Penguins Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Ian Altenbaugh

Top 20 at a glance

1. Alex Goligoski
2. Carl Sneep
3. Luca Caputi
4. Dustin Jeffrey
5. Brian Strait
6. Tyler Kennedy
7. Alex Grant
8. Casey Pierro-Zabotel
9. Nick Johnson
10. John Curry
11. Robert Bortuzzo
12. Nathan Moon
13. Jake Muzzin
14. Keven Veilleux
15. Joe Vitale
16. Jonathan Filewich
17. Ryan Stone
18. David Brown
19. Michael Gergen
20. Nick D’Agostino

Luca Caputi and Dustin Jeffrey are players on the list who have raised their stock the most. After finishing fourth and ninth in the OHL in scoring and signing entry-level deals at the end of their playoff season last year, the two talented forwards along with Dartmouth’s Nick Johnson will be watched closely to see how they transition to their first full professional season.

Tyler Kennedy would have cemented his spot in the NHL if not for a bout with mononucleosis. Another highly touted prospect looking to graduate from the prospect list is Alex Goligoski. He had a standout season in the AHL and an injury to Ryan Whitney means that Goligoski will likely be given every opportunity to get a spot on the NHL roster.

Two once highly touted prospects who already have several AHL years under their belt but have yet to make the transition to the NHL are Ryan Stone and Jon Filewich. While various injuries may have stunted their development last year, they should be expected to make the most out of their opportunities in training camp and on callup, as neither looked comfortable playing in the NHL when given the chance last season.

One noticeable trend since Ray Shero has taken over as Penguins GM is his emphasis on size. While the Penguins claim to always draft the best athlete still available, it is undeniable that since Shero’s first draft in 2006, just one player, Nathan Moon, has been below six feet tall.

1. Alex Goligoski, D

5’11, 190 pounds
2nd round, 62nd overall, 2004
July 30th, 1985

The slick defenseman remains on the top of the Penguins prospect rankings after a stellar college career followed by an accomplishment filled season in the AHL including a playoff record for points scored by a defenseman.

Goligoski got a taste of the big stage in hockey when injuries to the Penguins blue line required call-ups from the farm. In his brief stint in the NHL, Goligoski did not look out of place, playing often on the second unit power play and seeing regular five-on-five time.

With Whitney undergoing foot surgery that could see him miss over 40 games, Goligoski may finally be looked upon to provide the Penguins a needed puck-moving presence along the blueline.

2. Carl Sneep, D (7.0 C)

6’4, 210 pounds
2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006
November 5th, 1987

In 2007, the right-handed blueliner helped lead Boston College to its second championship appearance in as many years and he was on his way to another successful season before he sustained a minor ankle injury from a blocked shot in the final game. This after the defenseman saw his development dramatically accelerated as Boston College looked for him to step up after losing several players to injuries early in the season. The big defenseman responded to the increased duties by earning All-Tournament honors at the Hockey East Tournament last March. He led defensemen on his team with 15 points in 44 games, and sacrificed his body en route to a team championship.

The Minnesota native has all the pieces to be a quality two-way defenseman in the NHL. He has good vision and defensive presence and while his game is based around positioning and using his stick, he is capable of playing the body and separating opponents from the play. His slap shot is not particularly accurate, but he was used effectively in the power play and because of the progress he made, should see increased work on special teams next season.

3. Luca Caputi, LW (7.0 C)

6’2, 190 pounds
4th round, 111st overall, 2007
October 1st, 1988

The talented left winger finally realized the potential he was drafted for last season when he almost doubled his point production from the season prior. He was signed to an entry-level contract by the Penguins and spent the spring battling in the AHL. Although his production in the AHL paled in comparison to his regular season output in the junior ranks, he was used often in a fourth-line role and by most accounts did not look out of place.

Caputi brings a nice mixture of speed, skill, and physicality to the Penguins roster and will be given a look in training camp alongside their many talented centers. What ultimately may keep Caputi off the bench though is his versatility. He can play a fourth-line energy role as effectively as a scoring wing role.

4. Dustin Jeffrey, C/LW (6.5 C)

6’3, 200 pounds
6th round, 171st overall, 2007
February 27th, 1985

Jeffrey’s 2007-08 season started with unexpected drama as he opened eyes in Penguins training camp and forced them to sign him to an entry-level contract in October. Although Jeffrey was eventually returned to his junior team, the impression he left was indelible. The left-handed forward from Sarnia, Ontario went on to lead the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in scoring for the second season with 38 goals and 97 points in only 56 games.

