Penguins top 20 prospects

By Adrian Barclay

Top 20 at a glance

1. (2) Evgeni Malkin, C
2. (NR) Jordan Staal, C
3. (6) Colby Armstrong, RW
4. (4) Noah Welch, D
5. (9) Alex Goligoski, D
6. (5) Maxime Talbot, C
7. (12) Ryan Stone, C
8. (10) Matt Moulson, LW
9. (7) Erik Christensen, C
10. (14) Kristopher Letang, D
11. (11) Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C
12. (13) Ryan Lannon, D
13. (NR) Jonathan Filewich, RW
14. (NR) Carl Sneep, D
15. (15) Michael Gergen, LW
16. (20) Bobby Goepfert, G
17. (NR) Nick Johnson, RW
18. (NR) Patrick Ehelechner, G
19. (NR) Daniel Carcillo, LW
20. (NR) Tyler Kennedy, C

With another draft under their belts and another potential franchise player acquired, the Pittsburgh Penguins approach the 2006-07 season with a better base than in the previous few years. The Penguins top group of prospects is starting to make a real impact on the NHL, with Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney all graduating to fully fledged NHL’ers in 2005-06, and others including Colby Armstrong, Maxime Talbot and Erik Christensen all getting experience at the top level.

This version of the Penguins Top 20 is led by Evgeni Malkin, who looks now to be joining the Penguins for the upcoming season. The Russian star is sure to make a huge impact in the NHL. There are seven new names on the list, starting with 2006 draftee Jordan Staal at the No. 2 spot. The list also features newly-acquired goaltender Patrick Ehelechner, who came to the Penguins from San Jose via trade this summer.

1. (2) Evgeni Malkin, C
1st Round, 2nd Overall 2004, 6’4, 190 lbs, 20

Evgeni Malkin, widely regarded as the best player not playing in the NHL, is now also the most talked-about player in or out of the NHL.

Malkin has been embroiled in a saga worthy of a place on the New York Times Bestsellers list, which has captured the imaginations of the hockey world. The latest reports suggest that Malkin is preparing to come to Pittsburgh for the 2006-07 season after defecting from his Russian team this past weekend.

Malkin is an amazing all-round talent, with very few weaknesses in his game. The second overall pick in the 2004 draft after countryman Alex Ovechkin, Malkin is every bit as good but with strengths in different areas. Malkin can score, pass and hit, using his big 6’4 frame to his advantage with a long reach and big stride.

He is coming off a massive season where he starred in the Russian Super League as well as competed for his country at the Olympics, World Championships and World Junior Championships. In the RSL he led his team and was second in league scoring with 21 goals and 26 assists in 46 games, but it was in the Olympics where Malkin showed what he is capable of at the top level. On a star-studded Russian roster, he was voted as their best player, scoring three points (one goal, two assists) in four games.

Assuming Malkin plays in Pittsburgh this season, expect him to center the second line with Ryan Malone, Nils Ekman and Mark Recchi as options for wings. Even with all this disruption in the off-season, Malkin should be the leading contender for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.

2. (NR) Jordan Staal, C
1st Round, 2nd Overall 2006, 6’4, 215 lbs, 17

The Penguins newest potential franchise player, Jordan Staal, has all the skills to be a top NHL player for many years.

The younger brother of Stanley Cup winner and 100-point scorer Eric Staal, Jordan is a gifted stickhandler who has the strength to win one-on-one battles. He also has wonderful creativity which he combines with his power to make him a most valuable addition to any team. He has sometimes been accused of slacking off and relying on his pure talent, but that is something which is happening less and less as he prepares for a pro career.

Staal was the most important player for the Peterborough Petes last season, scoring 28 goals and 40 assists and 69 penalty minutes in 68 games this regular season and in the OHL playoffs he scored ten goals and added six assists in 19 games. After taking the Petes to the Memorial Cup, he dropped off and disappointed with just the one assist on a team that struggled.

He has the makings of a power forward in the NHL, but may have to move away from his natural position of center with both Crosby and Malkin ahead of him on the depth chart.

“I’ll play wherever they put me, it doesn’t really matter to me. As long as I get an opportunity to play I’ll be happy,” said Staal to Hockey’s Future after being drafted by the Pens. “I see a young team that has the potential to be a great team. They have a lot of talent in that room and I’m just glad to be a part of that.”

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

Former first round pick Colby Armstrong has finally been able to show his stuff at the top level in 2005-06, beginning what promises to be a solid NHL career.

