Penguins Top 20 prospects

By Adrian Barclay

Life has been tough for fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the last few seasons. Being consistently near the bottom of the NHL standings has meant that rebuilding through the draft has been the only light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

The rebuilding process is one that takes time, but the point when the rewards at the NHL level begin to show is getting ever closer. No less than eight players on the last Top 20 list have played in the NHL this season, with Marc-Andre Fleury the only one no longer given prospect status by Hockey’s Future, having played his 45th NHL game in January.

As it stands now, the Penguins organization has built the strongest and deepest pool of young talent in the league – with two of the finest young phenoms in hockey topping the list.

The list does not just contain high draft picks, however. The Penguins have shown a knack for uncovering some hidden gems in the late rounds. Maxime Talbot (8th Round, 234th overall 2002), Matt Moulson (9th Round, 263rd overall 2003) and Ryan Lannon (8th Round, 239th overall 2002) are all examples, with Talbot and Moulson in the top 10.

It is an embarrassment of riches that will almost certainly be spread among the other 29 franchises once the Penguins are in a position to trade prospects for immediate help at the NHL level. There are simply too many players with genuine NHL potential to be left in the minors over the next few years.

Illustrating this depth has been the dominance of the Penguins minor league affiliate, the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Baby Penguins began the season at breakneck speed, going unbeaten in 23 games as well as posting a league record 15 consecutive wins on the road going back to the end of last season. Eleven players on this list have spent some or all of the 2005-06 season playing in Wilkes-Barre.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Sidney Crosby, C
2. Evgeni Malkin, C
3. Ryan Whitney, D (+1)
4. Noah Welch, D (+1)
5. Maxime Talbot, C (+1)
6. Colby Armstrong, RW (+1)
7. Erik Christensen, C (+9)
8. Michel Ouellet, RW (+3)
9. Alex Goligoski, D (+3)
10. Matt Moulson, LW (+4)
11. Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C (-3)
12. Ryan Stone, C (+1)
13. Ryan Lannon, D (NR)
14. Kristopher Letang, D (NR)
15. Michael Gergen, LW (+3)
16. Sergei Anshakov, LW (-7)
17. Andy Chiodo, G (-7)
18. Andy Schneider, D (NR)
19. Paul Bissonnette, D (-5)
20. Bobby Goepfert, G (NR)

1. Sidney Crosby, C
1st Round, 1st Overall 2005, 5’11, 193 lbs, 18

Already the finest player in the Penguins organization, 18-year-old sensation Sidney Crosby is one of the faces of the NHL’s youth movement. He has been thrust into the spotlight like no other player in recent memory.

When Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick brought in a group of highly experienced NHL’ers to compliment Crosby’s arrival in the Steel City, it was expected that Crosby would be allowed to blossom without the pressure of carrying the team from the get-go.

Instead, Crosby showed very quickly that he was indeed the premier talent on the team and has led the squad in all major categories for most of the season. With the intense media scrutiny on him, it seems as though he has lived through five seasons – such is the amount of discussion surrounding him.

He has already played through the distractions of a diving controversy, Olympic selection, his appointment as an alternate captain and now Mario Lemieux’s retirement. None of these things seem to phase him however, and Crosby continues to excel as he leads the NHL’s young elite as an ambassador for hockey around the world.

He wasted no time making an impact on the score sheet, registering at least a point in his first seven games, including his first NHL goal against Boston on Oct. 8. His 25 goals and 35 assists lead the Penguins and puts him behind only Alexander Ovechkin amongst rookies. He also leads the Penguins with 78 PIM, a lot of them avoidable and leads perhaps the one weakness in his game at the moment. Crosby has been prone to losing his temper with officials on a few occasions, but is undoubtedly working to keep a cool head in the heat of battle.

2. Evgeni Malkin, C
1st Round, 2nd Overall 2004, 6’4, 190 lbs, 19

With all the hype surrounding Crosby, one gem has been relatively hidden from view. Russian star Evgeni Malkin is dominating his home league, and his coming out party may just be the Winter Olympics in Italy starting this weekend.

