility that comes with that role. He is also good defensively and his work in the important games helped take Cornell to the Ivy League and ECACHL Championship. He will now take those leadership skills into the role as captain of the Big Red in 2005-06 as he enters his senior season.
Expect Moulson to grab the captaincy by the horns and lead Cornell to another great season. He will certainly be signed by the Penguins following his senior year and step into a role in the AHL in 2006-07.
16. (20) Erik Christensen, C
3rd Round, 69th Overall 2002, 6’1, 190 lbs, 21
Erik Christensen will approach his second year in pro hockey with a lot of confidence after an impressive second half to his rookie campaign in 2004-05. The 21-year-old Edmonton native had the typical troubles of a junior thrust into the pro game and struggled to make an impact at the beginning of the season. He spent the majority of time in that early period on the fourth line in Wilkes-Barre, but injuries to key players gave him opportunities on scoring lines and on the power play as the season went on. This is where Christensen played his best hockey as he is one of the most skilled players in the team with his blinding speed and clever puckhandling.
Christensen finished with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) as a rookie which put him 11th in team scoring and second amongst rookies. He also proved a bit of a shootout expert, tallying five times in 12 attempts.
This season Christensen will look to solidify his position in the organization by having another strong year in Wilkes-Barre where he is likely to see a lot more ice time on one of the top two lines.
17. (10) Ben Eaves, C
4th Round, 131st Overall 2001, 5’8, 180 lbs, 23
The 2005-06 season is the most important of Eaves’ career thus far as he aims to prove he can compete at the pro level. After making his debut for the Wheeling Nailers midway through last season after recovering from knee surgery, Eaves was quickly added to the squad at Wilkes-Barre. He took on the fourth line center role at first before being moved onto Maxime Talbot’s wing due to the overflow of centers at the Baby Penguins.
Standing at just 5’8, Eaves struggled early on with the size and pace of the players and made little impact in his first few months. Eaves was eventually made a healthy scratch, forcing him to go back to the drawing board and assess his game.
When Eaves did return he showed signs of improvement and added confidence, which can only assist him going into this season. His most impressive game of the season may have been the Penguins triple overtime thriller against the Binghamton Senators in the first round of the playoffs, where Eaves’ pace and energy caused havoc on a tired Senators defense.
Eaves will enter the season healthy, which will also be a huge advantage as he looks to improve on his rookie total of 10 points (four goals, six assists) from 43 games.
18. (NR) Michael Gergen, LW
2nd Round, 61st Overall 2005, 5’10, 185 lbs, 18
Michael Gergen will step out of the high school system which he has dominated and into the new challenge of NCAA hockey in 2005-06. The Penguins’ second choice in the 2005 draft, Gergen projects as a skilled power forward who may one day compliment a scoring line in Pittsburgh.
Gergen has good skating and vision, but will be challenged by a new level of hockey where he won’t be able to score 60 plus goals and dominate physically. He is still relatively small, but four years in college will help that and the Michael Gergen that will come out the other side of the Minnesota-Duluth program should be a force to be reckoned with.
19. (17) Daniel Fernholm, D
4th Round, 101st Overall 2002, 6’5, 230 lbs, 21
North Americans will now get a chance to see this big Swedish defenseman who has just signed to come over and join the Penguins for training camp. Fernholm has spent the last two seasons playing in the Swedish Elite League with Djurgarden where he showed maturity beyond his 21 years.
The main reason Fernholm is able to compete at the top level in Sweden is because of his size. Listed at 6’5 and 220 pounds, Fernholm can dominate physically against players much older and more experienced than he.
Fernholm also spent seven games playing for Bolzano in Italy when the influx of NHL players into the Swedish league pushed him out of the line-up on occasions. He played 38 games in total split between Sweden and Italy, compiling seven points (three goals, four assists). Fernholm’s destination for his rookie season will depend on his training camp performance, although he may end up splitting time between Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre.
20. (NR) Shane Endicott, C
2nd Round, 52nd Overall 2000, 6’4, 214 lbs, 23
Evgeni Malkin’s decision to remain in Russia this season could give Shane Endicott his ticket to the NHL. A strong season in Wilkes-Barre where he centered one of the top two lines means Endicott has manoeuvred himself into a position where a strong training camp could catapult him into Pittsburgh.
Endicott raced away to lead the Baby Penguins in scoring before a broken finger put him out of the line-up. His form was not as good upon his return, but the style of game he plays is suited to a third or fourth line center in the NHL. Endicott has good size and strength and plays both ends of the ice. He can deliver an excellent pass and score the clutch goal. He had a limited effect in his four career NHL games back in 2001-02 but will be 24 years old in December and has a wiser head on his shoulders.
Missing the Cut
Stephen Dixon, C
7th Round, 229th Overall 2003, 6’0, 200 lbs, 20
Stephen Dixon racked up plenty of points in junior but will fit into a checking role as a pro in 2005-06. Despite going at over a point-per-game pace over the last three seasons with his Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL, Dixon was selected for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships as the fourth line checking center, beating out Ryan Stone in the process.
Jonathan Filewich, RW
3rd Round, 70th Overall 2003, 6’2, 200 lbs, 20
Jonathan Filewich had a strong final season in junior but will need to prove he can bring that to the pro game and that he is not just a one-season wonder. He hit a career-high of 42 goals and 80 points in 2004-05 with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the WHL and also has a good strength element to his game. Filewich will join either Wilkes-Barre or Wheeling in 2005-06.
Nick Johnson, RW
3rd Round, 67th Overall 2004, 6’1, 183 lbs, 19
Nick Johnson comes into Top 20 contention thanks to an outstanding freshman season in 2004-05. Thrust into a more responsible role after a long-term injury to New York Rangers prospect Hugh Jessiman, Johnson became a key member of a Dartmouth team that was in strong contention for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
He finished the season with 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists) from as many games, making him the fifth highest scoring freshman in points per game in the country.
Ryan Lannon, D
8th Round, 239th Overall 2002, 6’2, 220 lbs, 22
Ryan Lannon will take his brand of no nonsense hockey into the pro arena this season as he looks to continue his good form that led him to his best season in 2004-05. Lannon plays the type of game that tends to go unnoticed by those outside his Harvard teammates as he concentrates solely on the defensive end. His valuable contribution was recognized last season when he was named as part of the All-Ivy League second team and named by leading college hockey website USCHO.com as the Unsung Hero of the year.
Lannon has been teammates with Noah Welch for the last four years but may find himself in Wheeling to begin the season in 2005.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.