Penguins Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Ian Altenbaugh

Top 20 at a glance

1. Alex Goligoski, D
2. Alex Grant, D
3. Luca Caputi, LW
4. Dustin Jeffrey, C
5. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, LW
6. Brian Strait, D
7. Carl Sneep, D
8. Nick Johnson, RW
9. John Curry, G
10. Ben Lovejoy, D
11. Joe Vitale, C
12. Jake Muzzin, D
13. Nathan Moon, C
14. Chad Johnson, G
15. Keven Veilleux, RW
16. Tim Crowder, RW
17. Nicholas D’Agostino, D
18. Robert Bortuzzo, D
19. Joey Haddad, RW
20. Alexander Pechurski, G

The Penguins’ spring top 20 is noticeably different than the fall. Players such as Alex Grant, Ben Lovejoy, and Chad Johnson have increased their value over the past six months while others such as Ryan Stone, John Filewich, and Tyler Kennedy have been traded to different organizations or graduated to the NHL.

Still, the basic overall theme remains the same. There is a glut of scrappy forwards with offensive potential, a group of defensemen with top-four potential, and several promising goaltending prospects. The one area that is severely lacking is a top-six scoring winger. There is belief that Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Luca Caputi could eventually develop into linemates for Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin but there is not much beyond those two players.

1. Alex Goligoski, D – 8.0C
5’11, 180 pounds
2nd round, 62nd overall, 2004
July 30th, 1985

The first half of the 2008-09 season was a rousing success for the Goligoski, having posted four goals and six assists in his first 20 games. The Minnesota native saw plenty of time on the top power-play unit and played a regular even-strength shift. However, once Ryan Whitney returned in late December, Goligoski’s role in the team went into limbo. By the beginning of February he was returned to the Penguins AHL affiliate to assure he got plenty of ice time.

Despite being returned to the Penguins AHL affiliate, Goligoski proved to be a capable top-four defenseman during his time in the NHL. He experienced typical rookie lapses in his defensive play, but continued to improve as the season went along. The 23-year-old is far from a finished project though as he still needs to work on his play along the blue line and join the rush with more frequency. Already a veteran of 47 regular season NHL games, Goligoski is the Penguins top prospect and has already proven to be an impact player at the highest level of hockey.

2. Alex Grant, D – 7.5C

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

One of the newest members of the Penguins’ ever-growing fraternity of puck-moving defensemen, Alex Grant possesses a diverse enough skill package to play anywhere in the lineup. Bothered early in his season by a concussion sustained in the Penguins rookie tournament, Grant managed to post respectable numbers, leading his team in scoring as a defenseman up until his trade to the Shawinigan Cataractes in early January. Arriving in Shawinigan on fire, Grant posted eight points in his first six games, but has since cooled off.

Grant can fill a variety of roles for the Penguins. His high level of skill and mobility suggests that he could play as a top-four defenseman. Still, various parts of his game need to be refined. His defensive play can occasionally be an adventure and he still has a propensity for overplaying the puck. He also needs better control his emotions on the ice.

The 20-year-old defenseman signed an entry-level contract with the Penguins in late October, all but assuring that he will join the Penguins AHL affiliate when his junior season is finished.

3. Luca Caputi, LW – 7.0C
6’3, 185 pounds
4th round, 111st overall, 2007
October 1st, 1988

While the Toronto native’s career in the NHL is still burgeoning, Caputi has proven to be able to adapt his game to any level of hockey. Starting out the season in the AHL, the 20-year-old forward struggled at first to adapt to the professional style of game. After the mid-way point, however, Caputi was one of the top performers for the Penguins AHL affiliate, averaging a point per game in December and January.

With the Penguins NHL squad riddled with injuries and struggling to maintain a playoff spot, Caputi received a call up to the NHL. On his first shift of his first NHL game, Caputi scored a goal in the way he knows best: fighting in front of the net and swatting at loose pucks until the whistle blows or the goal light goes on.

It is still too early to properly gauge what type of role Caputi would fit in the NHL. He possesses the lower-body strength and offensive ability to be a power forward but he will have to fill out his frame to better suit the rigors of NHL hockey.