Malkin will play alongside compatriot Ovechkin in the Russian national squad for the Olympics, and get his chance to show what he can do against the best of the NHL talent. Many scouts speculated that Malkin was every bit as good as Ovechkin when the two were drafted with the first two picks of the 2004 draft, and with Ovechkin dazzling fans in Washington, Malkin’s impending arrival is bringing increased excitement to Penguins fans.

The 6’4, 190-pound center is the epitome of the all-around hockey player. He has supreme skills with the puck, is an excellent skater and can backcheck as well as any defensive forward. His vision is top shelf and is already showing that he can handle the responsibility of being the main man for his team. He leads his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk and the Russian Super League in scoring with 20 goals and 28 assists, all at just 19 years of age.

It’s still unclear when Malkin will come and play for the Penguins, but at this stage it still looks like he will be able to join the team for the 2006-07 season. He told HF at the 2006 WJC that “I am looking forward to playing there next year.”

3. Ryan Whitney, D (+1)
1st Round, 5th Overall 2002, 6’4, 202 lbs, 22

Not deterred by being sent back to Wilkes-Barre after an excellent training camp, defenseman Ryan Whitney went ahead and proved to the Penguins organization that they had made a mistake. After an outstanding rookie season with the Baby Pens last season, Whitney was always going to be a strong chance of playing in the NHL this season. When he scored 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in his first nine AHL games this season, he showed that he had grown beyond that league.

He began strongly with Pittsburgh, but has since dropped his production while remaining the top D-man in terms of minutes with the team. Just like his first half season in Wilkes-Barre in 2004, Whitney is concentrating more on getting his defensive zone coverage as good as it can be before jumping into the offense.

Before long, Whitney – who is a brilliant skater as well as having fantastic passing and vision – will be the main man on the Pittsburgh power play and will score accordingly. Expect the Boston native to improve on his moderate total of one goal and 16 assists from 42 games this season.

4. Noah Welch, D (+1)
2nd Round, 54th Overall 2001, 6’4, 212 lbs, 23

In his first year of pro hockey, Harvard graduate and AHL All-Star Noah Welch is proving quite a hit in Wilkes-Barre.

The big defenseman is showing why he is considered one of the finest defensive prospects on the cusp of the NHL and has now taken the reins with the Baby Pens as their No. 1 blue liner. Welch can skate, hit and shoot and shows a level head at all times. He plays on both the power play and the penalty kill, but he knows where his most important role is.

“If I get a chance to jump up in the offense I’ll take it, but I don’t want to force anything,” Welch told Hockey’s Future in January. “There are too many guys who are good at this level to try to force stuff, and they’ll just shove it right down your throat. I think eventually I’d like to consider myself a two-way defenseman but to be honest with you, I like killing penalties more than being on the power play.”

Welch has all the tools to be successful at the top level, and the day of his call-up to the parent club is close. But for now, Welch just wants to keep working at his game and not think about the possibilities the future may hold.

“You could drive yourself crazy if you have a certain date that you’re expecting to get the call. I dream of playing in the NHL one day and I’d like to develop and fulfill that dream. Right now I’m just having fun and getting better. I’m on a good team and we’re winning, so I don’t have anything to complain about right now.”

Welch has six goals and nine assists in 45 games this season.

5. Maxime Talbot, C (+1)
8th Round, 234th Overall 2002, 5’11, 185 lbs, 21

Just one season after making his professional debut in the minors with Wilkes-Barre, Maxime Talbot has made a brilliant start to his NHL career in 2005-06. A foot injury to Shane Endicott during training camp gave Talbot his chance, and he took it with both hands as he impressed with his work ethic and great character.

Despite being a prolific scorer in junior, Talbot does not project as a scorer at the NHL level. He will continue to play a role similar to the one he has been used in so far this season in Pittsburgh, killing penalties and generally making a nuisance of himself against opposing teams’ best lines.

