Penguins Top 20 prospects

By Adrian Barclay

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Kristopher Letang, D, 19
2. Alex Goligoski, D, 21
3. Jonathan Filewich, RW, 22
4. Ryan Stone, C, 21
5. Carl Sneep, D, 19
6. Tyler Kennedy, C, 20
7. Bobby Goepfert, G, 23
8. David Brown, G, 22
9. Brian Strait, D, 19
10. Ryan Lannon, D, 24
11. Michael Gergen, LW, 20
12. Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C, 21
13. Nick Johnson, RW, 21
14. Jean-Philippe Paquet, D, 20
15. Tommi Leinonen, D, 19
16. Patrick Ehelechner, G, 21
17. Stephen Dixon, C, 21
18. Tim Crowder, RW, 20
19. Brian Gifford, C
20. Joe Vitale, C

As the Pittsburgh Penguins move into a new era of success after years of struggling, the focus on prospects has slightly waned, with two being traded by new GM Ray Shero at the trade deadline for immediate help on the ice. Noah Welch and Daniel Carcillo have found new homes in Florida and Phoenix respectively. Many others have found their way onto the NHL roster.

Key graduations since the last edition of the Top 20 include Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Colby Armstrong, Maxime Talbot and Erik Christensen. Also Matt Moulson was allowed to leave for Los Angeles without a contract offer. Even with the number moving up, there is still a good collection of prospects waiting for their chance.

1. Kristopher Letang, D
3rd Round, 62nd Overall 2005, 5’11, 190 lbs, 19

A cameo appearance in the NHL and his captaining of Team Canada to the WJC this year has catapulted Letang into serious consideration for a permanent NHL role in the next two seasons.

Known mainly from his offense from the blue line, Letang has also shown he is proficient in all areas and has a leadership quality that has been underrated. The 19-year-old surprised many when he made the NHL team out of camp, knocking out the more experienced Noah Welch. Letang spent seven games in the big show and scored two goals before getting sent back to his junior team, Val d’Or.

He has lit the lamp with regularity since returning to the QMJHL, scoring at 1.5 points per game, with 51 points (14 goals, 37 assists) in just 35 games.
 
2. Alex Goligoski, D
3rd Round, 61st Overall 2004, 6’0, 187 lbs, 21

Golden Gophers defenseman Alex Goligoski has set the ice alight this season, with nine goals and 25 assists from 37 games to be just three points off the team lead and making him the top-scoring blue liner in the WCHA. The gifted puckmover is showing that he can be a leader, taking the responsibility as a go-to guy, even if he is still only a sophomore.

Always on the small side, Goligoski is starting to fill out and is now listed at 6’0, 187 pounds. He still maintains his strengths though, with quickness and intelligent puck movement his best attributes. For a while he led the entire WCHA in scoring, and was a strong candidate for the Hobey Baker award, but there are other candidates now more likely as the Minnesota native has slowed down in the back half of the season.

The Penguins should give Goligoski the opportunity to finish his college career with plenty of offensive blue liners to fill that role until he is ready.

3. Jonathan Filewich, RW
3rd Round, 70th Overall 2003, 6’2, 200 lbs, 22

Second-year pro Jonathan Filewich has taken some extra responsibility this season, and is showing he can be an offensive threat at this level. After leading the Baby Pens as a rookie with 22 goals, Filewich has continued where he left off, surpassing that goal total in 20 fewer games and once again leading the team.

Filewich is strong on the puck, has a hard shot and deceptive quickness. A first-time AHL All-Star in 2007, he won the fastest skater competition with a time of 14.553.

The Penguins would love Filewich to be able to make the jump to the NHL next season and become the scoring winger they covet. He has 23 goals and 22 assists from 59 games and is second on the team with +13.

4. Ryan Stone, C
2nd Round, 32nd Overall 2003, 6’1, 205 lbs, 21

Injury concerns have caused a few problems for Ryan Stone this season, but he remains one of the most promising prospects in the Penguins system.