Armstrong has always been known for his valuable combination of skill and intangibles, but almost fell victim to the waiver wire when he was sent down to the minors after training camp last season. Great play at the AHL level eventually earned Armstrong his long-awaited call-up and he grasped the opportunity with both hands when he got a chance to play with Crosby after starting as a fourth liner and penalty killer.

Armstrong and Crosby ended up forming an amazing combination that was beneficial to both players. Armstrong got to play with one of the most gifted playmakers in the world, and Crosby got a partner who could do the dirty work and also keep him relaxed. A real character, Armstrong reportedly helped in relaxing the usually serious Crosby with his sense of humor and light-hearted attitude.

The lanky right winger also demonstrated that he had the finishing skills required, potting an impressive 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 47 games to finish third amongst all NHL rookies in points-per-game, behind only Ovechkin and Crosby. He is now set to begin the 2006-07 season on Crosby’s wing, but still has a lot to prove before being considered a bona fide NHL’er.

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

Defenseman Noah Welch is set to make an impact on the big stage in 2006-07. Welch is poised to make the Penguins line-up out of camp, after already impressing in a five-game stint at the top level towards the end of last season.

Welch’s defensive game is almost without fault, with excellent positioning and solid hitting, making him a dangerous man to try and beat. Add to that his booming slap shot and he also becomes a threat on the power play.

Even though the 2005-06 season was his first in the pros, you wouldn’t know it with the maturity and skill that he showed. Welch quickly became the go-to guy with the Baby Pens and led a young defensive corps to one of the best goals against records in the AHL.

Welch finished with 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) and 99 penalty minutes in 77 games with Wilkes-Barre, and a goal and three assists with Pittsburgh in his five outings. His offensive skills may not get as much use in the NHL, with players like Whitney and Sergei Gonchar with more offensive pedigree, but that suits Welch fine.

“If I get a chance to jump up in the offense I’ll take it, but I don’t want to force anything. 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.”

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

Gifted puck-moving defenseman Alex Goligoski is edging ever closer to the level of play that will see him make the NHL in the next two or three seasons. The Penguins second round pick in 2004 has performed beyond expectations in his first two seasons with the University of Minnesota, already taking on a leading role on the power play with the college superpower.

Although still slightly undersized (6’0, 187 pounds), Goligoski is fast proving himself to be one of the finest defensemen in the NCAA with his impressive tally of 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists) in 41 games to put him fourth overall in the nation for points-per-game among defensemen in 2005-06. He finished third in team scoring behind only highly-touted forwards Ryan Potulny (PHI) and Phil Kessel (BOS).

The Minnesota native still has two years of college eligibility left and will likely use them despite watching so many of his teammates sign pro contracts early. His defensive game could also use some more work as improvement in that area will greatly improve his chances of making it in the NHL.

5. (4) Maxime Talbot, C
8th Round, 234th Overall 2002, 5’11, 185 lbs, 22

After getting his chance at the top level after training camp last fall, Maxime Talbot will almost certainly make the final cut again in 2006. Talbot was one of the better players for the Penguins during their devastating start to the 2005-06 campaign, impressing with this tireless work ethic and in-your-face defense. The Penguins eighth-round draft choice in 2002, Talbot’s future is as a penalty killer and checking line center.

“Once you get into the NHL you always want to stay there, always want to do your best and pursue your goals. Playing in the NHL was my ultimate goal and I did it this year and I want to get back there and have the chance to play again,” Talbot told Hockey’s Future last season.

Talbot was eventually returned to the Baby Pens at about mid-season in order to get some more quality minutes and power-play time, as well as having a shot at the Calder Cup. Even though the Baby Penguins were swept in the second round by the eventual champion Hershey Bears, Talbot formed a successful first line with Ryan Stone and Jonathan Filewich, perhaps a sign of things to come in Pittsburgh in the next couple of seasons.

Expect Talbot to work with new Penguins signings Jarkko Ruutu and Ronald Petrovicky in what could become one of the most annoying lines to play against in the NHL.

7. (12) Ryan Stone, C
2nd Round, 32nd Overall 2003, 6’1, 205 lbs, 21

It has been a very impressive last two seasons for Ryan Stone, who should be in NHL contention as soon as this season.

Stone followed up his 99-point final junior season with an excellent pro debut with the Baby Pens in 2005-06, co-leading rookie scoring within the team and plying his trade on the top line in the latter half of the season.

Stone’s offensive contributions were matched by his work on the other side of the puck, with solid forechecking and good work in his own zone. Stone also plays with a level of toughness that goes beyond his 6’1, 200-pound frame, and is happy to drop the gloves if the situation warrants. As a playmaker Stone is at the elite level, but faces a tough road to the NHL like all minor league centers in the Penguins organization. Still ahead of him on the depth chart are Talbot and Christensen, but another good season could see him leapfrog both players with Christensen a strong candidate to move to the wing.

