Defense continues to be main strength of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool

By Ian Altenbaugh

Eric Hartzell - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Eric Hartzell is one of several promising goaltending prospects in the Pittsburgh Penguins system. Hartzell was signed as a free agent on April 14th, 2013. (courtesy of Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins front office has shown a preference for selecting mobile, puck-moving defensemen early and often in the NHL Draft. The organization believes puck-moving defensemen hold premium value in the NHL, and by having several with very high pedigree, they are in a position of strength.

This particular team building approach has not only allowed the Penguins to regularly supplement their NHL roster with affordable young talent along the blue line, but assures they have the assets to facilitate a trade if other positional needs arise.

The Penguins have also shown a knack for identifying and developing forwards who may have been overlooked by other teams, whether through selecting them in the later rounds of the NHL Draft or signing them as free agents.

The front office and scouting department is particularly partial to NCAA players, as the organization is typically afforded two more years of evaluation time before they have to decide on signing the prospect to an entry-level contract.

Left Wing

The Penguins groom their forward prospects to be versatile, so while a player may be listed at a certain position, he will likely play all three forward positions at some point in his development.

The left wing prospect who likely holds the most promise is Tom Kühnhackl, a 21-year-old winger who is starting to find his game in his second season as a pro. Kunhnhackl is a sniper with good size and an uncanny ability to put himself in good scoring position. He has the potential to be an impact forward at the NHL level, he just needs to keep getting stronger and more consistent at both ends of the ice.

Recently making his NHL debut is Jayson Megna. An exceptional skater with nice size, Megna's overall offensive upside remains to be seen, but he has the tools to a top-nine forward in the NHL. The 23-year-old looked good playing a few games alongside center Evgeni Malkin, but in order to stay in the NHL he will have to be productive in a third or fourth-line role as well.

UMass-Lowell forward Scott Wilson is one of several high-scoring college forward prospects the Penguins have in their system. Selected in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft, Wilson has good hands and creativity, but plays a very meat and potatoes style of game. He is a good stick-handler and cycles the puck well in the offensive zone. The one major weakness in his game is speed. He seems to be able to get around quick enough, but he is not particularly explosive. He also needs to continue to get stronger, though that could be said of the majority of prospects.

The organization also has several agitators who are developing in the minors. Harry Zolnierczyk is the most notable of the group. Signed as a free agent by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, Zolnierczyk quickly developed a reputation as a player who combines excellent skating ability with reckless abandon. His game has and always will be predicated around agitating and fighting, but he is competent enough of a hockey player to take a regular shift on a fourth line.

Winger Bobby Farnham appears to be in the exact same mold as Zolnierczyk. The 24-year-old is a good skater whose play occasionally crosses the line, but he needs to improve most other aspects of his game before he can be considered a viable NHL player.

Dominik Uher is another player who brings a lot of sandpaper to his game, but also appears to have some offensive upside as well. The Czech-born forward is now in his second season as a pro and has shown marked improvement in his overall game. He will probably never be a prolific offensive player in the NHL, but could potentially be a solid third or fourth line option capable of contributing timely offense.

Another left-wing option at the minor-league level is Paul Thompson, a third-year pro who is regarded for his ability to score goals. Thompson has had issues with consistency at the professional level, and until he can work those out, he remains something of an outlier in the prospect pool.

Further down the pipeline is Troy Josephs, a 2013 seventh round pick who is in his freshman year with Clarkson. A tenacious forward who is often the first man in on the forecheck, it is easy to see the role the Penguins envision for Josephs one day. The 19-year-old likes to play a high-tempo brand of hockey and creates a lot of chances with his physical play. He needs to improve his overall game, but projects as a bottom-six forward who can chip in offensively.

Center

The Penguins have built their NHL roster around the concept of strong depth at center, and typically carry six or seven forwards on their roster capable of playing the middle of the ice. So it should be no surprise they have numerous center prospects in their system.

