With the 2005-06 major junior regular season complete, five of the Pittsburgh Penguins seven draftees playing in the CHL are gearing up for playoff action. Most are playing key roles in their teams, but it is on the blue line where future Penguins are making the biggest impact.
Perhaps the most impressive season amongst the Penguins defensive crew is being had by 2005 draftee Kristopher Letang. The Montreal native is having a real breakout season, proving that his previous success was not just a result of being paired with high profile Vancouver draftee Luc Bourdon, who was traded to Moncton earlier in the season.
Letang boasts one of the finest offensive totals amongst defensemen in the QMJHL, finishing eighth in points with 25 goals and 43 assists. He is also proving solid defensively and is one of the few players on Val d’Or in positive plus/minus territory. He finished just behind his teammate Sebastien Bisaillon for the team lead in defenseman scoring, but Letang has the edge in PIM (156 to 56) and plus/minus (+4 to -27).
Letang seems to have benefited from selection to the Canadian team at the World Junior Championship, where he performed very well and tallied three points (one goal, two assists). Since the WJC, Letang has been one of the league’s best defensemen and looks to have plenty of improvement left in him with still two years of junior eligibility remaining.
Another D-man proving his offensive capability once again is Quebec Remparts big man Michal Sersen. Slovakian by birth, Sersen arrived in North America before the 2003-04 season when he was taken in the import draft by Rimouski and has improved rapidly each year. He spent two seasons with the team where he was teamed with Sidney Crosby and put up decent offensive numbers, but it is in 2005-06 that he has proven that he is ready to jump up to the pro game.
Sersen’s numbers are even better than Letang’s, although Sersen does have the advantage of playing with the league’s leading scorer Alexander Radulov (NAS), who finished the season with 152 points. The Remparts are also one of the league’s best teams and coached by Patrick Roy. Sersen finishing second amongst all defensemen in the QMJHL in points with 22 goals and 57 assists from 63 games. He is third in the league in the hits category after leading it last season, using plenty of strength in his battles along the boards. He was named defensive player of the month for December when he scored four goals and 11 assists in 10 games as well as being a +9 during that time.
It should be stressed that these numbers put up by Letang and Sersen are inflated by the offensively-minded QMJHL, and do not necessarily reflect how successful they will be at the pro level. Letang does seem like the real deal however, and looks like he could be a valuable power-play contributor when he makes the jump to the pros in the next few seasons.
The other Penguins draftee in the QMJHL is Shawinigan defenseman Jean-Philipp Paquet. The 19-year-old who was taken with the Penguins sixth round choice in the 2005 draft has missed some games with injury this season but has since returned and is currently playing as an alternate captain with the Cataractes.
Paquet has a good all-round game and has dramatically improved his production rate this season. He has identical scoring totals of five goals and 20 assists in the last two seasons, but did it in 47 games in 2005-06 instead of 70. Paquet has plenty of natural ability but needs to overcome a perceived lack of production in important games if he is to one day make an impact at the professional level.
Up front, the Penguins have a couple of centers in the OHL that play very similar games and are producing at very similar rates.
Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Morrison were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds respectively in the 2004 draft and are both in their final years of junior eligibility. Both are undersized but are excellent playmakers.
Kennedy has been most impressive this season as the offensive leader with his hometown Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds with a career-best 70 points (22 goals, 48 assists), up from the 57 points (21 goals, 36 assists) he posted last season. An exceptional playmaker, Kennedy makes up for his lack of size with great speed and vision, as well as playing with a big heart. The Greyhounds are struggling this season as Kennedy, who is also the captain of his team, has not had much help offensively.
He was honored this season with selection to the OHL All-Star game, his first such selection and one that was warranted after some very consistent play this season. Summing up his style of play was a recent OHL Coaches Poll where Kennedy was named ‘Hardest Working Player’ and finished second in the ‘Best on Faceoffs’ category in his conference.
Morrison, on the other hand, has been just one of many excellent players on the powerhouse Peterborough Petes this season. Listed at just 165 pounds, the lightweight center will need to add bulk to have an impact at the pro level. Despite his lack of size, he also has excellent playmaking skills and has a stronger nose for the net than Kennedy.
Morrison has 31 goals and 37 assists this season, and will have his fingers crossed that the Penguins sign him over the summer to join the pro ranks with either Wheeling or Wilkes-Barre.
The Penguins also have two players in the WHL, where highly-touted prospect Johannes Salmonsson is having a disappointing season with the Spokane Chiefs.
The 31st overall selection in the 2004 draft, Salmonsson has not lived up to the offensive hype he brought with him from his native Sweden, and has since made a decision to return home, signing a two-year contract with Swedish Elite League team Brynas. The deadline for Salmonsson to sign with the Penguins will be the same time this contract expires.
The 20-year-old still has plenty of natural ability, and will have learned from his experiences in North America. His season improved as it went on, and he finished with 12 goals and 15 assists from 54 games. He also competed again with Team Sweden at the World Juniors where he was slightly below expectations with two goals and two assists.
The final Penguins draftee in the Canadian juniors is Moises Gutierrez, who continues to improve his tough two-way game with the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL. Gutierrez has earned more responsibility with the team this year, and is the team’s fourth highest goal scorer with 15. The team has struggled, however, and will miss the playoffs this season.
Gutierrez is eligible for one more season in the WHL, and time will tell if he will take it or whether the Penguins believe his game could be better suited to the pros. The soon to be 20-year-old has 119 PIM to go with his 29 points this season.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.