Expect Stone to improve on his impressive rookie numbers of 14 goals, 22 assists and 109 penalty minutes, and look for him to be given a cameo appearance in the NHL towards the end of the season.

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

Cornell graduate Matt Moulson is about to enter the next phase of his career, arriving at training camp ready to make an impact in the pros.

The high-scoring winger was the cornerstone of the Big Red’s offense in his four years with the perennial Ivy League contenders, and is now set to apply his skills in an organization that desperately needs scoring wingers of his ilk.

On top of his offensive skills, Moulson is strong and smart, with a sense of leadership that inspires his teammates. Moulson’s rise to prominence is an amazing one, considering he was an afterthought at the draft when he was taken in the ninth round, 263rd overall in 2003. From there he went on to score 71 goals over four seasons and lead Cornell to great heights in the NCAA tournaments during his career.

His performance in camp will be one of the most watched, with a possible roster spot available to him in Pittsburgh if he excels. His most likely destination in Wilkes-Barre, but keep your eyes peeled for a surprise starter on opening night.

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

One player who should have a keen eye on the Malkin saga is slick center Erik Christensen, who is at the most important junction of his career leading into training camp for the 2006-07 season. When it looked as if Malkin would not play in the NHL this season, Christensen had a chance to lock down the second line center role with Pittsburgh and show what he can do with some quality minutes and wingers.

So far in his career he has shown an ability to score at will with his high-end skills, lightning speed and stickhandling, but has also been inconsistent to the point where his long-term future at the top level is still in doubt. His career has been littered with bouts of disappointing play where it seems he has dropped his head and does not get heavily involved. That being said there are times when his play at the minor league level has been so stellar that it seemed he must be called up.

He did receive that call-up in 2005-06, and enjoyed a couple of stints with the big club over the course of the season, eventually scoring six goals and seven assists in 33 games. His performance in Wilkes-Barre dropped off after a red-hot start, finishing just below point-per-game pace with 24 goals and 22 assists in 48 games. Christensen has a very high upside but would only be useful on the top two lines, making it harder for him to crack the NHL on a regular basis. This may lead to a permanent change to the wing, a move that brought mixed results last season.

10. (14) Kristopher Letang, D
3rd Round, 62nd Overall 2005, 5’11, 190 lbs, 19

Offensive defenseman Kris Letang is another who has performed above expectations in the past 12 months. Still quite young at 19, Letang was selected for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships where he won the gold medal and was a very valuable member of the defensive group.

Letang was one of the best blue liners in the QMJHL down the stretch last season, seeming to get a lot of confidence from his performance at the WJC. He also silenced the critics who said that his success was due to his former defensive partner Luc Bourdon (VAN), who was traded to the Moncton Wildcats early in the season.

The Montreal native’s strength is his offensive abilities, finishing eighth in scoring amongst defensemen with 68 points (25 goals, 43 assists). But there is more to his game than that, proving he has a hard nose and is solid defensively, finishing as one of the few players on his team at Val d’Or to finish in positive plus/minus territory, as well as having 156 penalty minutes.

11. (11) Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C
2nd Round, 31st Overall 2004, 6’2, 183 lbs, 20

A sub-par 2005-06 has taken the edge off Salmonsson’s status within the Penguins organization. Salmonsson played with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs and was a disappointment considering the skills he possesses and his previous record against players his own age in junior tournaments.

Salmonsson failed to adjust to the North American game, scoring just 12 goals and 15 assists in 54 games despite his status as one of the most offensively gifted prospects to come out of Sweden in recent years. His sub-par play also led to fewer minutes, continuing the decline.

In an effort to put last season behind him, Salmonsson has decided to return to his homeland, signing a two-year deal with Brynas, expiring just before the deadline for the Penguins to sign him to retain his rights. The Penguins would love for Salmonsson to reach his potential, with scoring wingers at a premium in the organization.

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

Steady defenseman Ryan Lannon, forever in the shadow of his Harvard teammate Welch, should get a chance to shine this season as a projected top pair defenseman in Wilkes-Barre.

Lannon was a standout rookie with the Baby Pens last season, logging a lot of minutes in key situations because of his unflappable nature and mistake-free game. With Welch expected to don the Pittsburgh jersey this season, Lannon’s role with the Baby Pens becomes even more important as he leads a young core of blueliners.

Lannon’s one dimensional game restricts his upside, but he does project as a dependable third pairing defenseman in the NHL along the same lines as Rob Scuderi. Lannon played 74 games with the Baby Pens in 2005-06, registering two goals, eight assists and 65 penalty minutes. He also finished second on the team in plus/minus with an impressive +17.