Jeffrey had an extended playoff trip with the Greyhounds as they rumbled to the conference finals until they encountered a talented Kitchener Rangers team and were dispatched in five games. His then joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for their run to the Calder Cup Finals.

Jeffrey could have a similar impact for the Penguins in 2008-09 that Tyler Kennedy did the season before. While the scrappy forward does generate a lot of offense, it mostly comes from hard work in front of and around the net — not dot-to-dot plays off the rush. Because of this decidedly blue-collar approach to generating offense, he can fill a variety of roles throughout the Penguins roster. If he does not make the NHL roster out of training camp, he will continue to hone his game in the AHL and be among the top candidates to get called up during the season.

5. Brian Strait, D (7.0 C)

6, 200 pounds
3rd round, 65th overall, 2006
January 1st, 1988

Drafted to eventually be a steadying and settling presence on the Penguins blueline, Strait continues to refine his game at Boston University. He is cementing his role as an every occasion defender – one who leads through hard work, consistent play, and smart decision-making.

While Strait’s ceiling is not as high as some of his fellow prospects, he has to be among the most consistent. His mental awareness and ability to play to his strengths are among his greatest tools as a defenseman and while he does not intimidate with his physical play, he will not tolerate the opposition in his own end, let alone his team’s crease.

Strait’s development has come along nicely and he should make a smooth transition from the college to professional ranks.

6. Tyler Kennedy, C/RW (6.5 B)

5’10, 183 pounds
4th round, 99th overall, 2004
July 15th, 1986

After dominating the junior ranks and a very brief stint in the AHL, Kennedy saw his first taste of the biggest stage in hockey and did not look out of place, scoring ten 10s and posting 19 points in 55 games. Kennedy’s body was not prepared for the rigors of an 82-game NHL season and he was eventually placed on the injured reserve list after he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Upon his return from the draining disease, he was a shell of his early season self. His physical play and feisty nature remained but his offensiv,e instincts disappeared. 

Throughout the season he filled numerous roles, playing as Sidney Crosby’s wing on the first line to centering a fourth line with Georges Laraque. Eventually he settled in as Jordan Staal’s right winger on the third line and although his scoring disappeared, the two formed part of a very effective tandem that was often used to shut down the opposition’s top lines.

Kennedy surprised everyone with how quickly he adapted to the pro game and impressed with his willingness to muck it up with guys much bigger and older then he is. The Penguins will be relying on the feisty forward to make up for some of the sandpaper lost in the departures of Jarkko Ruutu and Gary Roberts. 

7. Alex Grant, D (7.5 D)

6’2, 190 pounds
4th round, 118th overall, 2007
January 1st, 1989

Drafted for his puck-handling and skating abilities, Grant has considerably raised his stock the past season after leading his team in points for a defenseman and improving his play in all parts of the ice.

Grant is a right-handed puck moving defenseman who could one day skate alongside Whitney or Goligoski on the power play. 

While Grant’s skills best suit him for a top-four spot on the defense, he plays a defensively responsible and physical enough style he could still carve out a role if relegated to being a fifth or sixth defenseman.

Grant is going to return for one more season in juniors and at the conclusion of his season in the QMJHL, could join the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for the playoffs.

8. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C/LW (7.0 D)

6’2, 210 pounds
3rd round, 80th overall, 2007
January 1st, 1989

Pierro-Zabotel was drafted for his offensive ability and after an impressive rookie season in the WHL, where he posted 48 points in 49 games while playing for the Vancouver Giants, the gifted forward validated the Penguins taking him in the third round.

The big forward does his best work in front of the net, using his large frame to screen goaltenders and his soft hands to make the most out of the opportunities he gets. He is a strong north-south skater and is hard to knock off the puck.

If his skills translate to the professional ranks, he could be a major contributor for the Penguins down the road as big, physical forwards with offensive skill are always at a premium.

9. Nick Johnson, RW (6.5 C/W)

6’1, 190 pounds
3rd round, 67th overall, 2004
December 12th, 1985

After playing for Dartmouth the last four years, Johnson transitioned to the professional ranks last spring, where he posted two assists in four regular season and 10 playoff games.

Johnson’s offensive abilities are not disputed as he averaged almost a point per game for an often anemic Big Green offense, but, like some of the other Penguins prospects, Johnson’s greatest assets cannot be measured through numbers. A leader on and off the ice, Johnson built a reputation at Dartmouth for keeping players’ spirits high after a close loss and holding teammates accountable after a lopsided defeat. He leads by example on the ice too, playing in any role assigned and willingly sacrificing his body if needed. 

