Penguins Top 20 prospects, Fall 2007

By Jason Seidling

While most of the top young players in the Penguins organization have already reached the NHL level, some extremely talented players remain in the team’s farm system. A handful should challenge for NHL positions during training camp. At worst, six of the Penguins top 10 prospects figure to lace up the skates for the organization’s top farm club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. (NR) Angelo Esposito, C
2. (1) Kristopher Letang, D
3. (2) Alex Goligoski, D
4. (3) Jonathan Filewich, RW
5. (NR) Keven Veilleux, C
6. (6) Tyler Kennedy, C
7. (5) Carl Sneep, D
8. (4) Ryan Stone, C
9. (7) David Brown, G
10. (8) Brian Strait, D
11. (NR) Tim Brent, C
12. (13) Nick Johnson, RW
13. (11) Michael Gergen, LW
14. (NR) Robert Bortuzzo, D
15. (NR) Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C
16. (10) Ryan Lannon, D
17. (12) Johannes Salmonsson, C
18. (NR) Luca Caputi, LW
19. (NR) Alex Grant, D
20. (NR) John Curry, G

1. (NR) Angelo Esposito, C

Age: 18
Acquired: 1st round, 20th overall, 2007

Angelo Esposito takes over the top spot on the Penguins’ top 20 prospects list. Although he was at one time projected to possibly be the first overall pick of the 2007 draft, Esposito struggled during his second year in the QMJHL and saw his stock plummet enough to allow the Penguins to select him at 20th overall. While some scouts question Esposito’s drive, his unquestioned skill set makes him a great fit in the current construction of the Penguins.

Esposito recorded 27 goals and 52 assists during the 2006-07 campaign for the Quebec Remparts. Those figures, however, were down significantly from the ones he posted during the previous season. The plan is for Esposito to spend a third year with Quebec in 2007-08, and then compete for a spot on one of the Pens top two lines in 2008-09. That plan could change, however, if Esposito is able to quickly recover from a recent groin injury and perform in camp the way fellow teenager Jordan Staal did a year ago. If that happens, Esposito could find himself playing alongside Sidney Crosby on the Penguins top line.

NHL upside: top line, skilled forward

2. (1) Kristopher Letang, D

Age: 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2005

Letang has seen his stock rise dramatically since the Pens stole him in the third round of the 2005 draft. A very gifted puck mover who possesses a cannon of a shot, Letang scored two goals during a seven-game cameo appearance with Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 2006-07 season. While Letang succeeded offensively during his time in the NHL, he struggled mightily defensively. He worked extra hard on that phase of the game while serving as the captain of both his junior team in Val-d’Or of the QMJHL and the Canadian entry into the World Junior Championships.

GM Ray Shero has gone out of his way on many occasions during the off-season to verbally give Letang a spot on the Pens’ opening night roster. His right-handed shot would be a welcome addition to a very left-handed squad. Letang projects to spend the early portion of the season on the team’s third pairing, while also manning the right point on the second power-play unit.

NHL upside: top four, puck-moving defenseman, power play specialist

3. (2) Alex Goligoski, D

Age: 22
Acquired: 2nd round, 61st overall, 2004

Many eyebrows were raised when the Penguins selected Goligoski in the second round of the 2004 draft. His stock was not high, and was undersized for a defenseman, but a change in the way the game is played has Goligoski poised to become a key member of the Penguins blue line in the near future. Goligoski completed his third year with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers by recording 9 goals and 30 assists in 44 contests, and was named a 2006-07 All-American and won the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Goligoski announced in early July that he will forgo his final year of college eligibility and he signed an entry-level contract with the Penguins. The plan is for Goligoski to take his outstanding offensive skills and smooth stride to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a year, where he will adjust to the physical element of the pro game. He will miss most of training camp following offseason shoulder surgery.

NHL upside: puck-moving defenseman, power play specialist

4. (3) Jonathan Filewich, RW

Age: 23
Acquired: 3rd round, 70th overall, 2003

Jonathan Filewich will come to training camp with a golden opportunity to secure his first taste of the NHL level. The closest thing the Penguins have to a legitimate goal scorer at the AHL level, Filewich saw his statistics rise in 2006-07, as he went from 22 goals as a rookie to a team-leading 30 goals and a spot on the AHL All-Star squad. With good size at 6’2, Filewich is also deceptively fast, as evidenced by his winning the fastest skater competition at the last AHL skills competition.

