Pittsburgh Penguins own enviable depth on defense

By Ian Altenbaugh

Ben Hanowski - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Winger Ben Hanowski is just one of several talented forward prospects the Penguins have at the NCAA level. (Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

Over the past four seasons the Pittsburgh Penguins organization has made a concerted effort to draft quality defensemen and now boasts one of the deepest groups of defensive prospects in the NHL. Their forward depth, while not as impressive as the defense, has also come a long way and now has quality prospects at every position.

Most of the prospects in the pool are fairly versatile as well, as the forwards can typically play more than one position and all of the skaters are capable of filling a variety of different roles.

Left Wing

Eric Tangradi, at 23 years old, is the greybeard among the Penguins forward prospects, with over three years of pro experience. If not for the NHL lockout, Tangradi would have almost assuredly started the 2012-13 season in the NHL, potentially flanking center Sidney Crosby. Instead, he continues to ply his trade in the AHL. Tangradi is among the biggest forwards the Penguins have in their system, standing at a hulking 6'4, 232 pounds, and combined with his offensive ability, has the potential to be a formidable power forward in the NHL. He has also simplified his game enough where even if he is not playing an offensive role, he can still make a palpable contribution with his physical play. The only major knock on Tangradi's game is his speed and acceleration, and at this point in his development, they are likely not to improve too much. Still, if he can keep his feet moving, he should be able to make an offensive contribution at the NHL level.

Paul Thompson is another minor league forward who possesses some good offensive upside. A former standout for the University of New Hampshire, who is now in his second season of professional hockey, Thompson is beginning to show the flashes of offensive potential he displayed throughout college. He has good size and offensive ability, and if he can play at a high level in the AHL for an extended period of time, there is every reason to think he will get a look in the NHL at some point.

Further down the depth chart are NCAA forwards Ken Agostino, Ben Hanowski, and Scott Wilson, all of whom produced better than a point-per-game in 2011-12. At 22 years old, Hanowski is the most established of the three. He is currently playing his senior season with St. Cloud State and will likely be inked to an entry-level deal when his college career is over. Hanowski is foremost a goal-scorer, but he also possesses good size and is a capable puck-distributor. He is particularly adept at creating offensive on the powerplay. Hanowski suffered a head injury on October 27th and missed over three weeks as a result. He returned from the injury on November 23rd.

Now in his junior season with Yale is forward Ken Agostino. Drafted out of Delbarton High School in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, Agostino has been one of the top offensive producers for Yale and possesses an intangible quality that has made him a winner wherever he has gone. He plays a skill based game but is a hard worker, tough in the corners, and not afraid to play physically. Agostino is not particularly tall for a hockey player, standing at about 5'11, but possesses a wide, strong base which allows him to effectively protect the puck.

Finally, few collegiate freshmen in 2011-12 were as productive as UMass-Lowell winger Scott Wilson. Drafted 209th overall in 2011, Wilson is a skilled winger who is bullish on the puck, and possesses a good shot and playmaking ability. His sophomore season has so far not been as successful, though in his defense the entire UMass-Lowell team has struggled to produce offensively.

Center

Prior to the trade of Jordan Staal, the Penguins boasted one of the most dynamic groups of centers in the NHL, so the until the 2012 off-season, the position was not really a point of emphasis for the organization. That however has changed and the Penguins have done a good job at quickly replenishing a position that was severely depleted.

Among the new faces to the Penguins pool of centers are Teddy Blueger, Oskar Sundqvist, Jayson Megna, and Adam Payerl.

The most skilled of the group is Blueger, a Latvian-born forward who, after a stellar career at Shattuck St. Mary's, is plying his trade in the NCAA with Minnesota-Mankato. He is very advanced in many of the finer points of the game, from taking faceoffs to playing defense, but it is his ability to carry and distribute the puck that is most impressive. He also plays with an ornery streak and is not afraid to engage opponents physically. Blueger needs to add strength in order to be able to contribute at the professional level.

Next on the depth chart is Sundqvist, a towering Swedish center who is currently playing for Skelleftea's U20 team in the SuperElit league. Taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, Sundqvist is extremely raw but possesses a very promising package of size and skill. He is good at both shooting and distributing the puck and plays a physically robust style of game.

Megna, who was signed as a free agent in August, brings a physical, two-way presence to the middle of the ice. A former teammate of Penguins prospect Josh Archibald at Nebraska-Omaha, Megna is a very strong and well conditioned athlete who is capable of playing a tough checking style of game, but has soft enough hands to chip in offensively. He is also versatile in that he can play all three forward positions.

Payerl meanwhile plays a much more meat and potatoes style of game. Signed as an overage player in the OHL, Payerl made a name for himself in 2011-12 when he managed 22 goals and 106 penalty minutes through 61 OHL games. He is expected to make a similar contribution at the professional level, meaning a lot of physicality and some secondary offense.