4. Dustin Jeffrey, C – 6.5C
6’1, 205 pounds
6th round, 171st overall, 2007
February 27th, 1985

Like Caputi, Jeffrey has played in three different levels of hockey in less than a year. Jeffrey’s role within the organization is defined by his work and effort. He excels in the faceoff circle, on the penalty kill, is physical on the forecheck, and has some offensive ability. With injuries to Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot, and Tyler Kennedy, Jeffrey was given an opportunity to play in the NHL earlier in the fall. While Jeffrey’s faceoff ability did not initially translate to the NHL, he steadily improved in that area, as well as in his defensive work.

The 6’1 center will likely never be a top-six contributor at the NHL level but is a good enough skater and has a diverse enough skill package to see top-six duties in certain situations.  If Jeffrey can adapt to the wing, he could make a similar impact to the team as Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis.

5. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, LW – 7.5D
6’2, 210 pounds
3rd round, 80th overall, 2007
January 1st, 1989

In his first full season in the WHL, Pierro-Zabotel has shown he already may be too big and strong for the CHL level. Playing most of the season alongside top prospect Evander Kane, Pierro-Zabotel possesses a gaudy plus/minus north of 50 and has collected 95 points in only 55 games for the Vancouver Giants. This season he has over 25 multi-point outings and has been held off the score sheet on only six occasions and never for more than one game at a time.

A big-bodied, thick-framed forward, Pierro-Zabotel has the mix of strength, skill, and hockey sense to develop into a power forward. He is unafraid to play in high traffic areas, particularly in front of the net, has shown a high level of durability, and is capable of playing both center and wing.

The Giants are one of the top teams in the CHL and should compete for the Memorial Cup this spring. To cap off an already stellar season, Pierro-Zabotel is in contention for the Bob Clarke Trophy (the WHL league scoring title), and could still have time to join the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for their playoff run.  

6. Brian Strait, D – 6.5C

6’1, 200 pounds
3rd round, 65th overall, 2006
January 4th, 1988

An alternate captain for No. 1 ranked Boston University, Strait has been stellar in a defensive role for the Terriers this year, leading one of NCAA hockey’s stingiest defenses to its 29th Beanpot championship.

Often deployed against opposing teams’ top forwards, Strait plays a smart, simple game, eliminating passing lanes, blocking shots, and rubbing out opponents in his zone. He has a crisp first pass and is a strong, mobile skater.

In his junior season and with the chance to compete for a Frozen Four title, Strait’s immediate future with the Penguins remains unknown. Strait remains the most NHL-ready of the unsigned Penguins prospects.

7. Carl Sneep, D – 6.5C

6’3, 210 pounds
2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006
November 5th, 1987

Sneep may never be known as a physical or offensive force, but that is not his role. The mobile defender plays a two-way position based game based on making smart plays and sacrificing his body.

The 22-year-old brings a smart, mobile presence to the Penguins organization and is importantly is right-handed, a trait lacking in many other Penguins prospects. He possesses a good outlet pass, and sees time on the power play for Boston College but he is better suited as in a defensive role for the professional game. 

8. Nick Johnson, RW – 6.5C

6’2, 200 pounds
3rd round, 67th overall, 2004
December 12th, 1985

The Penguins initially assigned Johnson to their ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, West Virginia. After scoring 14 goals in 18 games though, the 6’2 winger was called up to the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Since his call-up to the AHL, Johnson has posted 14 points (7 goals and 7 assists) in 26 games. 

Johnson plays a decidedly blue-collar style of game. The Dartmouth standout possesses offensive instincts as demonstrated by his prolific scoring pace in the ECHL, but will likely settle into a checking-line role as he climbs the ladder. The 23-year-old can play in all situations and is considered a leader on and off the ice.

9. John Curry, G – 6.0B
5’11, 185 pounds
Signed as a free agent in 2007
February 27th, 1984

Although Curry did make the Penguins NHL squad out of training camp, it was mostly due to the fact that they needed three goaltenders for their season opener in Sweden. Upon return to North America, the Minnesota native initially struggled and ended up playing in a platoon with veteran Adam Berkhoel. Due to an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury however, Curry was called up to the NHL as backup to Dany Sabourin. Despite being in the NHL for almost a month, Curry appeared in only three games, posting a respectable 2.40 GAA and .913 save percentage. Upon being returned to the AHL, the athletic goaltender took over the starting job, winning five of his six starts in December and eight of his 10 starts in January. He won player of the week honors for February 2-8 for posting a 1.80 GAA, a .952 save percentage, and a shutout. 