As mentioned above, Filewich will have an excellent shot at making the Pens roster coming out of training camp. While he best projects as either a second or third liner in the future, the current composition of the roster leaves open the possibility that Filewich could secure one of the two coveted positions alongside Crosby. If he is unable to secure NHL duty coming out of camp, Filewich will again lead the way down in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and be one of the first players called up when injury strikes.

NHL upside: gritty, two-way forward

5. (NR) Keven Veilleux, C

Age: 18
Acquired: 2nd round, 51st overall, 2007

While the Penguins are extremely stacked at the center position, the organization could not pass up the opportunity to select a player with Veilleux’s skill set this past June. Veilleux stands 6’4, and is noted for his superb passing skills. With his size, Veilleux also possesses a large wingspan that is reminiscent of Jordan Staal. And he has a valued right-handed shot.

Veilleux will again spend another season in the QMJHL where he will suit up for Victoriaville, and try to build upon the 20 goals and 35 assists in 70 games he recorded in 2006-07. He will also likely make a second consecutive trip to the WJCs with Canada.

NHL upside: second-line, skilled center

6. (6) Tyler Kennedy, C

Age: 21
Acquired: 4th round, 99th overall, 2004

Tyler Kennedy made his professional debut in 2006-07 after a stellar career with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL. Although his rookie campaign was cut short due to injury, Kennedy did show off his offensive upside with 12 goals and 25 assists in 40 games with the Baby Penguins. At 5’11, Kennedy makes up for his lack of height with a quick first step that allows him to get to many pucks before larger defenders can take him out of the play.

A quality set-up man, Kennedy is slated to again suit up for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2007-08. Had he not missed half of his rookie season, Kennedy would have been a candidate for a spot on the opening night roster. His relative inexperience at the pro level will likely work against him, thus forcing Kennedy to spend more time working on his two-way game with the Baby Pens, where he will spend time both in the middle and on the wing.

NHL upside: 2nd/3rd line, skilled forward

7. (5) Carl Sneep, D

Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006

The Penguins’ second-round selection in 2006, Sneep made a seamless transition to the NCAA game in 2006-07, where he spent his freshman campaign with the Boston College Eagles. The blueliner recorded a goal and nine assists in 38 games with BC. One figure that jumps out is the eight penalty minutes the 6’4 Sneep accumulated — a low figure for anyone.

Sneep will return to Boston College in 2007-08 and probably a minimum of one more season as well. His goals for the coming year should be to increase his offensive production, develop a little more of a mean streak, and perform with more overall consistency. He is likely three to four years away from competing for a spot on the Pens blue line.

NHL upside: top-four, two-way defenseman

8. (4) Ryan Stone, C

Age: 22
Acquired: 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2003

Stone is another player whose path to the NHL was delayed by several injuries during the 2006-07 campaign. After scoring a respectable 14 goals and 36 points during his rookie season with the Baby Pens, Stone saw his numbers fall to 7 goals and 33 points in 2006-07, although he appeared in only 41 contests due to his injuries. A gritty player who is not afraid to muck and grind in the corners, was again among the team leaders with 86 penalty minutes despite missing half the season.

Stone will be one of a handful of players competing for the two to three spots that figure to be open during training camp. If Coach Michel Therrien decides to keep Ryan Malone on the wing, and Maxime Talbot centering the third line, then Stone will have a chance to compete with Erik Christensen and Tim Brent for the fourth line position. If he is unable to secure that spot, then Stone will return to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a third year, where he will center one of the top two lines and work on both special teams units.

NHL upside: 3rd-line, gritty center

9. (7) David Brown, G

Age: 22
Acquired: 8th round, 228th overall, 2004

David Brown continued his a dramatic improvement in 2006-07. After finishing with a winning percentage of .239 during his sophomore and junior campaigns, and after posting a 4.30 goals-against average as a sophomore, Brown developed into arguably the best goaltender in the NCAA during his senior year. Brown led the nation in wins with 30 at Notre Dame and in goals-against average at 1.58, and was second in the nation with six shutouts and a .931 save percentage. He capped his outstanding season with a CCHA Player of the Year award and a runner-up finish for the Hobey Baker award.