Talbot has been one of the most consistent players on a struggling team in Pittsburgh, where he has impressed with his never-say-die attitude and in-your-face defense. Taken in the eighth round in 2002, Talbot is certainly a bonus pick for the Penguins. He currently has five goals and three assists in 48 games in the NHL this season, but has spent a small amount of time in Wilkes-Barre where he has five goals in just seven games.

6. Colby Armstrong, RW (+1)
1st Round, 21st Overall 2001, 6’2, 195 lbs, 23

After battling away in the AHL for the past three and a half seasons, 2005-06 has finally brought an NHL call-up for Colby Armstrong. Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 2001 has worked on his game continuously since joining Wilkes-Barre in 2002 and has relished his opportunity in the big time after making his debut against New Jersey on Dec. 29.

A hard working all-around forward, Armstrong has so far seen time on the penalty kill as well as the power play and his early scoring form is encouraging. After 19 games, he already has ten points (four goals, six assists).

But like Talbot, Armstrong is not expected to be a big scorer in the NHL. He does however bring other important traits to the ice. In an interview with Hockey’s Future late last season, Armstrong was asked what he could contribute to the Penguins in the event he got called up.

“I feel like I can play any style. I’m a good two-way player and I think I can bring some hard work and some grit and at the same time I can chip in offensively and be a good solid defensive guy too.”

7. Erik Christensen, C (+9)
3rd Round, 69th Overall 2002, 6’1, 190 lbs, 22

After a strong finish to his rookie year in 2004-05, 22-year-old Erik Christensen began with a bang this season. Sent to Wilkes-Barre to continue his development, Christensen flew out of the blocks by scoring 19 points in the first nine games of the season, including a four-goal haul on opening night.

He was called up on Oct. 31, and made an immediate impact, scoring his first goal in just his second game on Nov. 3 against the New York Islanders. He scored a total of 12 points (six goals, six assists) in his 29-game stay with the parent club before being dropped back to the Baby Pens after going on a bit of a point drought. The Edmonton native took it in stride and has scored at least a point in all but two of his nine games since returning to the AHL roster.

Christensen has some of the slickest skills amongst all Pens prospects, and is coming along faster than was expected. He is still a little undersized, but his hands are nearly unmatched and he will certainly look good on a scoring line with the big club in the near future.

8. Michel Ouellet, RW (+3)
4th Round, 124th Overall 2000, 6’1, 201 lbs, 23

Another prospect making an impressive NHL debut this season is scoring winger Michel Ouellet. A sniper by trade, Ouellet has always been the type of player who can score plenty of goals in the right environment with the right kind of linemate. He was another player that dominated in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre and gave the organization no choice but to call him up. He played just three scoreless games before being returned to the Baby Pens, but was recalled immediately when Michel Therrien replaced Ed Olczyk as coach.

Ouellet responded to his second call-up by scoring 10 goals in 10 games, most of which he scored on the power play while parking himself at the left post. Like most of the rookies in Pittsburgh, Ouellet has been moved around onto a number of different lines this season, including some time on Crosby’s line. His production at even strength is still rare, but his work with the man advantage has been valuable to the Penguins and should see him retained for the time being. Ouellet now has 23 points (13 goals, 10 assists) from 26 games with Pittsburgh, and had 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 19 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

9. Alex Goligoski, D (+3)
3rd Round, 61st Overall 2004, 6’0, 187 lbs, 20

Another promising blue line prospect is Alex Goligoski of the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota native is one of the finest offensive defensemen in all of the NCAA, and still has two more seasons of eligibility remaining before joining the pro ranks.

Goligoski has great vision and passing skills, and is at the helm of the power play for one of the strongest lineups in college hockey. The Gophers got off to a slow start by their standards, but have picked up the pace and will be their usual threat to win the national title in March.

Goligoski has put on some much needed weight over the summer and is now listed at 6’0 and 187 pounds. He still has some physical development to continue with before he would be suited to the NHL, but has plenty of time to do so. Goligoski has 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 28 games this season.