Stone’s game is based on his playmaking skills, and eventually became the Baby Pens No. 1 center as a rookie when the likes of Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong became NHL’ers. He scored 36 points and had 109 PIM. It is this combination of skill and his willingness to play in the corners that gives him an NHL shot as early as next season.

One problem for Stone is the form of the players above him in similar roles, with Talbot and Armstrong playing some excellent hockey in Pittsburgh so Stone’s chances will be limited going forward.

Stone has three goals and 14 assists from 27 games this season.

5. Carl Sneep, D
2nd Round 32nd Overall 2006, 6’4, 210 lbs, 19

Towering second-round pick Carl Sneep is steadily improving as he gets towards the end of his freshman season with Boston College.

At 6’4 and 210 pounds, the Penguins are hoping he can become a physically imposing type that will play a mainly defensive role with but can also jump into the offense when possible. He does have some offensive instincts, but his focus is on working hard in his own end.

His maturity has meant he is getting quality minutes with the Eagles, and should be a candidate for Team USA in the WJC next season.

Sneep has one goal and eight assists in 33 games this season and his goal came short-handed.

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

A tireless worker with high-level playmaking skills, the diminutive Kennedy is really opening some eyes with an excellent rookie campaign in Wilkes-Barre.

Kennedy’s smooth transition to the pro game has as much to do with his hockey intelligence as it does with his skills. He sees the game well and his versatility has allowed him to change positions from center to wing in order to get more quality minutes. He is also a top-notch faceoff man, a skill more valuable than many acknowledge.

He uses his above average speed to pressure on the forecheck and create scoring chances, and it is clear that he never gives up on the play.

Kennedy’s 37 points (12 goals, 25 assists) from 40 games put him fourth in team scoring, but his point-per-game average of 0.93 is only just off the team lead and is ahead of Filewich and more touted Edmonton prospect Rob Schremp. Kennedy also leads the team with a +15 rating.

7.  Bobby Goepfert, G
6th Round, 171st Overall 2002, 5’10, 170 lbs, 23

St. Cloud State goaltender Bobby Goepfert has continued the good form he showed last season as he takes the Huskies into contention in March.

The once-troubled backstop has been stellar in two seasons with St. Cloud, and now shapes up as a possible future backup to Marc-Andre Fleury. He has shown increased maturity and leadership and is a strong candidate to repeat as team MVP.

Goepfert’s Huskies have been consistently ranked in the top five NCAA teams, and a recent two-game sweep of Minnesota have made sure that the Huskies will be respected as contenders for a Frozen Four berth and a possible national title. St. Cloud State enters March with the nation’s No. 2 ranking, and the Gophers are sure to be nervously looking over their shoulders at Goepfert and the Huskies.

The Penguins sixth-round selection in 2002 boasts a 15-6-7 record, is sixth in the nation for GAA with 2.13 and fourth in save percentage with .930.

8.  David Brown, G
8th Round, 228th Overall 2004, 6’0, 185 pounds, 22

Senior goaltender David Brown has shaken off his mediocre form as a sophomore and junior to become the country’s most dominant NCAA backstopper in 2006-07. For the first time in school history, Notre Dame is the CCHA regular season champion and is ranked as one of the top teams in the country.

Brown has been the outstanding player on the Fighting Irish, and looks like the favorite for the Hobey Baker Award at the end of the season.

Brown’s 25 wins (24-5-3) are comfortably first in the nation to go along with his top-ranked GAA of 1.68. Brown’s save percentage is sixth at .927.

These stunning numbers puts his future with the Penguins in a much brighter light, and should see him battling with Goepfert for the starter’s job with the Baby Penguins in the fall.

9. Brian Strait, D
3rd Round, 65th Overall 2006, 6’0, 200 lbs, 19

Boston University freshman defenseman Brian Strait is not the type of player who gets noticed for making the fancy plays. Strait keeps things simple and does the things in his own end that make the difference between winning and losing.