Brown signed an entry-level contract with the Penguins during the off-season, and will compete with veteran Ty Conklin and fellow rookie John Curry for minutes in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Conklin is the favorite to see a majority of the minutes early, but Brown could certainly take the reins at any time.

NHL upside: potential starter

10. (8) Brian Strait, D

Age: 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2006

Strait is the type of quality, two-way performer that all 30 NHL clubs covet. Fortunately for the Penguins, they already secured his rights with the 65th pick of the 2006 draft. A former captain of the U.S. Under-18 squad, Strait justified the Penguins’ faith in him during his freshman campaign with Boston University. The 6’0, 200-pounder appeared in 36 contests for the Terriers and recorded a respectable three goals and thee assists, with an accompanying 46 penalty minutes.

A slick and mobile offensive performer, Strait is just as efficient defensively. He is able to use his body and his mobility to curtail the opposition. Strait is also known for being a quality body checker. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining at BU, and then will likely need to spend a year with the Baby Pens before vying for a position at the NHL level. 

NHL upside: third pair, two-way defenseman

11. (NR) Tim Brent, C

Age: 23
Acquired: Trade from Anaheim in June 2007 (Drafted by Anaheim in 3rd round, 75th overall, 2004)

The Penguins picked up fourth-year pro Tim Brent this summer in exchange for fellow prospect Stephen Dixon. A gritty, energy player, Brent is expected to compete with Erik Christensen and Ryan Stone for the fourth-line center position. Brent will have an excellent opportunity to claim this spot because he is a rare right-handed shot, and is good on draws, which no other center on the roster can claim.

Brent appeared in 15 games for the Anaheim Ducks last season, recording one goal. He also appeared in 48 contests for Portland of the AHL, where he scored 16 goals and 14 assists. That marked a third consecutive year of increased offensive production for Brent. If he does not secure a position on the big squad, Brent will center one of the top three lines for the Baby Pens and work on the penalty-killing unit.

NHL upside: gritty, checking center

12. (13) Nick Johnson, RW

Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 67th overall, 2004

Buoyed by a strong performance during an unexpected appearance at Penguins 2006 training camp, Nick Johnson returned for his junior campaign at Dartmouth and saw his point total increase to the lofty figures he posted as a freshman in 2004-05. Johnson scored 14 times last season, including seven times on the power play, and contributed 16 assists to finish third on his team in scoring.

At 6’2 and with a nose for the front of the net, Johnson makes up for his weak skating skills by possessing great puck skills and the ability to finish plays. Johnson projects as a player who could play on any of the top three lines once he reaches the NHL. Before he reaches that goal, he will suit up for his senior season with Dartmouth in 2007-08, and then spend a year or two with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

NHL upside: power forward who can play on the top three lines

13. (11) Michael Gergen, LW

Age: 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 61st overall, 2005

Selected directly after Crosby in 2005, Gergen had a disappointing 2006-07 campaign for Minnesota-Duluth. After recording 14 goals and 8 assists as a freshman, Gergen slumped to only five goals and 11 assists as a sophomore. Drafted for his ability to put the puck in the net, Gergen must rebound in 2007-08 or he will find himself passed up on the organizational depth chart.

Gergen has two years of eligibility remaining for the Bulldogs, and he will need to use his time in the college ranks to regain the scoring touch that he showed while attending prep school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. At 5’11, 185 lbs, Gergen does have a quick skating stride and an ability to get off his powerful wrist shot. He is at least three to four years away from competing for NHL duty.

NHL upside: top six forward, power play specialist

14. (NR) Robert Bortuzzo, D

Age: 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

Robert Bortuzzo projects as a classic stay-at-home presence who can also contribute some points at the offensive end. He recorded two goals and 14 assists in 63 contests this past season for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. Bortuzzo also accumulated 67 penalty minutes.

Bortuzzo is described as being very physical and an excellent shot-blocker. At 6’3, Bortuzzo also adds another right-handed shot to the Penguins’ organization. He will spend one more year with Kitchener before likely making the jump to the professional level in the 2008-09 season.