10. Matt Moulson, LW (+4)
9th Round, 263rd Overall 2003, 6’1, 212 lbs, 22

Now a senior and captain of Cornell University, scoring leader Matt Moulson is fast becoming one of Pittsburgh’s most promising offensive prospects.

After leading the Big Red in scoring for the last two seasons, Moulson has continued to be the go-to guy in 2005-06, leading the team with 14 goals and 13 assists from 21 games thus far. The captaincy has come naturally to Moulson, who seems to have taken the responsibility in stride, and has been an inspiration to his younger teammates.

He should fit in well when he joins the pro ranks next season, as he has good strength for his size (6’1, 212 lbs), as well as a good head on his shoulders.

11. Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C (-3)
2nd Round, 31st Overall 2004, 6’2, 183 lbs, 19

Talented Swede Johannes Salmonsson is recovering after a slow start in the WHL and is returning regularly to the score sheet in his first North American winter.

After spending his career in Sweden’s Elite League, Pittsburgh’s second round pick in 2004 has been plying his trade with the Spokane Chiefs this year. Salmonsson struggled to make the necessary adjustments to the North American game early in the season, but another World Junior Championship has seemingly lifted him to a new level. Sweden performed well at the group stage before falling in a heartbreaking Quarter Final to archrival Finland.

Salmonsson scored four points (two goals, two assists) as a senior member of Sweden’s junior championship bid, slightly below expectation after leading the team at last year’s tournament with eight points including five goals.

Since arriving back with Spokane, Salmonsson has registered four goals, taking his total for the season to seven to go along with six assists for 13 points in 36 games. Salmonsson is a good all round forward with nice hands and is expected to increase his production in the near future.

12. Ryan Stone, C (+1)
2nd Round, 32nd Overall 2003, 6’1, 205 lbs, 20

Another Penguins prospect making his pro debut in 2005-06, Ryan Stone has shown that the offensive skills he honed in a 99-point final season in the WHL can have a place in his solid two-way game at the AHL level with the Baby Penguins.

Stone is a hard working forward who has excellent playmaking skills, and is currently the leader amongst Baby Penguins rookies in scoring with 26 points from 40 games. Stone has a smart head on his shoulders and is gaining more responsibility with the Penguins as the season goes on. A weak month of November saw him briefly scratched, but that served as a wake up call and his game has continued to improve.

Stone is now centering the top line in Wilkes-Barre, and is earning valuable minutes on both the power play and penalty kill. Stone was forming a great combination with Rico Fata and Matt Hussey before Fata was claimed off re-entry waivers by the Atlanta Thrashers this week.

13. Ryan Lannon, D (NR)
8th Round, 239th Overall 2002, 6’2, 220 lbs, 23

Ryan Lannon has fought his way onto this edition of the Top 20 with some honest hard work with Wilkes-Barre this season. As a stay-at-home defenseman, Lannon plays the type of game that not many people notice, and that’s how it should be. Players like Lannon only usually get noticed when they make mistakes – and so far he has been nearly invisible for the Baby Pens.

Lannon’s no nonsense approach and good physical attributes have suddenly made him a very valuable commodity within the Penguins organization, where defensemen of his ilk are lacking. The defensive group in Pittsburgh has been very disappointing in recent seasons, and the continuing development of Lannon and his Harvard defensive partner Noah Welch seems essential to the future success of this team.

Lannon has eight points (two goals, six assists) so far this season, and is an impressive +20 in 42 games.

14. Kristopher Letang, D (NR)
3rd Round, 62nd Overall 2005, 5’11, 190 lbs, 18

Bolting into the Top 20 after an excellent World Junior Championship with the gold medal winning Team Canada is QMJHL defenseman Kristopher Letang. The Penguins third round selection in the 2005 draft, Letang is expected to be another offensively talented addition to the already well stocked shelves in the Penguins stable, and is clicking at twice the pace of his rookie year with Val d’Or.

