After a disastrous start to their campaign this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were forced into playing 10 rookie skaters this season. The first overall pick in the 2005 draft, Sidney Crosby was a shoo-in for a roster spot, but most of these players distinguished themselves well and look to be integral parts of the franchise’s future.
Sidney Crosby, C
With all the intense hype and media scrutiny on the rookie season of Sidney Crosby, you could have forgiven him if he didn’t quite live up to the billing. Instead, Crosby was far and away the team’s best player at the tender age of 18.
His highly-touted skills were as advertised, with his speed, playmaking and shot only surpassed by his vision and maturity. He overcame criticism early in the season for complaining to the referees too much by putting his head down and focusing on his game. After missing out on selection to Team Canada for the Olympics, he went about proving that it was a mistake by piling on the points at a hectic pace.
Even with the Penguins being one of the worst teams in the league and finishing 29th overall in the NHL, Crosby was still able to break Mario Lemieux’s team rookie record of 100 points. He added a goal and four assists in his last two games to finish with 39 goals and 63 assists for 102 points in 81 games. Remarkably, that might not be enough to win the well-documented race with Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin for the Calder Trophy, with the Russian star potting 52 goals and 106 points.
Crosby had more on his plate than the average rookie, with the future of the franchise in the balance Crosby has been touted as the face of the future and a huge selling tool in keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Adding to that was the decision to give the baby-faced star an ‘A’ on his jersey.
Ryan Whitney, D
Defenseman Ryan Whitney began the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but it didn’t take long before the organization realized that he was too good for the AHL and had to be promoted. He spent just nine games in the minors, scoring an amazing five goals and nine assists from the back line.
Whitney is a talented puck mover who has good size, and stepped straight into an important role with the parent club after being called up. Only Sergei Gonchar averaged more than Whitney’s 23:49 minutes per game, and he had regular shifts on the power play and penalty kill. His first season in the NHL played out a lot like his rookie year in Wilkes-Barre during the lockout where he took a few games to find his legs, but once he did he was one of the most consistent members of the team. He finished second behind Gonchar in scoring amongst defensemen with six goals and 32 assists in 68 games.
Whitney, who was chosen fifth overall in 2002, shapes up as being a first or second pair defenseman for many years to come. Beyond having plenty of skill with the puck, he has good defensive positioning and vision, and plenty of patience which is needed for good defensive work. Behind Crosby, Whitney was certainly the Penguins most valuable rookie this season.
Due to Whitney not having to pass through waivers, he was sent to Wilkes-Barre at the end of the season so that he could participate in the AHL playoffs. Coach Joe Mullen has used Whitney extensively, sometimes more than 30 minutes a game. He is a class above the AHL level and has been outstanding despite a quiet start on the scoresheet. Whitney was at his dominant best in when it mattered, scoring a goal and adding an assist to help close out a tight seven-game series win over Bridgeport. He has a goal and three assists so far in the postseason.
Colby Armstrong, RW
If you had predicted at Christmas that Colby Armstrong would finish third behind Ovechkin and Crosby in points-per-game average amongst rookies, you would have been called crazy. A potential victim to waivers after the Penguins elected to send him to Wilkes-Barre after training camp, Armstrong put his head down and worked hard in an effort to be called up. Eventually he earned his call after again being a leader with the Baby Penguins, scoring 11 goals and 18 assists in 31 games with his brand of hockey that mixes skill and toughness despite his smallish size.
After spending some of his early games getting mid-level minutes and plenty of penalty-killing time, Armstrong got his chance on the ‘Crosby linemate merry-go-round’ and immediately the two found a strong chemistry. By season’s end, Armstrong had played 47 games and scored 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) and led the entire team with a +15 rating. He also posed a danger on the penalty kill, scoring twice while the team was shorthanded and creating other opportunities.
And while there is no doubt that his numbers were inflated from playing with Crosby, Armstrong held his own and provided the balance that helped the line produce as well as it did.
His future on Crosby’s right wing is uncertain with a new GM on his way to Pittsburgh who may decide to dip into the free agent market. Even if he loses his spot on that line he could end up playing with center Evgeni Malkin, should he arrive to play next season. Whatever happens in that regard, there is no doubt that Armstrong has a big part to play in the future of the Penguins. He is a great locker room guy with a fun attitude that bodes well with the youthful Penguins.
Michel Ouellet, RW
A prominent scorer at every minor step on his way to the NHL, Michel Ouellet finally got a chance to show his finishing skills at the top level this season.
He began the season in Wilkes-Barre for the third straight year after leading the team in scoring in both previous campaigns. Ouellet flew out of the gates and was called up for a brief three-game stint in which he was pointless. He returned to the Baby Penguins and continued to pile up the points, racking up 30 (10 goals, 20 assists) in just 19 games before being recalled by Pittsburgh for good.
His second stint with the team began with a bang – 10 goals in 10 games and opened everyone’s eyes as to what he could do. He was getting good power play minutes and spending time alongside Crosby.
In typical fashion, however, Ouellet’s scoring dropped off the map. He has continued to show inconsistency in his career, with periods of world beating form mixed with long periods where he seems to disappear. After that fast start, Ouellet would score just six more goals in the remaining 37 games of the season.
Ouellet averaged 14 minutes per game and scored 11 power play goals, but was a Penguins rookie worst -13. He needs to continue to work on his skating and somehow find some consistency if he is going to stick it in the big time.
Maxime Talbot, C
A surprise starter on opening night after a stunning training camp, Maxime Talbot quickly became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh with his high-intensity game and in-your-face defense. A live wire on and off the ice, Talbot has endeared himself to his team mates and made a nuisance of himself to the opposition.