Johnson will play in the AHL next season but should be on the shortlist for NHL callup duties. His versatility and somewhat unrealized offensive potential makes him an intriguing prospect.

10. John Curry, G (6.5 C)

5’11, 185 pounds
Signed as a free agent in 2007
February 27th, 1984

Curry picked up his professional career where he left off as a top collegiate back stopper. The Boston University product and Hobey Baker finalist, signed with the Penguins in 2007 to supply goaltending depth for the Penguins minor league affiliates but ended up becoming the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s starting goaltender by the end of November.

With Marc-Andre Fleury on a seven-year deal, there are no questions in net regarding a starter. However, depending on how Dany Sabourin plays as backup, Curry could see time in the NHL as a backup as soon as next season.

Where he fits into the Penguins long-term plans remains undetermined, but his right-handed shot, thick frame, and play in front of the net combined with a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it to the next level bode well.

11. Robert Bortuzzo, D (6.5 C)

6’3, 196 pounds
3rd round, 78th overall, 2007
March 18th, 1989

A physical defenseman for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, Bortuzzo capped off his 2007-08 junior season with a Memorial Cup victory. The defensively-minded blueliner continues to refine his game in the OHL and is still at least a year away from playing in the professional ranks.

At 6’3, he has a huge wingspan that he can use to help block shooting lanes and tie players up against the boards. While Bortuzzo is never going to be mistaken for an offensive catalyst, he is an decent passer and has a good enough first step to join the rush.

The Penguins hope Bortuzzo can eventually take the role of Hall Gill or Rob Scuderi, as a player who can kill penalties, block shots, and clear the front of the net.

12. Nathan Moon, C/RW (7.0 D)

5’11, 180 lbs
4th round, 120th overall, 2008
January 4th, 1990

A possible draft-day steal, despite scoring a team-best 35 goals and 77 points in 68 games, Moon posted a team-worst -25. The Penguins believe, however, the good outweighs the bad and as a right-handed center who can play wing and has a natural nose for the net, Moon brings coveted assets to an organization with a noticeable lack of right-handed scoring wingers.

The biggest blemish on Moon’s game is that he occasionally takes a shift off during the game. Another criticism leveled against him is that he is a complementary forward, unable to elevate the play of those around him. Already having a fairly good group of young playmaking forwards as well as a winning environment, the Penguins hope that an eventual change of scenery will benefit the talented forward from Ontario.

13. Jake Muzzin D (6.5 C)

6’2, 206 lbs
5th round, 141st overall, 2007
February 21st, 1989

A prospect who has had an up and down adventure getting to where he is, Muzzin has squelched any doubt as to whether he was going to be able to continue to play hockey and is now one of the top defensemen on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

At 6’2 and 206 pounds, the 19-year-old already has an NHL frame and room to further fill out. What separates him from other Penguins prospects of similar size though is his ability and willingness to use that size to punish and intimidate opponents.

While Muzzin is primarily known as a physical player, he can chip in offensively from and will see more time on special teams next season as Denny Lambert takes over the coaching duties of the Greyhounds for the departed Craig Hartsburg.

Muzzin projects as a second pairing, stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL. Right now he is still considered raw though and needs at least one more year in juniors. Depending on how the Greyhounds do in the OHL, Muzzin could join the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins towards the end of their season.

14. Keven Veilleux, C (7.0 D)

6’5, 200 pounds
2nd round, 51st overall, 2007
June 27th, 1989

While he brings a unique package of skill, size, and physicality to the ice, Veilleux has perplexed scouts with his ability to dominate one game and disappear the next.

His production seems to have stalled during the 2007-08 season despite a trade to Rimouski that saw his offensive responsibilities increase. The 6’5 forward still averaged over a point per game and actually increased his production from 55 points in 2006-07 to 64 points but expectations for him still remain far above the 17 goals and 47 assists he produced last season.

This upcoming season will be telling for Veilleux as he will be starting his first full season in Rimouski as well as his fourth season in juniors, a key season in a player’s development. Also, with Alex Frolik signing with the Florida Panthers, he will be counted on to produce more of his team’s offense.

Veilleux is already the biggest guy on his team and among the biggest in the Penguins organization. His size and skill make him a perfect complimentary forward to one of the Penguins top centers but he must first prove that he can produce offense on a consistent basis.

15. Joe Vitale, C (6.5 D)

5’11, 205 lbs
7th round, 195th overall, 2005
August 20th, 1985

Vitale was first noticed as a teammate of Patrick Mullen, son of then Penguins assistant coach Joe Mullen, while playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. The Penguins took Vitale in the seventh round because they liked his tenacious and in-your-face style of play.