At the top of the center depth chart is Brian Gibbons, a former standout for Boston College who is now in his third year of minor league hockey. Standing at 5'8, Gibbons is on the small side, but he has good speed and will play in high traffic areas of the ice. He does not project as more than an injury call-up at this point in his career.

The Penguins have a fair amount of centers at the NCAA level, many with good upside. The one with the most pedigree is probably Teddy Blueger, a slick, two-way forward who is in his sophomore season with Minnesota State. Blueger excels in the faceoff circle and possesses a high hockey IQ. He projects as a versatile top-nine forward who can play both center and wing. He is not overly big, but is stoutly built and strong on his skates.

Jake Guentzel is one of four Penguins prospects making their freshman NCAA debuts this year. Selected in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft, Guentzel possesses immense skill, but is undersized at 5'10 and 160 pounds. The Penguins believe he is a late-bloomer physically, as his brothers and father are all around six feet in height and were late-bloomers themselves. Either way, Guentzel is expected to spend the next few years playing at Nebraska-Omaha with fellow Penguins prospect Josh Archibald.

Another freshman center with very high upside is Blaine Byron. Currently playing for Maine, Byron is a dynamic playmaker who spent the last two years playing junior-A hockey for the Kemptville 73s and the Smiths Falls Bears. Similar to Guentzel, Byron is expected to spend the foreseeable future in the NCAA, where he can not only hone his game but physically fill out.

On the other end of the spectrum is Oskar Sundqvist, a massive center who already has good size at 6'3 and 185 pounds, but needs to work on many other facets of his game. He is making a difficult transition from playing an offensive role against junior-age players to playing a checking role against men, and has been relatively effective in his limited ice-time. Skellftea is poised for another SHL championship, so even if Sundqvist does not see a ton of ice time, he will be in a winning environment.

Rounding out the center position is Jean-Sebastien Dea, a high-scoring forward currently playing for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. The Penguins signed the undrafted Dea in September after an impressive 2012-13 season where he scored 45 goals and 40 assists through 68 games. The forward was overlooked in the 2012 NHL draft because he was around 150 pounds, but added a substantial amount of muscle in the past two years and is now solidly built at 5'11 and 176 pounds. The 19-year-old will need a couple years at the minor-league level to round out his defensive game, but has the skills to be a solid top-nine forward in the NHL.

Right Wing

The Penguins have good talent at right wing, led by second-year pro Beau Bennett. A dynamic, playmaking winger, Bennett has established himself as a top-six forward in the NHL and is expected to be a big part of the Penguins offense for years to come.

In many regards, Bennett is the prototype for the Penguins other skilled forwards. He was one of the more offensively talented players in the 2010 NHL Draft, but lacked size and strength, leading him to drop to the Penguins at 20th overall. He went to the University of Denver for two years where he grew two inches and added over 20 pounds of muscle, and now stands at 6'2 and 195 pounds.

Hoping to eventually follow in Bennett's footsteps is Josh Archibald, a high-scoring forward who is currently in his junior season with Nebraska-Omaha. Arichbald plays a strong two-way game with good speed and a high compete level. It is hard to say how much of his offense will translate to the professional level, but he has a lot of traits that make him a tantalizing prospect.

One prospect with a lot of offensive intrigue is Anton Zlobin. A Russian import who spent the past three years playing in the offensively oriented QMJHL, Zlobin enters his first professional season with a lot of questions. There are concerns over his durability and the fact he just returned from off-season shoulder surgery speaks to that. Regardless, Zlobin is one of the most talented skill forwards in the Penguins prospect pool. He still needs to improve his defensive game and add a lot of strength, but he is a prospect whose development is worth monitoring.

Notre Dame senior Bryan Rust is another college prospect who has shown immense growth in the past year. A third-round pick in 2010, Rust plays a simple, two-way style of game that should be conducive to NHL play. He is sturdily built at 6' and 200 pounds and plays in all situations for Notre Dame. He is not considered a high skill player, but has enough offensive talent to demand respect from opposing players. He projects as a versatile, two-way forward in the NHL, someone who can fit anywhere in the lineup and contribute on both special teams.