Until recently, Letang was paired with Vancouver draftee Luc Bourdon, but Bourdon’s trade to Moncton has ended what was a very successful partnership. Letang has outstripped his former teammate in points this season, and has shown no signs of slowing down since Bourdon’s departure, going at beyond a point-per-game pace for the month of January.

Letang also does not shirk on his defensive responsibility, and is one of only a few Val d’Or players sitting in positive plus/minus territory. Letang has scored 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) from 41 games in the offensively minded QMJHL this season, good enough for second amongst team defensemen. At the World Juniors he scored three points (one goal, two assists) and was a +5 in six games.

15. Michael Gergen, LW (+3)
2nd Round, 61st Overall 2005, 5’10, 185 lbs, 18

Michael Gergen has started his NCAA career strongly after coming out of the Minnesota High School system. Gergen is playing with the struggling Minnesota-Duluth and leads the team in goals with 12.

Despite his obvious skills, Gergen has spent some time in the doghouse of Coach Scott Sandelin for apparent ‘lack of effort’. The 18-year-old would be much better served by getting his head down and working hard, and perhaps with time he will do that and use his skills to the maximum potential.

He is capable of being a very effective player as he has good skating and a hard shot, and doesn’t mind getting his nose dirty. He currently sits 26th amongst all rookies in the nation with 18 points in 27 games.

16. Sergei Anshakov, LW (-7)
Acquired in trade with Los Angeles, 6’3, 190 lbs, 22

One of the Penguins most troubled prospects is enigmatic Russian winger Sergei Anshakov. The 22-year-old has shown glimpses of immense skill at times over the last few seasons, but seems to be caught up in some kind of controversy every few months.

Originally playing for CSKA Moscow, Anshakov was sent on loan to Salavat Yulayev where he was able to get some quality minutes and scored nine goals and three assists there in 23 games at the end of the 2004-05 season.

Things were looking brighter, but Anshakov has found a way to get on the wrong side of no less than three Russian Super League clubs, with CSKA, Salavat and most recently Dynamo Moscow all cutting the skilled Russian.

He has finally settled with Tver MVD HC, where he has two assists from 10 games but his future with the Penguins may be bleak unless he can overcome these problems.

17. Andy Chiodo, G (-7)
7th Round, 199th Overall 2003, 5’11, 192 lbs, 22

Goaltending prospect Andy Chiodo is having a season he would rather forget. The Baby Penguins playoff hero for the last two seasons, Chiodo has found himself slipping down the depth chart as his regular season form has been weak by his standards.

With Dany Sabourin dominating since taking over from Fleury at Wilkes-Barre, Chiodo has found himself switching between the AHL and the ECHL, and he has played the majority of his games for the Wheeling Nailers. In his limited opportunities with the Baby Penguins, he has been disappointing, suffering a 7-0 defeat in only his second start in the AHL this season.

That effort saw him dropped back to Wheeling where he has a 10-5-1 record, but a disappointing 2.84 GAA and a .897 save percentage. Chiodo will likely remain behind Sabourin barring any injury, but his postseason record still gives the Penguins a hope that he can turn into a serviceable backup goaltender to Fleury in the future.

18. Andy Schneider, D (NR)
5th Round, 156th Overall 2001, 6’1, 215 lbs, 24

Joining the Top 20 list for the first time is first-year pro defenseman Andy Schneider. A graduate from the University of North Dakota, Schneider is a good two-way blue liner who has some intangibles as well. He captained his college team as a junior, but relinquished the captaincy in his senior year after his production suffered.

As a sophomore he put up 41 points (11 goals, 30 assists) but has not gone near those totals since. He still has strong offensive instincts and gets some power play time with Wilkes-Barre where he can unleash his huge slap shot.

He has had one brief spell in Wheeling, but has been one of the most consistent defensemen in his time with the Baby Pens, and tallied his most important goal of the season, tying the score late in the third period against Bridgeport on Jan. 25. Schneider has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) and 50 penalty minutes in 32 games so far this season.

19. Paul Bissonnette, D (-5)
4th Round, 121st Overall 2003, 6’3, 210 lbs, 20

Paul Bissonnette has been making steady progress since he burst onto the scene at the 2003-04 Penguins training camp. He toiled away in the OHL before making the jump to the pros this season, and is part of the rookie defensemen crew holding together the best goals against record in the American Hockey League.

He has shown good form of late, making up the second half of the top pairing in Wilkes-Barre with Welch. He has found himself the odd man out on a lot of occasions, jumping between the Baby Pens and the Nailers.

Bissonnette will continue his development in the minors, where he will grow with the other young defensemen to make up the core of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s unit for at least another season. He has two assists in 20 games with the Baby Penguins and three goals and seven assists in 14 games with the Nailers.

20. Bobby Goepfert, G (NR)
6th Round, 171st Overall 2002, 5’10, 170 lbs, 22

A stinted college career has done nothing to halt the progress of the final player on this list, St. Cloud State goaltender Bobby Goepfert.

The Penguins sixth round pick in 2002 originally started his college career with Providence but a controversy surrounding his academics saw him kicked off the team. A year in exile followed before his return to the NCAA this season with St. Cloud State.

Goepfert has helped carry St. Cloud to become a surprise of the WCHA by posting a 12-7-3 record. Goepfert is red hot right now, earning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors for the second time this season on January 31, as well as being named the National Player of the Week for the first time on the same day.

If Goepfert can continue his good form, he could threaten the likes of Sabourin and Chiodo as the Penguins up-and-coming goaltender. His record is very strong at the moment, sitting ninth in the nation with a 2.01 GAA and seventh overall in save percentage with a huge .930.

Missing the Cut

Nick Johnson, RW
3rd Round, 67th Overall 2004, 6’2, 197 lbs, 20

Desperately unlucky to miss this list again, Nick Johnson continues to impress in his sophomore year at Dartmouth. He went at a point-per-game pace in picking up 35 points as a freshman and winning the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award.

This season, Johnson is playing on the team’s second line, and sits fourth in team scoring with eight goals and nine assists in 21 games, and co-leads the team with five power play markers. Johnson is also one of the hardest workers in his squad.

Daniel Carcillo, LW
3rd Round, 73rd Overall 2003, 5’11, 191 lbs, 21

Daniel Carcillo has had a lot to prove in his rookie pro season. A clouded history of violent incidents in his junior career in the OHL meant his performance in Wilkes-Barre would be closely watched by the Penguins who would need to find out whether he had overcome his tendency to lose his temper.

Carcillo has always been a supremely skilled player, capable of scoring plenty of points as well as playing the role of chief agitator. It was important for Carcillo to prove that he could score regularly at the pro level because a player like him is an essential piece of a team puzzle. It didn’t take him long to show that he could be an excellent impact player by scoring 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in his first 13 games, as well as showing plenty of courage and grit by dropping the gloves with regularity and using plenty of physical tactics against opponents.

His scoring has dropped off a little since his strong run at the beginning of the season, causing him to spend a couple of short stints in Wheeling, but he is still going above average for a rookie with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) from 38 AHL games. He also sits third in the AHL in penalty minutes with 232.

Jonathan Filewich, RW
3rd Round, 70th Overall 2003, 6’2, 200 lbs, 21

A breakout 42-goal season in his final year in the WHL with the Lethbridge Hurricanes and a solid start to his AHL career has seen Jonathan Filewich’s stock rise rapidly. Filewich is a powerful forward who will gain more stature with the Baby Penguins as he adjusts to the speed and power of the pro game, and he has already shown that he can find the back of the net at this level.

Even with his good offensive instincts, Filewich may be only used in a role as a checking forward at the pro level and is already a good forechecker. His ability to score will certainly help his chances of a good career, and he looks as though he could be used in a scoring role if put with a good enough center to set him up regularly.

Filewich has scored 11 goals and nine assists in 45 games with Wilkes-Barre this season.


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