Penguins NCAA prospects update

By Adrian Barclay

The Penguins have been one of the most watched teams in the NHL this season with so many young guns growing into a future cup contender. Not far behind though are a number of prospects being groomed through the NCAA, with 13 players currently on college rosters.

Highlighting the college crop are a couple of senior goaltenders who are setting up as possible future backups for Marc-Andre Fleury.

With the controversy of his axing from Providence three years ago well behind him, St. Cloud State stopper Bobby Goepfert has established himself as one of the better goaltenders in the NCAA. The Long Island native has been the key ingredient of a surging Huskies team that finds itself in and out of the top five rankings with the season building towards a climax and a highly anticipated NCAA tournament in March.

Goepfert, now a senior, has screwed his head on and worked hard with the Huskies, and has carried on where he left off last season when he was named in the All-WCHA First Team and the Huskies MVP. He currently boasts a record of 10-4-4, with a GAA of 2.28 and a save percentage of .924, more than respectable numbers as the Huskies continue their hot form into the new year.  

Goepfert is now well placed to turn pro after this season after a ruling from the NHL allowed him to remain property of the Penguins after there was some speculation that he could become a free agent because of his season in exile in 2004-05. He will likely be thrust into the starter’s role for the Baby Penguins in 2007-08, but now faces some competition for that role from Notre Dame goaltender David Brown.

Brown, Pittsburgh’s eighth round pick, 228th overall in 2004, is having a career season and boasts some fantastic numbers as he leads the Fighting Irish to the nations No 2 ranking behind the ever dominant Gophers of Minnesota. Brown was in danger of falling off the prospect map before this season as Notre Dame struggled and Brown was at the receiving end of a lot of losses. In fact, Brown had won just 11 games from 45 in the previous two seasons – a far cry from the player who currently boasts the most wins in the nation with a record of 18-3-1. Brown is the backbone of an excellent defense at Notre Dame that has allowed the fewest goals in the nation, with a team GAA of 1.77. 

Brown’s return to form sees him as one of the favorites for the Hobey Baker award, an award he may be competing for against fellow Penguins draftee Alex Goligoski. Brown recently showed off his skills to a Mellon Arena crowd when the Fighting Irish came to town to battle with Robert Morris, a game duly won by the visitors. The Ontario native is showing his skills at the right time as he prepares to graduate this season and hopefully sign his name at the bottom of a Pittsburgh Penguins contract, one which would see him compete with Goepfert for the starter’ job at Wilkes-Barre. Brown boasts a GAA of 1.76 and a save percentage of .927.

Gophers defenseman Goligoski is again showing his offensive prowess in 2006-07, leading the NCAA’s best team in scoring with 28 points (eight goals, 20 assists) and until recently was the leading scorer amongst all players in the WCHA. Goligoski is a gifted puck handler with great vision, passing and an ever improving shot from the point which has garnered him many of his goals this season. 

Goligoski is certainly one of the most promising prospects in the Pittsburgh system, but there are some obstacles to overcome before making the NHL. His defensive game is still not as strong as it needs to be, and risks becoming too one-dimensional if this does not improve further. He is not a complete liability though, and leads the team with +20. His size is not as much of an issue as it used to be (he is now listed at 6’0, 187 pounds) but he will never be the physically imposing type. He also must compete with Kris Letang whose stock has risen immeasurably after his small stint in the NHL and his captaining of Team Canada to the gold medal at the recent World Junior Championship.

Hard-nosed forward Michael Gergen is returning to form after a slow start to the 2006-07 season with UMD. Gergen led the team in goals last season as a freshman with 14, but has just the four to his name after 25 games this season. When the Penguins selected Gergen in the second round in 2005, they were hoping he could become a valuable winger to one day complement Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. His development has been gradual and he will likely not see a pro contract until the end of his college career.

