The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of only a handful of teams in the NHL who are expected to not just make the playoffs, but compete for the Stanley Cup. Therefore, anything short of an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals will be considered a failure.
The expectations are no different for the Penguins prospects, many of whom are expected to compete for championships at their respective competition levels.
Top Pro Prospect
Beau Bennett, RW/LW, Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)
The Penguins spent much of the 2012-13 season looking for a linemate to play with star forwards Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, exhausting a lot of resources in the process. It turned out however that the ideal linemate was in the organization all along, as first-year pro Beau Bennett meshed immediately with his high-scoring linemates.
Selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft, Bennett always had the skill, but his size – he was 6'1 and only 170 pounds when selected – was a major concern. He added over 30 pounds in three years however and heads into his second professional season looking like an NHL player.
Head Coach Dan Bylsma plans to give Bennett looks throughout the Penguins top-nine, and believes he is the type of player who can be inserted onto any line or role and be not only effective, but productive. He should also see time on the powerplay this season.
By the Penguins own admission, the 2012-13 season was a developmental year for Megna. He is considered a late-bloomer, as he had not played in the USHL until he was 19, and it showed last year. Through 56 regular season games in the AHL, Megna managed five goals and seven assists but never really looked quite comfortable until the post-season rolled around. In the playoffs it was a different story as Megna managed two goals and three assists in 12 games and appeared to be a factor most times he stepped on the ice. He carried that momentum into the off-season, had a strong showing in prospect camp, and looked good in the limited looks he received in the preseason.
Whether that momentum carries into the 2013-14 season and beyond remains to be seen, but if Megna can consistently contribute offensively, it will benefit all parties involved. He has good speed, size, and offensive ability, but will not be considered a viable NHL player until he can put it together on a regular basis.
Brian Dumoulin, D, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
On another team, Brian Dumoulin may have been penciled in to start the 2013-14 season in the NHL. With the Penguins however, he is on a defensive depth chart that is deep in both talent and experience. Dumoulin fits the prototype of a Penguins defenseman, he is mobile, plays tough, and is very good at transitioning the puck up ice. He also has a nice shot from the point, and while not overly physical, he is big, strong, and battles hard for the puck.
With injuries an inevitable part of the game, Dumoulin should see a few NHL games this season, even if it is in a limited capacity. Ultimately, he projects as a middle of the lineup defenseman, who can play big minutes in even-strength situations as well as kill penalties.
Tom Kühnhackl, RW/LW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
How Tom Kuhnhackl plays in the 2013-14 season could very well determine what, if any, future he has as an NHL forward. The German-born sniper struggled in his first season of AHL play and was eventually sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury. It was the second year in a row he was not able to get any traction developmentally, after missing the latter half of his final junior year in 2011-12 to suspension and injury.
Kuhnhackl may be one of the most talented natural goal-scorers in the Penguins system and, following a healthy and productive off-season, he should finally be able to put those talents on display. He already has good size, skating, and a high hockey IQ. He was strong in the Penguins training camp and should get ample opportunity to prove his offensive value in the AHL this season.
No other defenseman in the Penguins system has the game-breaking offensive ability of Derrick Pouliot. Possessing a stout, thick build, explosive skating ability, and elite vision and passing, Pouliot brings a steadying offensive presence to the Penguins blue line.
Early scouting reports often criticized his size and defensive ability, and while he will never be an intimidating physical presence along the blue line, he is strong, difficult to knock off the puck, and proficient in his own end. He can be frustrating at times to watch, as he occasionally drifts out of position and can turnover he puck, but those are issues which can be corrected over time with good coaching and experience.
An early '94 birthday, Pouliot missed AHL eligibility this season by less than three weeks, and must instead return to juniors for another season. He is expected to dominate the WHL this year.
Now in his fourth season of junior hockey, Matia Marcantuoni seems to have finally figured out the type of hockey player he is, and what he must do in order to become an NHL player. Speed was never an issue for the 19-year-old forward, who is fleet of foot by even NHL standards, but he never appeared comfortable in a top-six role. He has since simplified his game and plays a more physical, straight-line style.