13. (NR) Jonathan Filewich, RW
3rd Round, 70th Overall 2003, 6’2, 200 lbs, 21

The ever-improving Jonathan Filewich proved that he could take the step up to the pros and make an impact, co-leading all Baby Penguins rookies in scoring during the 2005-06 season.

Filewich improved markedly as the season progressed, eventually finding himself as part of the team’s top line. The Penguins third round pick in 2003, Filewich’s game is a solid mix of skill and power, and formed a good connection in the second half of the season with playmakers Talbot and Stone.

Filewich’s improvement culminated in an outstanding playoffs, leading the team in playoff goals with six to go with four assists in 11 games. He seems to have the knack for finding the net on the scrappy plays, potting his fair share of garbage goals over the season. Filewich finished with 22 goals and 14 assists in his rookie campaign, and expect him to improve on those numbers and perhaps challenge for a fill-in berth with Pittsburgh as the season progresses.

14. (NR) Carl Sneep, D
2nd Round 32nd Overall 2006, 6’4, 210 lbs, 18

The Penguins second pick in the 2006 draft, Carl Sneep is shaping up as a future weapon at the back with his two-way skill. Sneep is already huge at 6’4, 210 pounds, and was invited to the Team USA junior training camp this month.

Sneep’s experience at forward during his bantam days has given him good experience with handling the puck, and can be a threat on the power play with his passing skills. His coach at Brainerd believes that he is still developing his game as he prepares to start his NCAA career with Boston College.

“For a kid who is 6’4, 210 lbs, he gets around the rink very well,” said Brainerd HS Head Coach Ty Eigner. “Carl, like all 18-year-old defensemen, will need to improve his play in own end. He’s always been good with the puck, but playing one-on-one and understanding the importance of playing the body, considering his size, will be important.”

Sneep may only need a couple of seasons to be NHL ready, but his academic prowess suggests that he will finish his college career before jumping to the pros.

15. (NR) Michael Gergen, LW
2nd Round, 61st Overall 2005, 5’10, 185 lbs, 19

Former second round pick Michael Gergen is a strong forward who could become a valuable player in the Penguins franchise in a couple of years. Gergen is your prototypical power forward and has shown a nose for the net as a freshman with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, tying for the team lead in goals with 14 in 39 games. He only finished fifth in scoring though, adding just eight assists.

Gergen has plenty of offensive tools and can get his nose dirty in the corners, but spent some time in the coach Scott Sandelin’s dog house with suggested attitude problems. This seemed to do the trick and Gergen played a lot better down the stretch. Gergen has also just competed with the Team USA junior development group, scoring three assists in scrimmage play.

The Minnesota native will need to continue to bulk up over the next couple of seasons before he is ready to take his game to the pro level, but keep an eye on him as he could be a bit of a sleeper for the Penguins.

16. (20) Bobby Goepfert, G
6th Round, 171st Overall 2002, 5’10, 170 lbs, 23

St. Cloud State goaltender Bobby Goepfert reestablished himself as one of the best goaltenders in the Penguins system in 2005-06 with a stellar season with the Huskies. A checkered past with an expulsion from Providence in 2004 meant that Goepfert’s career was in jeopardy, but he salvaged his reputation with a season that saw him carrying the Huskies outfit to new heights.

Goepfert was rewarded for his efforts with a first team All-WCHA selection, as well as winning St. Cloud State’s MVP award for the season. He finished the year with a 2.20 goals against average, .924 save percentage and three shutouts. He has one more year of college eligibility because of his season in exile, and now replaces Andy Chiodo as the top goaltending prospect in the organization. He could also face a challenge from newly-acquired Patrick Ehelechner who may return from Germany to play minor league hockey with the Penguins.

17. (NR) Nick Johnson, RW
3rd Round, 67th Overall 2004, 6’2, 197 lbs, 20

After a stunning rookie season with Dartmouth, Nick Johnson suffered a small ‘sophomore slump’ in 2005-06. Johnson dropped from 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists) in 35 games as a freshman to 25 points (15 goals, 10 assists) as a sophomore.

Johnson is a hard worker who has shown he can play both sides of the puck and could improve his offensive numbers again if given a chance on Dartmouth’s top line. He spent some time there in the past two seasons and has shown that he can contribute with opportunity.

Johnson’s work ethic should see him get further opportunities with the Penguins after his college career, but will likely take the maximum time to develop with still two years of eligibility remaining.