Vitale has delivered on all of those, and carved out a nice role at Northeastern University as their top scorer, and a leader on and off the ice.

16. Jonathan Filewich RW (6.5 D)

6’2, 208 pounds
2nd round, 62nd overall, 2004
October 2nd, 1984

A one-time very highly touted prospect, Filewich saw his point totals dip from 30 goals in 2006-07 to just 10 in 2007-08. While some of the regression in offensive output can be attributed to injuries and being caught in a painful cycle of declining production and ice time, more serious issues of poor defensive play and a seeming inability or unwillingness to play more physically plagued Filewich throughout the season.

Filewich should enter Penguins training camp intent on proving that last season was an aberration. This upcoming season will be a telling one for Filewich as he will be 24 at the start of the season and has yet to crack the NHL roster with any regularity. 

17. Ryan Stone, C (6.0 D)

6’1, 190 lbs
2nd round, 32nd overall, 2003
March 20th, 1985

Initially looking as though he could develop into a top-flight center, having posted 99 points for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL in his second season after being drafted, Stone’s professional career has been a rollercoaster riddled with injuries, setbacks, and scoring droughts.

Stone’s first pro season started rocky, but ended smoothly as many young players experience in their first season after going pro. His second season, albeit abbreviated due to injuries, Stone seemed to have gotten his production on track, generating 33 points in 41 games. What happened to Stone between the 2006-07 and the 2007-08 season remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, his play seemed to have regressed. The good news for Stone and the Penguins was that he seemed to have regained his scoring touch for the playoffs and played a key role in their run to the Calder Cup Finals.

What awaits the young forward next season remains to be seen. If he has a strong training camp, he could force Penguins management to put him on the NHL roster. The Penguins should have an influx of young talent in the next two seasons, which means for Stone, the time to prove he is an NHL player is fast coming. 

18. David Brown, G (6.0 C)

6’0, 185 pounds
8th round, 228th overall, 2004
February 11th, 1985

When the Penguins selected Brown towards the end of the 2004 draft, they had hoped that he would one day be able to provide depth in the goalie crease. So far he has made them look pretty astute.

Brown capped off his prestigious college career that included winning 30 of his 39 appearances in his senior season, being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and guiding the Fighting Irish their first CCHA regular-season and playoff championships ever, by signing an entry-level deal with Pittsburgh.

Although he started out playing in the ECHL, Brown quickly split goaltending duties with John Curry in the AHL after goalie Ty Conklin laid claim to a spot on the Penguins NHL roster. Brown can may again start in the ECHL this season, but it is by no means an indictment of his play as it is the Penguins want to see him get as many quality starts as possible. With the way the Penguins’ goaltending carousel has gone the past couple seasons because of injuries and inconistency, it is not outlandish to suggest that like his colleague Curry, Brown could see NHL time sooner than many expected.

19. Michael Gergen, LW (6.0 D)

5’10, 185 lbs
Drafted in the 2nd round, 61st overall, 2005
Born: February 17th, 1987

Drafted in the second round because of the 64 goals in 69 games he scored for Shattuck-St. Mary’s of the USHS, Michael Gergen has not exactly rocked the NCAA ranks with the same authority he did the prep school circuit. In fairness to him however, the University of Minnesota-Duluth team he played on the last three years had 3, 13, and 13 wins respectively.

While the Penguins had maybe initially hoped Gergen could round into form and be a future linemate for Sidney Crosby, his development to this point suggests his talents may have been overestimated. Nonetheless, he remains a dedicated team player and has been among the top scorers on his team.

As of now Gergen will finish his college career and head for hopefully greener pastures in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He could eventually fill a third-line scoring role for the Penguins as a player who can fill in on a top line in case of injury and chip in around 10 goals a season.

20. Nick D’Agostino, RW (6.5 D)

6’3, 192 lbs
7th round, 210th overall, 2008
June 24th, 1990

A player who flew under many draft radars, D’Agostino had played for the Junior-A team, the St. Michaels Buzzers during 2007-08. He plans to attend Cornell University in 2009 so he is still many years removed from even sniffing the NHL but brings a promising package of size, speed, and character to the Penguins organization.

D’Agostino is considered a two-way defenseman, and although he will never generate a great deal of points, he has a hard low shot and a good outlet pass. He needs to work on his leg strength as he does not get enough distance or power out of his strides. His lateral movement and positioning are very good for a player his age.

The Penguins last pick in the 2008 draft could prove to be a very good one if he continues to develop and refine his vast but very raw talents.