In Curry’s NHL cup of coffee, he demonstrated the ability to play consistently regardless of the circumstances in front of him. With Mathieu Garon an expected unrestricted free agent, Curry could find himself as Fleury’s backup in 2009-10.

The most positive attributes that Curry brings to the ice are his poise and confidence. He gives the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins a chance to win every night and steals enough games to assure he remains the undisputed starter on the team. 

10. Ben Lovejoy, D – 6.0B

6’2, 214 pounds
Signed as free agent in 2007
February 20th 1984

The top defenseman on the Penguins AHL affiliate for most of the season, Lovejoy was rewarded for his steady play in early December with a two-game cup of coffee in the NHL. He did not disappoint, playing physical, blocking shots, and making several key defensive plays as the last man back. He also saw spot duty with the man-advantage and did not look out of place.

Lovejoy’s versatility makes him a great asset for the Penguins organization. Skilled enough to play point with the man-advantage, he is also defensively sound enough to kill penalties. While the 6’2 defenseman does not shy away from physical contact, he is not to be considered an overly physical presence along the blue line. 

Depending on how the off-season shakes out, Lovejoy could find himself starting for Pittsburgh next October.

11. Joe Vitale, C – 6.5C
5’11, 202 pounds
7th round, 195th overall, 2005
August 20th, 1985

The captain of the Northeastern Huskies, Joe Vitale has come a long way since his freshman season in which his team won only three games the entire season. Now in his senior season, the Huskies are among the top-ranked teams in collegiate hockey, and are on schedule to make their first post-season appearance in 15 years.

Vitale plays a physical two-way game. He gets pucks to the net, works hard along the boards, and plays with a little bit of an edge. The Missouri native possesses some offensive ability, but defensive play is where he excels. When his season at Northeastern ends, he will likely join the Penguins AHL affiliate in the spring.

12. Jake Muzzin, D – 6.5C

6’3, 223 pounds
5th round, 141st overall, 2007
February 21st, 1989

Playing for a young and struggling team can have its advantages. With the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds season all but over, defenseman Jake Muzzin has been given all the ice time he can handle. Played often against the opponent’s top forwards, the physical blue-liner has been used as a shutdown defenseman, playing on both special teams, and in the last minutes of the game.

Muzzin brings a unique blend of size, skill, and physicality to the ice. Known always as a physical presence along the blue line, the Ontario native is also able to distribute the puck and play the point on the power play. He will likely never be a big goal scorer but has a quick one-timer that typically makes contact with the net.

With the Greyhounds season likely to end in mid-March, the road has been paved for Muzzin to join one of the Penguins minor-league affiliates.

13. Nathan Moon, C – 7.0D
5’11, 185 pounds
4th round, 120th overall, 2008
January 4th, 1990 

The Penguins first pick of the 2008 NHL entry draft has had a tumultuous third season on a struggling Kingston Frontenacs team. A player who has always run a little hot on the ice, Moon has found his frustration boil over on too many occasions this season, getting called for retaliatory penalties and too often allowing opposing players to force him off his game. Despite the poor season though, Moon remains an offensive talent with enormous potential. A change of scenery and a more disciplined setting could benefit the young forward immensely.

Moon possesses several attributes the Penguins desire: natural goal-scoring ability, good speed, mental and physical toughness, and a right-handed shot. If he can transition his game to the wing, then his value to the organization will rise immensely. The 19-year-old Moon will likely return to the OHL for another season but could possibly see time this spring with WBS.

14. Chad Johnson, G – 7.0D

6’2, 175 pounds
5th round, 125th overall, 2006
June 10th, 1986

It has been a rollercoaster of a college career for Chad Johnson, the athletic starting goaltender for the Alaska Nanooks. Currently among the league leaders in goals against, save percentage, and shutouts, Johnson was rewarded for his high level of play on November 24 and again on December 1st as the CCHA Goalie of the Week. The Alberta native gives the Nanooks a chance to win every game but because Alaska does not score many goals, his current 9-10-5 seems deceiving.