Rounding out the center spot are minor league forwards Brian Gibbons and Keven Veilleux. Gibbons, a high scoring center from Boston College, is in his second season with the Penguins AHL affiliate. He is still learning the intricacies of the professional game but has made noticeable strides in his development. Listed at 5'8, Gibbons plays larger than his size would suggest and is a capable offensive player. If he does develop into an NHL caliber player, it will likely be as a energy forward who is also capable of contributing a little offense.  

Veilleux meanwhile is a towering hulk of a forward, standing at 6'5 and over 220 pounds. Now in his fourth professional season, Veilleux has struggled mightily to stay healthy, appearing in fewer than 100 regular season games over the past three years. He was once thought to have some offensive potential, however at this point in his career he will be lucky to ever wear an NHL uniform, let alone contribute in an offensive role.

Right Wing

Leading the right wing position is Beau Bennett, a high-scoring forward who this year is making the transition from playing in the NCAA to the AHL. He has an accurate shot, is a good puck-distributor, and possesses the type of creativity that can bring out the best in his linemates. He still needs some seasoning at the AHL level, but early returns are promising, as he is the top offensive player on a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team that has at times struggled to find chemistry. As long as he stays healthy and plays consistently, there is every reason to think he can be an impactful forward in the NHL.

Dominik Uher and Tom Kühnhackl are among the newest additions to the Penguins minor league system. Both were sent to the ECHL out of training camp but have since been recalled to the AHL and played some games. Both also possess intriguing offensive potential.

The 20-year-old Kuhnhackl is goal-scorer who was drafted out of Germany and spent the past two years in the OHL. His performance at the Canadian junior level was inconsistent, but he did show a knack for scoring goals when paired with the right center and enough overall ability to suggest even if he is not a successful sniper at the professional level, he can still carve out a role in the pros. His health and how he develops in the pros over the next two years will greatly determine what, if any, future he has as an NHL forward.

Uher is a Czech forward who plays a physically robust game, but also possesses a fair amount of offensive ability. He is also extremely versatile, as he might be most comfortable playing right wing, but can play all three forward positions very well. Like many of the Penguins forwards, Uher is not particularly tall, but possesses a sturdy, wide build and is very strong. Similar to Kuhnhackl, Uher is going to require some seasoning in the minors before it can be determined what type of future he has the in the NHL.

The two newest additions to the Penguins pool of right wing prospects are Matia Marcantuoni and Anton Zlobin. The two forwards could not be more different either. Marcantuoni was at one point a highly touted forward headed into the 2012 NHL Draft but because of several injuries and bouts of inconsistency, he slipped into the fourth-round. He possesses blazing speed and can move the puck fairly well. He is also not afraid to play physically in the corners. Before Marcantuoni can really carve out any sort of role in professional hockey, he must stay healthy and maintain a consistently high level of play.

Zlobin, similar to Marcantuoni, has certain questions surrounding his play. A dynamic goal-scorer in the QMJHL, Zlobin went undrafted in 2011 because he lacked size, did not play defense, and would not get particularly involved physically. His ability to create offense was undeniable however and after a strong 2011-12 season, the Penguins drafted him in the sixth round. Early into the 2012-13 season, he seems more involved in the play and has been playing a bit more physically.

Finally, the Penguins have two collegiate right wingers in Bryan Rust and Josh Archibald. Like many players, Rust plays a versatile game, capable of playing multiple forward positions and different roles. Now in his third season with Notre Dame, Rust has seen more time in offensive situations recently, and so far it has paid off. He projects as a two-way forward capable of making timely offensive contributions.

Archibald meanwhile plays a hard-working game predicated around speed and skill. He battles hard in the corners and is a willing combatant. He will need to add more strength but his skill-set is fairly pro-ready in that he plays a very north-south game and is effective on the forecheck.

Defense

The Penguins have a large, diverse, and immensely talented group of defensive prospects, many of whom are playing in their AHL system and are close to NHL ready.

Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait (who is no longer a prospect by HF Criteria) are the greybeards among the group of defensemen currently playing in the minors. Bortuzzo and Strait were both waiver-wire eligible via the old NHL CBA, and have three years of AHL experience, so if not for the lockout, both would likely be competing for time in the NHL right now. Bortuzzo, who is 23, plays a physical two-way game, and while he is does not particularly excel at any one aspect of the game, he is good at most of them, and strong and tough enough to be a shutdown style of defenseman in the NHL. Similar could be said for the 24-year-old Strait, who plays a gritty, smart defensive game, and is fairly durable.

Of the Penguins defensive prospects, Simon Despres is readiest to make a big impact in the NHL. He is well seasoned for a 21-year-old defensive prospect, having played 21 NHL games (including three playoff matches) and attended even more practices and trips at the NHL level in 2011-12. It is tough to gauge what kind of NHL player he will develop into, but given his size, mobility, puck-moving, and ability to log a lot of minutes in all situations, he could fill a very important role for the Penguins in the near future, and for possibly many years to come.