By virtue of age and physical maturity, Marcantuoni will have a good year offensively. How he comes about that offense however will be more important than the production itself. If he can be a dominating presence on the forecheck, and use his speed opportunistically, the Penguins will likely extend him an entry-level contract.
Tristan Jarry, G, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Tristan Jarry takes over starting duties for the Edmonton Oil Kings after playing behind Laurent Brossoit (CAL) for two seasons. He is fairly large for a goaltender at 6'2 and is very quick in the net, but the trait he is regarded mostly highly for is his calm and collected demeanor in net.
The Edmonton Oil Kings do not appear to be as talented as they were the past two seasons, so the burden will be on Jarry to play through lots of tough games. How he perseveres, and whether or not he can steal a handful of games for his team, will speak volumes of his abilities to be a starter in the NHL.
Top Amateur prospect
Josh Archibald, RW/LW, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (NCHC)
Archibald heads into his junior season with high expectations following a 2012-13 season where he posted 19 goals and 17 assists in 39 games. He plays a gritty two-way game, but has good hands and is able to create a lot of offense around the net. He is also dedicated to his physical conditioning and is expected to continue to fill out his 5'10 170 pound frame.
A late-round pick, Archibald has shown fantastic development under the Penguins and is a player who seems to understand what is required of him to play in the NHL. He has all of the tools to develop into a grinder who can contribute timely offense and contribute on special teams.
Teddy Blueger, C/W, Minnesota State Mavericks (WCHA)
Blueger is a player whose style seems to be in high demand in the NHL right now. He has good offensive abilities, but it his ability to excel at the small parts of the game that makes him a promising player in the Penguins system. He prides himself on being good in the faceoff circle and is capable of beating most guys cleanly. He also plays with a chip on his shoulder and when he is not contributing offensively, he is still playing the body and working hard on the forecheck.
As the 2012-13 season wore on, Blueger appeared to get increasingly comfortable at the college hockey level and that momentum should carry into the 2013-14 season. He is not overly tall, but is thickly built and crafty enough to get positioning on bigger players. He should see a more prominent role in the Mavericks offense this season, and has the potential to post some lofty totals.
Freshman to Watch
Blaine Byron, C, Maine Black Bears (Hockey East)
Byron might be one of the most offensively gifted forwards in the Penguins prospect pool. He is an effortless skater with exceptional vision and creativity. He has also improved his goal-scoring ability and has slick hands in tight. The problem is, Byron must be creating offense to be an effective forward. He is not particularly proficient in his own end nor is he overly physical. His play away from the puck could also use an upgrade.
Heading into his freshman season, Byron's offensive game may not immediately translate at the NCAA level, but he is considered a long-term prospect by the Penguins, and will likely play out all fours years of his college eligibility.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Bryan Rust, RW/LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Rust in many regards is a prototypical Penguin forward prospect. He does not do anything flashy, but has solid size, is a strong skater, and is able to play a lot of different roles and positions. He is coming off a breakout season in 2012-13, where he managed 15 goals and 19 assists. Notre Dame is returning a lot of seniors for 2013-14, and Rust will have a prominent role among the forwards.
He projects as a middle of the lineup forward in the pros. He does not do anything one thing good but is extremely solid at both ends of the ice. He is not overly creative but has a good mind for the game and, combined with his versatility, should be able to fill a variety of different roles for the Penguins. He will have to sign an NHL entry-level contract first however.
Top European Prospect
Oskar Sundqvist, C/W, Skelleftea (SHL)
Sundqvist is the Penguins top European prospect by default, as he is also their only prospect who is currently playing overseas. Standing at 6'3 and over 180 pounds, he is a big forward who plays a physical game along the boards and in the corners. Sundqvist started the 2013-14 season in the SHL playing against grown men. His adjustment is going to be steep this season, as he comes about his offense through power and brute strength rather than skill and creativity.
He remains a long-term prospect for the Penguins. His large frame and ornery demeanor make him a tantalizing NHL prospect, but he has to work on many facets of his game before he can realize that potential.
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter: @IanAltenbaugh