With Curry slated to be Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup in 2009-10, the ground is set for Johnson, and goaltending prospect David Brown to compete for the top goaltending spot in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

15. Keven Veilleux, C – 7.0D

6’5, 214 pounds
2nd round, 51st overall, 2007
June 27th, 1989

The 2008-09 season started out well for Veilleux as he posted 14 points (5 goals and 9 assists) in his first 10 games. In his 17th game of the season however, Veilleux sustained a shoulder injury that would sideline him indefinitely. After months of rehab, the 6’5 forward opted to forgo his shoulder surgery until the end of the season so he could return to help Rimouski in the playoffs.

Veilleux brings an intriguing mix of size and skill, but questions remain about his commitment to playing at a high level on a consistent basis. His puck-distribution skills are already top-notch but he still needs to work on his skating. He also needs to play with a greater level of physicality and better use his frame to intimidate.

16. Tim Crowder, RW – 6.5C

6’2, 180 pounds
5th round, 126th overall, 2005
October 16th, 1986

Because of his size and instinct for scoring goals, Crowder is one of the more intriguing prospects in the Penguins system. A senior with the Michigan State Spartans, Crowder has had a decidedly down year despite being second on the team in scoring. The dip in production however is largely due to the fact that the Spartans boast one of the most anemic offenses in college hockey. Crowder suffered a shoulder injury in mid-January, and will likely miss the remainder of his senior season.

Crowder is a versatile, big-bodied forward who can play in front of the net as well as on the point. He is a good puck-distributor, often quarterbacking Michigan’s power play, but is better suited physically to play in high-traffic areas and along the boards. 

17. Nicholas D’Agostino, – D 6.5C
6’3, 192 pounds
7th round, 210th overall, 2008
June 24th, 1990

The Penguins only prospect playing in Junior A hockey, D’Agostino is one of the top defensemen on the St. Michaels Buzzers. Despite playing on a struggling team that experienced several coaching changes, the young defenseman has excelled, achieving great levels of individual success.

Playing under coach and former NHLer Cam Stewart is what D’Agostino claims has helped his progression more than an increase in ice time or responsibilities. However, the increased time and responsibilities have shown off D’Agostino’s ability to distribute the puck and quarterback the power play.

18. Robert Bortuzzo, D 6.5C
6’4, 207 pounds
3rd round, 78th overall, 2007
March 18th, 1989

Bortuzzo made his 2008-09 debut January 23 and while he finished his first game of the season a -3, his season finally began, for the first time in a long time, injury-free. The 6’4 defenseman is still regaining his confidence, however, as he has at times shied from physical play and has been called for a handful of holding and hooking penalties.

While two-thirds of the season indeed raises concerns about the player’s durability, the Penguins gave Bortuzzo the green light for the operation and he appears to have recovered fully. Like with many of his other 2007 draftmates, Bortuzzo could be joining the Penguins AHL affiliate as early as mid-March.

19. Joey Haddad, RW – 6.5D
6’2, 200 pounds
Signed as free agent in 2008
October 12th, 1988

A surprise in the Penguins rookie tournament in Kitchener, Haddad was invited to the Penguins NHL camp, and subsequently their AHL affiliate before being signed to an entry-level contract. After signed the big-bodied winger returned to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL.

Haddad is able to find open ice, has a quick wrist shot, and averages over four shots a game. Still, the role he is best suited for is as a third or fourth line agitator. At the end of the 20-year-old’s season, he will join either the Penguins AHL or ECHL affiliate.

20. Alexander Pechurski, G – 7.0D
6’0, 187 pounds
5th round, 150th overall, 2008
June 4th, 1990

The belief by Penguins management was that if there was a Russian transfer agreement in place, Pechurski would have easily been a second or third-round pick. Instead, he was taken in the fifth round.

The 18-year-old from Magnitogorsk, Russia, is still considered a raw talent and very much a project. At times displays great poise between the pipes while at other times, he will allow a soft goal to throw him off his game. When on his game however, Pechurski is an athletic netminder good at closing the five-hole and making spectacular plays.