If there was an award for the quickest feet, Matia Marcantuoni may win it every time. Now in his fourth season in the OHL, the 19-year-old appears to have carved out a role as a two-way checking forward. His hockey IQ has improved over the past two years and he is a lot more consistent on a shift-by-shift basis, which were two major weaknesses in his game when the Penguins drafted him in 2012. It is his speed however that will always separate him from all of the other prospects. He has an explosive first step and creates lots of opportunities simply by winning races to the puck. If the rest of his game continues to develop, he should at least develop into a serviceable depth forward in the NHL.

Last but not least is second-year pro Adam Payerl. A hulking forward who battles hard in the corners and protects the puck well, Payerl safely projects as a third or more likely fourth-line forward in the NHL. His skill level is limited, but he provides a strong net-front presence and is a willing combatant in the corners. He is also a capable fighter and could see time in the NHL this year if the Penguins feel they need to add more toughness to their lineup.

Defensemen

The Penguins defensive prospects are led by Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, and Scott Harrington. The three play distinctly different styles, but all possess very high hockey IQ, strong skaters, and good at moving the puck.

Maatta is the most NHL-ready of the trio and is currently playing regular minutes with the Penguins. He has shown the ability to adapt to any situation, is big, strong, and moves the puck smartly. He possesses a very active stick and tends to make smart, safe plays in his own zone. As Maatta gets more confident in a game, he tends to take more risks up ice. Whether or not he ever develops into a high-end offensive threat remains to be seen, but Maatta is already a solid two-way defenseman who, at 19 years old, makes the Penguins defense better than it was without him.

At the other end of the defensive spectrum is Pouliot, an offensively gifted defenseman who occasionally does not try and create offense. Pouliot is an exceptional puck-mover who seems to always be skating with his head up. At the very least, he should develop into the Penguins powerplay quarterback, but he does have the intelligence and athleticism to develop into a top four defenseman. His defensive game is going to take several seasons to round into form, but he could contribute in a limited capacity for the Penguins as early as next season.

Harrington is another defenseman who possesses hockey instincts that are off the charts. He plays a simple and safe game by any standard and appears unflappably calm in the defensive zone. He is good at moving the puck and has very good vision and anticipation, giving him the ability to play in all situations, including the powerplay. That being said, he was drafted and is being groomed for his ability to play shutdown defense. Defensive defensemen typically take longer to develop than others, sometimes substantially longer, but Harrington may be the exception to the rule. He picked up the nuances of the Penguins defensive system fairly quickly and his power skating ability is very good. He has also made a smooth transition to the AHL level. How he develops over the 2013-14 will be telling, but he appears at least two seasons away from being an NHL contributor.

Simon Despres and Brian Dumoulin are two others who are expected to develop into solid NHL defensemen. Both are hulking blueliners who were drafted in 2009. Despres played the majority of the 2012-13 season in the NHL, but was assigned to the AHL to start the 2013-14 season. Though being demoted is never easy, the increased minutes and responsibilities could benefit Despres in the long run, as head coach Dan Bylsma often seemed reluctant last season to play the young defenseman in a top four role. The Penguins want Despres to develop into a shutdown defenseman and play more physically, as his 6'4 frame and long reach could strike an imposing presence along the blue line.

Dumoulin is a former Boston College defenseman who is now in his second full season of professional hockey. He is not as dynamic as Despres, but plays a simple two-way style that should smoothly translate to the NHL. His strengths are typical of a Penguins defenseman; he is mobile, moves the puck up the ice quickly, has good vision, and possesses a high hockey IQ.

Rounding out the minor-league depth chart are defensemen Philip Samuelsson, Reid McNeill, Harrison Ruopp, and Nick D'Agostino.