Probably possessing the most overall talent of any of the Penguins defensemen is Joe Morrow. He has good size, power skating, a heavy shot, plays with his head up and, when confident, is capable of dictating the flow of the game. His transition to the professional style of game has been difficult early on, though some learning curve was to be expected as he comes from a Portland Winterhawks system that employs a much different style of play than the Penguins. Also, he is trying to find a role on a Penguins AHL team that is as deep on new faces as it is on defensive talent. His shot and puck distribution abilities are almost NHL caliber already so the biggest thing for Morrow to work on is playing consistently and confidently at both ends of the ice.

Similar to Morrow, Brian Dumoulin is in his first season of AHL play. Coming from Boston College, where in three seasons he helped the Eagles win two National Titles, Dumoulin was one of the three players the Penguins ultimately got in return for trading Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. A former second round pick in 2009, Dumoulin possesses massive size, though he moves well and makes smart decisions in his own zone. He possesses a long reach, heavy shot, and is a competent puck distributor as well. Like Despres, it is hard to say what kind of NHL defenseman he could ultimately develop into, but his package of size, skill, and steady play should assure he is able to find a role in the NHL, though probably not for another year or two.

Outside of the aforementioned defensive prospects, the Penguins group of AHL defensemen consists of utility players and long-term projects. Alex Grant is the team's powerplay specialist and has developed into a fairly solid overall defenseman over the past two seasons, something that was far from certain given a horrifying wrist injury he sustained in fall of 2010. Though 23 years old, Grant remains a long-term project and if he ever develops into an NHL forward, it will likely not be until he is in his mid to late 20s. He should at the very least develop into a solid option for a team in need of a temporary puck-moving presence along blue line.

Philip Samuelsson is yet another former player with Boston College. The older brother of 2012 draft pick Henrik and the son of NHL defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, Philip is in his second season of professional play. He played the bulk of last year in the AHL and had trouble staying in the lineup, often spending stretches of times as a healthy scratch, and even seeing a few games in the ECHL. So far in 2012-13, Samuelsson has continued to have difficulty staying in the lineup, though he is certainly not alone on a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team that has struggled to find chemistry. Standing at about 6'2 and 200 pounds, Samuelsson has size, and plays with some snarl, but must improve most parts of his game before he can reach the NHL.

Further down the depth chart is Reid McNeill. A late-round selection in 2010, McNeill remains a long-term project as he is still learning to use his size as part of his game. He is a fluid skater and has decent vision and anticipation.

Rounding out the defense at the minor league level is Carl Sneep. A veteran of two AHL season, it has been difficult for Sneep to find ice time this season at the AHL level so he was recently sent down to the ECHL. Sneep plays a simple two-way game and at this point in his career does not appear to be more than a depth option.

The Penguins have an impressive group of defensemen at the CHL level led by first round picks Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta.

Pouliot currently plays for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. A former teammate of Joe Morrow, he is their top offensive defenseman and has contributed well at both ends of the ice this season. He also plays with a bit of a mean streak. What type of defenseman Pouliot develops into at the NHL level remains to be seen however he does possess a similar build and skill set as Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. 

Maata is a Finnish defenseman who is now in his second season with the London Knights of the OHL. He has been used in many different roles by London to varying degrees of success. He projects as a two-way defenseman with some offensive ability.

Also playing for the London Knights is Scott Harrington, who is one of the top shutdown defensemen in the OHL. An occasional linemate of Maatta, Harrington plays a simple, if at times vanilla game, but rarely makes a mistake, and does a good job of making life difficult for opponents.

Rounding out the Penguins group of CHL prospects are Clark Seymour and Harrison Ruopp. Drafted for his physical ability, Seymour projects as a shutdown defenseman who can drop the gloves when necessary. He does not possess a particularly high level of skill, but is smart and strong enough that he could develop into a defenseman similar to current Penguin Deryk Engelland.

Ruopp plays a similarly physical, stay-at-home style of game as Seymour. He is also probably the most accomplished fighter the Penguins have among their CHL prospects.

The Penguins also have two defensemen in the NCAA, Nick D'Agostino and Alex Velischek. D'Agostino is currently in his senior season with Cornell. Drafted in the seventh round of 2008, D'Agostino has slowly developed into a capable defenseman who possesses a calm, confident demeanor and a good shot from the point.

Velischeck, who is also a senior, plays with the Providence Friars. He is a mobile skater who moves the puck with a lot of poise. He is not quite as well rounded of a defenseman as D'Agostino, but plays a good two-way game.

Goaltending

The biggest weakness for the Penguins prospect pool remains the goaltending position. They went to some lengths to address that in the 2012 draft, with the selection of Matt Murray and Sean Maguire, but their depth remains relatively shallow compared to other organizations.

Murray possesses the most upside of any of their goaltending prospects. Playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Murray is an athletic, rangy goaltender who sees a lot of shots. He remains a long-term project at this point in his career.

Maguire is a freshman goaltender with Boston University. He has struggled early on and appears to have been relegated to backup fellow freshman Matt O'Connor. Similar to Murray, Maguire remains a long-term project. 

Rounding out the goaltending pool is minor league goalie Patrick Killeen. Possessing good size and fair technical ability, Killeen has spent the bulk of his professional career playing for the Penguins ECHL affiliate. He projects as a depth goaltender.

 

Related Articles