Strait is only 6’0 but is quite solid at 200 pounds and can be physical when grinding the puck out of the corners.

Strait has two goals and three assists in 31 games this season.

10.  Ryan Lannon, D
8th Round, 239th Overall 2002, 6’2, 220 lbs, 24

Steady defenseman Ryan Lannon has continued his solid play from his rookie year, and is developing into a player who could be of NHL standard in the coming seasons.

Lannon plays a stay-at-home type of game, and is serving his apprenticeship in the AHL until the organization deems him ready for a shot at the big time. When the Penguins needed that type of player earlier in the season, they decided to call up Alain Nasreddine instead – but Lannon should get his shot as early as next season.

He is not a flashy player by any means, and looks to have his ceiling as a third pair defenseman. Lannon has been very solid with Wilkes-Barre as one of the main cogs on the blue line, and the extra minutes and responsibility have sped up his development. At 24 years of age and with a full college career behind him, he is experienced enough to make the jump.

Lannon hasn’t lit the lamp yet this season, but has 17 assists to his name from 52 games.

11. Michael Gergen, LW
2nd Round, 61st Overall 2005, 5’10, 185 lbs, 20

Rugged and speedy winger Michael Gergen has dipped somewhat this season, after leading the UMD Bulldogs in goals as a freshman in 2005-06.

Gergen has just the five goals to his name at this point of the season, four of which have come on the power play. The Minnesota native has shown a passion for scoring goals, and his lack of scoring this season seems to be affecting his confidence.

UMD have been disappointing this season for a team stocked with NHL draft picks, but they are a young team and Gergen can be a key player for them if he can rebuild his confidence next season. Gergen is sixth in team scoring with five goals and 11 assists in 36 games.

12. Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C
2nd Round, 31st Overall 2004, 6’2, 183 lbs, 21

With his disappointing season in the WHL behind him, Swedish forward Johannes Salmonsson has been improving while playing in for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League.

With still another season remaining before the Penguins reach the deadline to sign the two-way forward, Salmonsson could still develop into a valuable winger for the Penguins. His move back to Sweden could well be the best thing for him, and allow him to develop in a league of men with familiar surroundings.

Taken with the first pick of the second round in 2004, there were high hopes for the hard-skating Swede, and he has shown good offensive instincts in junior competition. As he continues to bulk up, he will have more of an effect in the SEL and allow him to play the more physical game in North America should he come back at the end of next season.

Salmonsson has eight goals and three assists in 45 games this season with Brynas.

13.  Nick Johnson, RW
3rd Round, 67th Overall 2004, 6’2, 197 lbs, 21

Johnson continues to improve as he approaches the end of his junior year with Dartmouth. He is now a go-to guy with the Big Green, leading the team in power-play goals and sitting second in team scoring.

Johnson has excellent all-around skills, and is putting himself into a strong position for a contract after his final year of college next season. He started slowly this season, but has now picked up the pace and he is targeting his best offensive season that he enjoyed as a freshman two seasons ago when he scored 35 points.

Johnson currently has 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 29 games with two game winners.

14.  Jean-Philippe Paquet, D
6th Round, 194th Overall 2005, 6’2, 202 lbs, 20

Baie-Comeau defenseman J.P Paquet is flying under the radar at the moment, but is quietly compiling his best-ever junior season. Traded to his new team from Shawinigan earlier in the season, Paquet has been even more effective with his new club and is one of the leading scorers on his team.

While at Shawinigan he had the added responsibility of the captaincy, and Paquet took that in his stride and has been a reliable defenseman in all situations. Paquet is in the mold of some of the other offensive-minded defensemen in the Penguins system, so he faces a tough road to the top with other good players ahead of him. Paquet could be an effective player with added development, and he is already bulking up to a good size and is currently listed at 6’2, 202 pounds.

