The Pittsburgh Penguins had numerous prospects with standout seasons this year, but few if any rivaled the performances of NHL rookies Simon Despres and Beau Bennett. Drafted in 2009 and 2010 respectively, Bennett and Despres were instrumental in helping the team to a 36-12 record.
Prospect of the Year: Beau Bennett, RW/LW, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
Bennett exceeded all expectations in his first season of professional hockey. Following two seasons at the University of Denver, he joined the Penguins AHL affiliate and was immediately the top player on their minor-league squad. Bennett would join the Penguins NHL squad in the middle of February and remain there for about the rest of the regular season. Through 26 regular season games, he posted 14 points, a plus-seven rating, and saw time in both even strength and on the man-advantage.
The 21-year-old winger has played throughout the lineup, sometimes flanking star center Evgeni Malkin, but also seeing time on the fourth line. He brings a unique, dynamic presence to whatever line he plays on and is able to elevate the play of those around him. The ceiling on Bennett is exceptionally high and he could very well be a star for the Penguins in the near future.
Hardest Worker: Josh Archibald, RW/LW, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (WCHA)
Archibald has many favorable traits as a hockey player, including good speed, vision, and hands, but his greatest trait is the high work ethic. He thrives in high traffic areas on the ice and battles hard in the corners and along the boards. Standing at 5'10, Archibald does not strike an imposing shadow on the ice, though he is very strong and difficult to knock off the puck.
Given he has a few more years left developmentally before going pro, it is difficult to project the specific type of player Archibald will develop into. That being said, his work ethic and speed should allow him to at least develop into an effective energy player, if not more.
Best Defensive Prospect: Simon Despres, D, Pittsburgh Pengiuns (NHL)
The 21-year-old defenseman not only worked his way onto the Penguins NHL roster, but excelled at the highest level of hockey. Despres primarily played a top-six role, frequently seeing over 15 minutes a night, and contributing on both special teams. He was elevated to top four duties on several occasions, mainly when the Penguins suffered injuries to their blue line.
Possessing a large frame, smooth skating, and strong puck-moving ability, Despres projects as a defenseman who can be used in all situations, and should be able to also chip in offensively. He is a very instinctive player defensively and seems to be able to fill whatever role asked of him.
The Penguins have many prospects who are good at shooting the puck, but few have the hard, accurate point shot of Derrick Pouliot. The 19-year-old defenseman has been used more as a setup guy on the Winterhawks powerplay this year, but he has been shooting the puck more in the playoffs. His passing and skating will always be the hallmarks of his game, but that does not diminish his ability to fire the puck from the point.
Marcantuoni possesses good power skating ability, and combined with his quick foot speed, is able to get to top speed fairly quickly. He is very shifty on his skates, and is able to use that ability to create plays. Unfortunately, the rest of Marcantuoni's game is not as dynamic, and he has had difficulty establishing an identity on the Kitchener Rangers.
Breakout Player for 2013-14: Teddy Blueger, C/W, Minnesota State Mavericks (WCHA)
Blueger had a solid freshman season with Minnesota State, posting 19 points through 37 games and showing good ability in the faceoff circle and on the defensive side of the puck. The only 18-year-old on the Mavericks roster, Blueger should only get better with more experience and continued physical maturity. He is due for a breakout season, if not in 2013-14, the following year.
Drafted as an overage player in 2012, Zlobin has shown exponential growth in his game over the past two seasons. Following a standout performance in the 2012 Memorial Cup, the Russian forward went to the Val d'Or Foreurs for 2012-13 and appeared to find a comfort zone there, managing 29 goals and 62 assists through 61 games. His goal-scoring was down from the 2011-12 season, when he managed 40 goals and 76 points through 66 games, but every other aspect of his game was improved, from his involvement in the play, to how he utilized his linemates. Zlobin was rewarded for his efforts recently when he signed an entry-level deal with the Penguins.
Overachiever: Anton Zlobin, RW/LW, Val d'Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
A talented winger who has shown a dramatic amount of progress over the past two seasons in the QMJHL, Anton Zlobin could very well develop into a winger capable of making regular offensive contributions in the NHL. However, the 20-year-old will have to turn out to be one of the best sixth round draft picks in recent history to mimic the 91 points in 61 games he produced for Val d'Or.
Underachiever: Tom Kühnhackl, RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
It has been a difficult past two seasons for Tom Kuhnhackl. After posting 39 goals and 29 assists in 63 games with the Windsor Spitfires in 2010-11, Kuhnhackl has seen only sporadic playing time, losing half of the 2011-12 season to suspension, and most of the 2012-13 season to a shoulder injury. When he has been in the lineup, the results have been mixed. This season, his first of professional hockey, Kuhnhackl played in a combined 13 games in the AHL and ECHL, posting three goals and two assists.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Tom Kuhnhackl, RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
There are concerns anytime a player misses almost an entire season of hockey and Kuhnhackl is no exception. A skilled player with good goal-scoring instincts, Kuhnhackl struggled to get in the lineup this season, and when he did, he was not particularly productive. He suffered a shoulder injury on December 1st which required surgery, and has been out of the lineup ever since.
Kuhnhackl could very well return next season healthy and productive but just as easily could struggle. It is difficult for young players to return from major injuries, as they miss crucial developmental years.
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