Gergen has good speed and offensive instincts and was a top scorer in the competitive Minnesota High School competition. A downside appears to be his overall attitude which cost him playing time in his freshman year. He is still on the smallish side at 5’11, 190 pounds but plays above his weight. Look for Gergen to have a strong second half as his drive for scoring goals is high. 

Another forward with an edge to his game is second-year Northeastern center Joe Vitale. The Penguins seventh and final choice in the 2005 draft, Vitale plays his game with a lot of heart, and his game could be compared to a player like Maxime Talbot. Vitale doesn’t always put up the biggest numbers, but always competes hard and is a natural leader.

Northeastern is a team with plenty of young players, and Vitale is one of the most valuable contributors on the maturing team. He loves to hit, and uses it to gain momentum for his team. Vitale has just the five goals and five assists so far, but that is just three points behind the team lead. 

Michigan State sophomore Tim Crowder has worked his way up the prospect rankings with some very consistent all-round play over his nearly two years in the NCAA. Crowder is third on the team with 10 goals as the Spartans continue to impress with a 14-8-1 record and a No. 11 ranking.

Crowder is going at a steady pace with 17 points from 23 games, and is on a little tear with five goals his last six games, returning to the hot form he showed as a freshman last season when he scored 30 points. One of Crowder’s best traits is his ability to score timely goals, something that should come in handy for the Spartans as they make their run towards the championship in a couple of months. Crowder continues to play on Michigan State‘s consistent sophomore line with Tim Kennedy (BUF) and Justin Abdelkader (DET).

Solid defenseman Brian Strait is quickly making a name for himself in the NCAA as a freshman with BU. Strait bases his game on solid defense, and doesn’t jump into the offense unless that is the safe play. He loves to hit and is already a force on the blue line for the Terriers.

Strait was a notable omission from the Team USA squad at the World Juniors, but will still be eligible for the next tournament at the end of 2007. With the Penguins loaded with high quality offensive types on the blue line, players like Strait are very valuable for the future if he can mold himself into a reliable defensive defenseman. Strait is killing penalties and getting some time on the power play, and has totaled two goals and two assists and is second on the team with 33 penalty minutes from 19 games.

University of Alaska sophomore goaltender Chad Johnson has been playing as well as could be expected on a struggling team. He is sharing the goaltending duties and has a winning record of 5-4-2 on a team that is four games under .500 overall. Johnson has a GAA of 2.78 and a save percentage a touch under .900 to go with one shutout.

Former Ivy League Rookie of the Year Nick Johnson continues to impress with Dartmouth despite a drop in his scoring pace from his first two years of college. He remains one of the team’s key forwards and currently has five goals and five assists in 16 games.

Unspecified off-ice problems saw former freshman star Brian Ihnacak drop off the prospect map last season after posting just nine points from 15 games after being a regular healthy scratch with Brown. Now a senior, Ihnacak has two goals and seven assists from 15 games and is unlikely to earn a contract with the Pens after this season.  

Boston College freshman and 2006 second round pick Carl Sneep has so far adjusted well to the college game. The big 6’4, 210-pound Minnesota native was a surprise omission from Team USA at the World Junior Championship, but has competed well with BC and has a goal and six assists so far. Sneep is gifted offensively but knows his duties in his own end. Sneep has earned a regular duty on the BC blue line. He started the season playing alongside sophomore Tim Filangieri and currently plays alongside junior Brian O’Hanley (SJ).

Bemidji State defenseman Chris Peluso has made a reasonably smooth transition to the college game after a successful career in the USHL. Peluso is 20 years of age and his two-way style has earned him six assists without much time on the power play.

The Penguins other freshman who previously played in the USHL is Brian Gifford. A former runner-up for the prestigious Minnesota high school Mr. Hockey award, Gifford is ever improving and is contributing to what is a very strong University of Denver team. Gifford is bulking up and now weighs in at 6’2, 195 pounds, and has been solid in a defensive forward role. Gifford is also an older freshman at 21, and could become one of the team leaders in the future.

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