NHL upside: third pairing, stay-at-home defenseman

15. (NR) Casey Pierro-Zabotel

Age: 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 80th overall, 2007

Casey Pierro-Zabotel enjoyed a banner of a campaign in 2006-07 while suiting up for the Merritt Centennials of the BCHL. He won the 2007 BCHL Interior Conference MVP award after finishing third in league scoring with 51 goals and 65 assists in 55 games. Pierro-Zabotel also recorded eight goals and 11 points in seven playoff contests.

With a tremendous scoring touch, Pierro-Zabotel will spend the 2007-08 campaign working on his defensive skills. He will open the season with the Centennials, and then join the Michigan Tech Huskies of the WCHA in December. It will be at least five years before Pierro-Zabotel is pushing for NHL duty.

NHL upside: 2nd line, scoring forward, power play specialist

16. (10) Ryan Lannon, D

Age: 24
Acquired: 8th round, 239th overall, 2002

The Harvard graduate continued his steady play last year. Spending a second consecutive year with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL, Lannon failed to register a goal, but he did record 19 assists in 68 contests, while giving the Baby Pens his usual cerebral play along the back line.

Solid in all phases of the defensive game, Lannon should be one of the key components of the Baby Pens defense corps in 2007-08. He projects to be one of their top penalty killers. Should injuries strike the big team, Lannon will be in competition to be called up to the parent squad. 

NHL upside: 6th/7th, stay-at-home defenseman

17. (12) Johannes Salmonsson, C

Age: 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 31st overall, 2004

The Penguins have to continue to be puzzled by the lack of development shown by Salmonsson since he was drafted at the top of the second round in 2004. At that time he was considered to be one of the potential steals of that year’s draft, with unfortunate injuries being the only thing that allowed the Pens the opportunity to select such a gifted offensive performer beyond the first round. But after posting only eight goals in 45 games in the Swedish League in 2006-07, Salmonsson is still very far from ever reaching the NHL.

An exceptional skater with a creative skill package, Salmonsson will need to display his vast offensive arsenal in 2007-08 if he wants to receive a contract offer from Pittsburgh next June. He attended mini camp earlier this summer and spoke about wanting to change his misfortunes of the past two seasons. Then he went out and again failed to impress. Salmonsson is slated to spend another season in Sweden, after which the Penguins must make a decision on whether or not to offer him a contract.

NHL upside: 2nd line forward

18. (NR) Luca Caputi, LW

Age: 18
Acquired: 4th round, 111th overall, 2007

Caputi has all of the physical tools to develop into a power forward at the NHL level. Those skills were on display for the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the OHL in 2006-07, as Caputi recorded 27 goals and 38 points while playing in 68 games. He added two goals and an assist in five playoff contests.

At 6’2, 184 lbs, Caputi’s game is based upon paying a price physically. He scores a lot of his goals from in front of the net, and is more than willing to muck it up in the corners. One area where Caputi must improve is his skating, where his initial stride is not as quick as it needs to be.

NHL upside: 3rd line, power forward

19. (NR) Alex Grant, D

Age: 18
Acquired: 4th round, 118th overall, 2007

A 6’2 two-way defenseman, Alex Grant spent the 2006-07 campaign with Saint John of the high scoring QMJHL. He appeared in 68 games, contributing 12 goals and 20 assists.

Considered a very good skater, Grant is the third member of his draft class to bring the always important right-handed shot to the organization. Probably about three to four years away from competing for a spot at the NHL level, Grant will again hone his skills with Saint John in 2007-08, before likely making the jump to the professional level the following year.

NHL upside: 6th/7th, two-way defenseman

20. (NR) John Curry, G

Age: 23
Acquired: Signed as free agent, 2007

John Curry was signed as a free agent this past summer to provide depth between the pipes for the Penguins after a stellar collegiate career at Boston University. Curry won 17 games in 2006-07, posted a .928 save percentage, a 2.01 goals against average, and led the nation with seven shutouts. He was a First Team All-American and was one of ten finalists for the Hobey Baker award.

Standing 5’11, Curry will battle with veteran Conklin and fellow rookie Brown for minutes in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton net. The odd man out in that competition will begin the season as the go-to guy in Wheeling of the ECHL.

NHL upside: solid backup

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