Paquet had 30 points (6 goals, 24 assists) in 37 games with Shawinigan and has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 26 games with Baie-Comeau.

15.  Tommi Leinonen, D
4th Round, 125th Overall 2005, 6’2, 185 lbs, 19

It has not been an easy season for defenseman Tommi Leinonen, with a disappointing result for Team Finland at the WJC followed by a tough season in the country’s top league.

As a young defenseman, it is difficult to get any quality minutes in a league of men, and Leinonen is finding it difficult to get decent ice time. Aside from that, Leinonen is a promising prospect who has two-way skills and can play a physical game. He can make an excellent outlet pass, but failed to contribute enough during the WJC, affecting the team’s offensive capability. His physicality improved though, something that was lacking in the previous tournament.

Leinonen has played 13 games with the senior Karpat team in the Finnish Elite League, without a point.

16.  Patrick Ehelechner, G
Acquired in trade with San Jose, 6’2, 184 lbs, 21

Athletic German goaltender Patrick Ehelechner has had a forgettable season with the troubled Duisberg club in the DEL. The team is the worst in the league and Ehelechner had little help in front of him as his GAA blew up and the losses piled up.

Ehelechner failed to impress enough to make the NHL roster out of camp this season, and decided to return to Germany rather than playing for Wilkes-Barre. With Jocelyn Thibault at the end of his contract after this season, Ehelechner may decide to return and have a shot at the backup job, but it is likely that he will have to play some games in the minors – something he appears unwilling to do.

17.  Stephen Dixon, C
7th Round, 229th Overall 2003, 5’11, 188 lbs, 21

A versatile and clever forward, Dixon has always been a valuable player on the Wilkes-Barre roster over the last two seasons.

Used on all four lines, the power play and penalty kill, Dixon has been Mr. Fix-it for the Baby Penguins, unfortunately to the detriment of his consistency at times. His scoring pace is better than his rookie campaign, having already surpassed his totals as he is given more valuable ice time, but his defensive work has dropped and Dixon is now a team-worst -11.

It is looking more and more likely that Dixon will not get a chance in the big time, with the NHL Penguins moving into a new era and players like Talbot and Armstrong getting established. Dixon has 11 goals and 20 assists in 59 games this season.

18.  Tim Crowder, RW
5th Round, 126th Overall 2005, 6’2, 180 lbs, 20

After a fast start to the season, Crowder has dropped off the pace with just one goal in his last 10 games. An all-around forward, Crowder has been a solid contributor throughout his first two seasons with MSU, but this season has a bit of a mixture, with runs of goals followed by disappointing slumps.

Crowder, now a sophomore, has shown a knack of scoring timely goals, particularly in the playoffs last season, and the Spartans will be hoping for more of the same as they take the No. 13 ranking into this most important month.

Crowder has 11 goals and eight assists from 33 games.

19. Brian Gifford, C
3rd Round, 85th Overall 2004, 6’2, 187 lbs, 21

University of Denver freshman Brian Gifford has been a pleasant surprise at the playing in a defensive forward role on a strong team. Unable to get top line minutes, Gifford has fit in well with a defensive focus, and has three goals and ten assists from 39 games. He also sits fifth on the team with 49 penalty minutes.

A concern would have to be his inability to score at even strength, with all his goals coming on the power play.

20. Joe Vitale, C
7th Round, 195th Overall 2005, 5’11, 205 lbs, 21

This hard-working Northeastern center impresses fans with his excellent work ethic and heart as he helps his young team through what has been a tough year.

Vitale plays an excellent defensive game and is one of the team’s best penalty killers. He has two short-handed goals and leads the team with three game winners, showing that he is good in clutch situations and can be relied on when the game is tight. He also has great leadership and could surprise as a future pro in a checking role.

Vitale has also contributed offensively, sitting fourth in team scoring with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 35 games. He has been prone to taking too many penalties, however, and leads the team in minor penalties with 27.

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