18. (NR) Patrick Ehelechner, G
Acquired in trade with San Jose, 6’2, 184 lbs, 21

German goaltender Patrick Ehelechner is a bit of an unknown quantity for Penguins fans as the organization waits to see if he will return to North America from the German Elite League to compete for a minor league position with the Pens this season. Since it is past the transfer deadline, his German club would need to release him for him to come over.

Ehelechner was acquired from San Jose in the deal that brought Nils Ekman to the team, and provides another possible goaltending prospect to one day back up Fleury in Pittsburgh. San Jose’s fifth round pick, 139th overall in 2003, had two solid seasons in the OHL before returning home last season. He was an OHL second team All-Star in 2003-04 and signed a contract with the Sharks before both parties decided that there was no point keeping him in North America where there was limited opportunity to get regular starts.

The trade to the Penguins gives him a chance at a job in the AHL to back-up Dany Sabourin with Andy Chiodo and Sebasiten Caron leaving the organization.

Known as the ‘White Tiger’, Ehelechner has a good skill set with plenty of speed and mobility but perhaps lacks a little strength. He had a tough season in Germany, where he was knocked out of the starting position with two clubs, but seems to have the potential to make an impact in the minors.

19. (NR) Daniel Carcillo, LW
3rd Round, 73rd Overall 2003, 5’11, 191 lbs, 21

Live wire winger Daniel Carcillo has a chance this season to show that he is definitely more than just a goon. With the new rules forcing everyone to have the ability to skate and score and not just fight means that Carcillo will need to show that he can contribute in other ways.

Early in 2005-06 he was scoring at will, but production dropped as the season progressed. There is no doubt that Carcillo has skills to go with his bad temper, and has the mix to become a valuable fourth liner in the NHL if he can stay on the right side of the rules and avoid suspension, something he was unable to do until last season.

With Pittsburgh signing Ruutu and Petrovicky, they have no immediate need for Carcillo’s services at the top level, so he will be sent once again to Wilkes-Barre where he will be a fan favorite again. As a second-year pro, he will get more time in important situations and continue to develop his game to meet NHL standards.

He split time last season between the AHL and ECHL, scoring 11 goals, 13 assists and 311 penalty minutes in just 51 games with the Baby Pens, and three goals and two assists in six games with Wheeling.

20. (NR) Tyler Kennedy, C
4th Round, 99th Overall 2004, 5’10, 183 lbs, 20

Playmaking center Tyler Kennedy has made the next step in his career, signing a contract with the Penguins after four good years in the OHL with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. Kennedy has improved steadily over the years, and is known for his excellent passing and vision as well as playing with a big heart.

His effort as captain of the struggling Greyhounds did not go unnoticed, with Kennedy earning a selection in the OHL All-Star game as well as being named in the OHL Coaches Poll as the league’s hardest working player. His skill on faceoffs was also noted, finishing second in that category.

Expect Kennedy to debut with Wilkes-Barre this season, where he should get a prominent role on the team. He is slightly undersized, but his effort level should see him succeed. His game is similar to that of Maxime Talbot, and within a couple of seasons he should be contributing well offensively at the AHL level. Kennedy had his best offensive season in 2005-06, scoring 70 points (22 goals, 48 assists) in 64 games.

Missing the cut

Tim Crowder is entering his second season with Michigan State after impressing with 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists) in 44 games. Crowder has a good all-around game and has shown a knack for scoring timely goals.

Defenseman Brian Strait has had a very good start to the season, with a good performance at the Team USA junior development camp this month. The two-way defenseman scored two goals and one assist and that is sure to give him confidence heading into his college career with BU. Strait’s hero is Ryan Whitney, but he does not possess quite the offensive firepower of the Penguins defenseman.

Second-year pro Stephen Dixon will be expected to center of the checking line for the Baby Penguins in 2006-07. Dixon has long been considered an excellent exponent of the two-way game, beating out fellow Penguins prospect Ryan Stone for the fourth line center role for Team Canada in the World Junior Championship in 2005. Dixon was impressive in his role with Penguins, quietly putting up good rookie numbers of 12 goals and 17 assists playing in all 80 games.

Big defenseman Paul Bissonnette has fallen slightly in his status within the organization, but can change all that with a big season in 2006-07. Bissonnette was forced to the ECHL on occasion, but showed enough to be considered a top chance to get quality minutes with the Baby Penguins this season. He spent 55 games in the AHL last season, scoring a goal and five assists, and three goals and seven assists in 14 games with Wheeling. Ignore his stats however, as it is his defensive game that gets him noticed.

Players no longer eligible for the list include Michel Ouellet (age), Andy Schneider (not signed) and Ben Eaves (not signed).


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