Samuelsson is a former Boston College defenseman who is now in his third year of professional hockey. Standing at 6'2 and 195 pounds, he has gradually developed into a very solid shutdown defenseman. The 22-year-old will never be mistaken for his father Ulf, a former Penguins defenseman who built a reputation as one of the dirtiest players to ever play in the NHL, but the younger Samuelsson is nonetheless a tough, physical defenseman who is effective at blocking shots and clearing the front of his net.

Also bringing lots of size and toughness is McNeill. A second-year pro who spent the off-season training with Gary Roberts, McNeill plays a simple, physical brand of hockey. He has a very long reach and active stick, but is also very good at clearing his goaltender's crease. He is not particularly dynamic offensively, but he can capably move the puck up ice and out of danger. He still needs more reps at the AHL level, but his size, skating, and style of game are all good fits for a bottom-pairing role in the NHL.

Ruopp is another defensive defenseman who plays with a physical edge. Sidelined with an injury, Ruopp expected to eventually slot into the bottom defensive pairing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He has the requisite skating and is very strong, but as a first-year pro, he needs more experience before he can earn a call-up to the NHL.

Also making his professional debut this season is Nick D'Agostino. A Cornell grad, D'Agostino plays a simple, two-way style of game predicated around getting the puck up ice as quickly as possible. The 23-year-old is not an offensive dynamo, but is good at moving the puck and has a hard shot from the point. He was a very effective presence for Cornell's powerplay and it would not be surprising if, at some point, he works his way on to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton powerplay. At this point, he projects as a depth defensemen in the NHL.

Further down the pipeline are defensemen Clark Seymour, Ryan Segalla, and Dane Birks.

Seymour is a physical defenseman who is currently playing an overage season with the Peterborough Petes. He does not possess a great deal of upside, but is big, physical, and a willing pugilist.

Segalla is another very physical defenseman. Currently in his freshman season with the University of Connecticut, Segalla is a long-term project type of player who the Penguins staff seems to regard very highly. He has good skating and vision, but it is his nasty disposition that makes him such a tantalizing prospects. He is going to need a few years developing in college and a few more years after that in the minors, but he has a skill-set that is relatively unique.

Last but not least is Dane Birks, an offensively gifted defenseman with good size and skating ability. Birks is a late-bloomer who is going to follow a similar developmental route as D'Agostino, meaning another year of junior-A hockey followed by four years at the NCAA level. Birks is scheduled to attend Michigan Tech in the 2014-15 season.

Goaltenders

At the top of the Penguins goaltending depth chart is Tristan Jarry, a second-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Jarry is in his first year as a starter for the Edmonton Oil Kings and has been solid thus far. He is considered very strong mentally and rarely appears rattled after allowing a bad goal. He is also good at moving the puck. Goaltenders tend to take long to develop than any other position in hockey, so expect Jarry to spend at least one more year at the junior level, then several developing in the minors. It will be important to see how he fares in a starting role, as he has never played more than 27 regular season games.

Behind Jarry is OHL standout Matt Murray. A third round pick from the 2012 NHL Draft, Murray has been a breakout star this year, and currently leads the OHL in just about every meaningful category of statistics. He has a tall, rangy build and is good at taking away the bottom of the net. He signed an entry-level contract in September and will likely join the Penguins organization at the completion of his OHL season.

Playing at the ECHL level is Eric Hartzell, a former NCAA standout who signed with the Penguins last April. The 24-year-old is big, athletic, and carries himself with a certain air of confidence. He likes to come out of his crease to challenge shooters, and in general does a good job of getting square on the puck. He is also a big on-ice communicator and can be seen talking with teammates and chirping at opponents throughout the game.

Last but definitely not least is Sean Maguire, an athletic goaltender who is in his sophomore season with Boston University. Maguire plays a butterfly style and is very good at following the puck. He is currently vying for starting time with fellow sophomore Matt O'Connor, and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh