Pittsburgh Penguins own large, young group of prospects at AHL level

By Ian Altenbaugh

Joe Morrow - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Defenseman Joe Morrow is one of eight Penguins prospects playing in their first year of professional hockey. Morrow was selected 23rd overall by the Penguins in the 2011 NHL Draft. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Like many teams in the AHL, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are beneficiaries of the ongoing NHL lockout, with several players who would normally be competing for a job in the NHL instead playing in the minors. Despite this flux of NHL caliber talent, the team has struggled all season, particularly on offense, where they rank among the bottom in the league.

While there are several reasons why the Pittsburgh Penguins' AHL affiliate has struggled to produce offense, the biggest is simply a lack of chemistry. The team welcomed a lot of new faces to the team, including eight young prospects, and six AHL veterans. There have also been a lot of injuries, particularly at forward.

Struggles aside, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have been surprisingly good on defense, and have the fourth-ranked penalty-killing unit in the league. Even if they miss the playoffs, the 2012-13 season will likely be looked at in a positive light, as it signals the beginning of a massive youth movement for the Penguins organization, particularly on defense.

AHL

Beau Bennett, RW, 21

Coming off an injury abbreviated season in 2011-12, few expected Beau Bennett to have the immediate offensive impact he has for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He has unquestionably been their most consistent forward in terms of production, producing at roughly a point-per-game since the start of the season. Injuries continue to be a concern, as he has already missed five games in December to an undisclosed injury, but he has since returned, and looks no worse for wear.

Bennett possesses the type of NHL-caliber offensive creativity the Penguins have not had in their minor-league system for a very long time, if ever. He has the skills to run the powerplay, transition the puck up ice, and possesses a large repertoire of dekes, jukes, and head fakes. He has been primarily a playmaker for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton offense but owns a large array of shots, namely a hard and accurate wrist shot.

While he remains fairly raw in many aspects of his game, Bennett is on the shortlist of players to play in the NHL once the season finally gets underway.

Joe Morrow, D, 20

As the hockey cliché goes, it takes defensemen longer than forwards to assimilate to the pro-game. Still, for a player who looked ready to compete for an NHL spot just a year earlier, Morrow has had difficulty consistently producing in the AHL. He has even been a healthy scratch on several occasions, including a three game span between November 25th and December 1st.

The heavy, accurate point shot is still there. As is the anticipation and deception. What is dogging Morrow is inconsistent play in the defensive zone and a general lack of confidence. Fortunately for both Morrow and the Penguins organization, that confidence is slowly starting to come back, as he has been far more consistent in all three zones, and shooting the puck with greater regularity.

With the Penguins likely to send one, if not two defensemen on their AHL roster to the NHL, Morrow should see increased ice time and responsibilities.

Simon Despres, D, 21

After a strong rookie pro season in 2011-12, Despres dedicated the 2012-13 season to establishing himself as a formidable defensive player. So far he has succeeded in that regard, as he has been one of the few consistent defensemen the Baby Penguins have had along the blue line this season. He has seen time on both special teams and more and more is looking like the all-situation, minute-munching defenseman the Penguins envisioned when they drafted him 30th overall in 2009. 

Despres will all but assuredly see some time in the NHL this season, if not right out of training camp.

Eric Tangradi, LW/RW, 23

Tangradi started the season with extreme promise, scoring six goals in his first eight games. He was physical, played hard in front of the net, and was shooting the puck constantly. Then, like the rest of the Penguins roster, he went cold. In his last 26 games he has four goals and eight assists. The lack of production is not due to poor effort, as Tangradi has 105 shots on net, which ranks 20th in the AHL and leads the team by a fair margin. He also continues to battle hard for pucks and play physically in the offensive zone. His lack of production is also not due to opportunity, as he has been a staple on the Penguins top line for almost the entire season. The main reason for his offensive struggles is the simple fact the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are bad, particularly on offense, where they are among the worst in both even-strength and man-advantage situations.

Of all of the Penguins current prospects in the minor-leagues, Tangradi is the only one who is all but assured to see time in the NHL this season. The Penguins NHL roster has vacancies at the forward position, and with his experience, he will likely be the first to get that opportunity.

Philip Samuelsson, D, 21

Now in his second season of professional hockey, Philip Samuelsson has yet to firmly establish himself as a top-six defenseman in the AHL. Drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, Samuelsson projects as a shutdown style defenseman who does his best work in his own end.

It is probably unfair to expect much from Samuelsson in terms of offense, but he has shown, at least on occasions, to be a capable puck-mover. He will never produce much in terms of points, but he makes smart, crisp passes up ice, and has an underrated shot. Still, if he is to establish himself as a regular member of the lineup, it will be with his play in his own end. His physical play is up from a year ago, as are his fights, but he still needs to play with an even greater edge to his game.

Paul Thompson, RW/LW, 24

For a time in October and early November, it looked like Paul Thompson was going to have a breakout offensive season. In the first nine games of the season he was an absolute force, managing six goals, two assist, and 39 shots. He also demonstrated an improved physical game, and started to really look the part of a top-nine power forward. Then, like most of the team, Thompson fell into a cold streak for several weeks. Since December, he appears to have regained some of his offensive form and has been hitting the net with a lot more regularity. On the season, Thompson has 10 goals and six assists through 32 games.

Part of the issue with Thompson's erratic play is due to his linemates. Like just about every forward on the roster, there have been issues with chemistry, and a lot of roster shuffling as a result.

Brian Gibbons, C/W, 24

Like just about every other player on the Penguins roster, Brian Gibbons has had moments of brilliance and prolonged periods of mediocrity. Through 29 games he has 13 points, six of which came in two multi-point outings in December, a month in which he missed five games as a healthy scratch.

When Gibbons is playing his game, he is a dynamic offensive player who produces tons of energy every shift. That said, he is probably miscast as a top-six forward, the role he has played for most of this season, and would be better suited in a third-line role, where he would not be relied upon as heavily to produce offense.

Tom Kühnhackl, RW, 20

At the risk of sounding repetitious, Tom Kuhnhackl has, so far, had a rookie pro season fraught with injury and inconsistency. Drafted as a sniper in 2010, Kuhnhackl had two fairly solid seasons in the OHL and arrived to the Penguins AHL affiliate with expectations that, while he would not produce huge numbers offensively, he would at least provide solid secondary offense.

Kuhnhackl started the season in the ECHL, and played two games before being called up to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He battled mightily for ice-time, but by mid-November appeared to have found a comfort zone within the offense. He was unfortunately injured in early December and has been out since.

Jayson Megna, C, 22

Sustaining an ankle injury in the preseason, Jayson Megna did not play a game until November 4th. He had some initial problems adjusting to the AHL and by the time he found a rhythm in mid-December, he sustained another injury which would cause him to miss another two weeks of hockey. When he has been healthy, Megna has played mostly in the third or fourth line role. Given his size and willingness to play physically, he seems fit for more of an energy role but he does possess some offensive ability and given the right chemistry, could be an offensively productive forward, at least at the AHL level.

Dominik Uher, C/W, 20

The youngest member of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Uher started the 2012-13 season in the ECHL, playing a few games with the Wheeling Nailers before getting called up to the AHL on October 20th. Since then he has gradually been in and out of the lineup, mostly used as a fourth-line energy player, but seeing some time in the top nine as well.

Robert Bortuzzo, D, 23

Now in his fourth season of professional hockey, Bortuzzo has been a defensive stalwart for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Like just about every other player on the Penguins roster, he has missed some time to injury. When he has been healthy, he has provided a tough, physical presence along the blue line, and has played a lot of five-on-five minutes, often alongside Brian Strait. His offensive totals are down, but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has one of the worst offenses in the AHL, and Bortuzzo has not been groomed to be an offensive defenseman anyway.

Bortuzzo is expected to compete for the seventh defenseman spot on the Penguins NHL squad.

Adam Payerl, C, 21

It has been a rough rookie season for Payerl. He started the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, appearing in five games before getting sent down to the ECHL. He suffered a concussion in his first game in Wheeling on November 7th and remained on injured reserve until January 11th.

Brian Dumoulin, D, 21

Yet another new face to the Penguins minor-league system, Dumoulin, like the rest of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, has had a wildly inconsistent season. He has played mostly in the second or third-pairing defensive units, often paired with Despres, and seen time on the second-unit powerplay. However, he has also been a healthy scratch on several occasions.

Similar to many of the young defensive prospects in the Penguins system, Dumoulin needs to work on his game-to-game consistency. He is at times extremely effective, particularly at retrieving the puck and pushing the play up ice. However, he remains mistake prone, and at times looks flat-footed and out of position.

Keven Veilleux, C, 23

Returning from off-season knee surgery stemming from an injury on September 30th of 2012, Veilleux has split the season between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Wheeling, playing four games in each. With the intent to ease him in, he was used sparingly in the AHL, primarily in the bottom of the lineup. He saw considerably more time the ECHL however and his skill was apparent, with three points in four games to show for it.

Veilleux is expected to return to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton lineup soon. His offensive talents will be a welcome addition to a lineup that has struggled to score.

Alex Grant, D, 23

Grant is among those players in the AHL whose job was dramatically affected by the NHL work-stoppage. Because of the Penguins logjam of young defenseman in the minors, Grant has been used sparingly, seeing only 13 games and frequently being a healthy scratch. He has even been used as a fourth-line winger in an effort to work him into the lineup. 

With the Penguins AHL team sending at least one of their defensemen to the NHL, and possibly more, Grant will have an opportunity to reclaim a top-six role in the defense. He will however have some competition. 

ECHL

Carl Sneep, D, 25

Like Grant, Sneep is seeing a much different role this season than he would have if not for the NHL labor dispute. After playing just one game in October, Sneep was sent to Wheeling with the idea that he could play big minutes with the Nailers and see a lot of different situations he would never get to as a depth defenseman in the AHL. His game has benefitted as a result, and he looks like a much better defenseman at both ends of the ice.

He is a likely candidate to get recalled to the AHL once the NHL season resumes.  

Patrick Killeen, G, 22

Killeen was the de facto starter for Wheeling but performed inconsistently, and by mid-November, after losing five starts in a row, he was supplanted backup Scott Darling. Killeen's season got even worse when he injured his hand in early December and was placed on injured reserve.

Reid McNeill, D, 20

McNeill was assigned to the ECHL to start the season, with the idea he could play big minutes, and continue to learn to play within his large frame. The opportunity would also allow him to see situations he might not while playing in the AHL.

Unfortunately, McNeill suffered a concussion in mid-November which caused him to miss almost two months of hockey. He returned to the ice on January 11th.

Assuming the Penguins are not ravaged by defensive injuries, expect McNeill to spend the stretch of the 2012-13 season in the ECHL, with the idea he will push for a role on the AHL roster in 2013-14.

 

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