Despite being a prolific scorer in junior, Talbot has realized that his NHL career will not be made by scoring goals but rather as part of a checking line and has adjusted his game accordingly.
“That’s why I got to the NHL and is one of the reasons I made it that far,” said Talbot earlier this season in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “This is what my focus is every game, to play with emotion and passion and leave everything I have on the ice game in and game out. I’m really proud of that and I’m going to do that all my career long if I can.”
With the Penguins struggling early in the season, Talbot was consistently one of the best players for the team, working hard and killing penalties as well as sometimes matching up with the top forwards from the opposition. He was sent back to Wilkes-Barre after playing 48 games and getting five goals and three assists in order to get more playing time and continue to improve his offensive game. A return to the Baby Penguins also gives him some more playoff experience in the pros.
He has been excellent in the 2006 playoffs, where Talbot has historically played his best hockey. A two-time playoff MVP in the QMJHL, Talbot is a clutch player who will be one of the most important members of the Baby Penguins as they strive for the Calder Cup. He had a goal and six assists in the opening round of the playoffs.
Talbot should get a shot at making the NHL team again to begin the 2006-07 season, and shapes up to be a valuable role player within the Penguins organization going into the future.
Erik Christensen, C
A smallish but ultra-quick forward with excellent hands, Erik Christensen showed in patches what he is capable of at the NHL level this season. Called up early in the season after rocketing to 19 points in nine games with Wilkes-Barre, Christensen had a solid start to his NHL career and was given plenty of opportunities to impress.
He had a 29-game stint with the parent club and scored six goals and six assists, but most of those points came in his early games. His production dropped with his involvement and he was eventually returned to the Baby Penguins where he is a team leader at even strength and on the power play. He had another brief four-game stint later in the season and recorded one assist.
His improvement has been rapid since making his pro debut with Wilkes-Barre during the lockout season and is now a point-per-game player at that level with 24 goals and 22 assists in 48 games this season.
Expect Christensen to have another shot at the NHL next season, perhaps as a winger on a line with Crosby or Malkin despite being a natural center himself. He is the type of player with the speed and hands that need a good playmaker to make the most of his skills. If he continues to bulk up and get stronger, his future could be bright.
He had a quiet start to the playoffs with the Baby Penguins, but scored in Game 7 and added a helper to take his playoff tally to a goal and two assists.
Matt Murley, F
A good training camp saw 1999 second-round draft pick Matt Murley get his chance to start an NHL season after having an 18-game stint in the top flight in 2003-04. Pegged as a penalty killer and fourth liner, Murley teamed with Max Talbot and did a respectable job until tearing a muscle in his left shoulder in January and missed the remainder of the season.
Murley was accused of focusing too much on his defensive role and forgoing any offensive instincts that he might have, but does not shape up as a scorer in the future. Murley played just 41 games and scored a goal and five assists and his future in the NHL will depend on other factors next season. He sits currently on the border line between NHL and AHL but could be handy as he can play a number of roles.
Shane Endicott, C
Pittsburgh’s second round draft pick in 2000, Shane Endicott finally got to add to his four career NHL games this season, but life was tough for the Saskatoon native. The Penguins organization was hoping for more from the 6’4, 215-pound center who was touted as the fourth-line center out of camp until he broke his ankle in the first week. His injury problems cost him nearly half of his season, and when he returned he became the poster boy for bad play on the Penguins team. He seemed to struggle with the speed of the game and found himself taking too many penalties as he adjusted to the new standard of officiating.
Eventually the 24-year-old was returned to Wilkes-Barre where he will likely stay should he remain in the organization. The demise of Endicott is a disappointment. He finished with a goal and an assist from his 41-game stay in the NHL, and now focuses on Wilkes-Barre’s playoff campaign, where he has a goal and two assists so far.
Noah Welch, D
After completing his career at Harvard in 2005, Welch was able to begin his much-anticipated pro career this season with the Baby Penguins. The Penguins second round pick in 2001, Welch has molded himself into an excellent defenseman who has perfect positioning and a physicality which makes it difficult for opposing forwards to get by the 23-year-old.
He spent the majority of the season in Wilkes-Barre where he quickly became the team’s premier defenseman and earned quality minutes on the power play and penalty kill, as well as being on the top pair at even strength. His consistency has helped the Baby Penguins to their best season ever. He attributes his quick adjustment to the pro game to his more experienced teammates.
“I got a lot of help all the guys like Chris Kelleher and Alain Nasreddine, veteran guys who’ve been around for a while,” said Welch to Hockey’s Future earlier this season. “Once you get the systems down it makes the adjustment a lot easier and then you can start working on making plays.”
Injuries and suspension in Pittsburgh late in the season gave Welch his chance, and he took it with both hands, scoring a goal and three assists in five games at NHL level. He showed that he is worthy of a NHL start, and should get his chance out of camp for the 2006-07 season.
Welch is also excellent with the puck, but prefers to focus on his defensive game, citing that he would rather play on the penalty kill than the power play. He still contributed nine goals and 20 assists to be the top-scoring defenseman on the team and was a +15. He has played well in the opening playoff round against Bridgeport, posting a goal and a +5 rating.
Jani Rita, LW
Acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in the Dick Tarnstrom trade in January, Rita has failed to live up to expectations and his future with the Penguins is in doubt. Given every chance to succeed after failing to earn quality minutes in Edmonton, Rita was not able to find consistent play and scored just the seven points (three goals, four assists) in 30 games despite spending time on a line with Crosby. He also scored three goals for the Oilers in 21 games.
The Penguins organization was hoping that a new city would bring the enigmatic Rita out of his shell after frustrating the Oilers with his slow development. A former first round pick (he was taken 13th overall in 1999), Rita will need to find a way to contribute if he is to succeed at the NHL level.
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