The Pittsburgh Penguins will begin a new era in 2014-15, with a new coach, new management team, and an overhauled roster at the NHL and minor league levels. For the first time in a while, the organization is deep at every position and there should be a lot of competition within the prospect pool for the remaining open spots on the NHL roster.
Offseason shoulder surgery and a deep defensive pool at the NHL level will likely force Derrick Pouliot to start the 2014-15 season in the AHL, but it should not be long before he is a regular along the Penguins blue line. Pouliot plays an up-tempo brand of hockey and excels at quickly transitioning the puck into the offensive zone. He is not the biggest player on the ice but plays with a cantankerous streak.
Pouliot has the offensive acumen and hockey IQ to be a to play in the NHL right away, and he has the unusual advantage of having already played for the Penguins new head coach Mike Johnston, who was the head coach of Pouliot’s junior team, the Portland Winterhawks.
Brian Dumoulin, D, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Several defensive prospects should see time in the NHL this season, but Brian Dumoulin is probably the most NHL ready in terms of physical maturity and professional experience. He would probably start the 2014-15 season in the NHL on another team, but the Penguins have a lot of waiver eligible defensemen in their system and Dumoulin is not among them, so outside of an exceptional end to training camp, he will start he year in the AHL.
The 23-year-old defenseman is extremely versatile. He can play on both special teams and possesses a heavy shot from the point. He is also very big, at 6’4 and well north of 200 pounds. He does not play with an overly mean streak, and he probably is at his best when going unnoticed, but Dumoulin brings a lot of desirable, NHL quality traits to the lineup.
Anton Zlobin, RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
If the 2014 AHL playoffs were any indicator, Zlobin is on the cusp of a breakout season in 2014-15. After managing only eight goals and 11 assists through 46 games in the AHL, Zlobin exploded in the postseason, rattling off six goals and four assists in 15 games. Three of his six goals were game-winners.
Much of Zlobin’s success can be attributed to shooting the puck more. He managed 36 shots in 15 games, many of which were quality chances, and he was the Penguins most consistent offensive threat for much of the AHL postseason.
The Penguins expect Zlobin to carry that postseason momentum to start the 2014-15 regular season, and given the quality of offensive talent they brought into their minor league system, those expectations are reasonable. He has great hands in tight and is one of the few snipers in the Penguins system.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Tom Kühnhackl, LW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
While many of the Penguins defensive prospects have flourished in their minor league system and are now close to NHL ready, many of the forwards have languished. Whether it has been injuries, a lack of offensive talent around him, or general misfortune, Tom Kuhnhackl is representative of a lot that has gone wrong with the Penguins forward prospects. A standout on the international stage and in the OHL, Kunhnhackl has failed to consistently produce offense at the professional level.
He is not in the third and final year of his entry-level contract and must put up points if he wants the Penguins to even qualify him, let alone sign him to a contract extension. Fortunately for Kuhnhackl, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are expected to have one of their most talented lineups in a long time, and there will be plenty of playmaking forwards to feed him the puck. Conversely, Kuhnhackl will have to maximize every opportunity he gets, as the Penguins newfound depth also means his spot on the roster can be easily replaced.
In 2013-14, his first season as a starting goaltender, Tristan Jarry registered 44 wins, more than any other goaltender in Canadian major junior hockey. He also posted eight shutouts, a 2.24 goals against average, won a WHL Championship, and later helped the Oil Kings to a Memorial Cup.
It would be asking a lot for Jarry to replicate his breakout season, especially given the fact the Oil Kings graduated some of their top players like Henrik Samuelsson (ARZ) and Griffin Reinhart (NYI), but Edmonton is once again icing a competitive team, and Jarry has the ability to carry a team for long stretches.
Jaden Lindo, RW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
A physical winger who plays a high energy style of game, Lindo may have experienced a breakout season in 2013-14 if not for an injury to his left knee, which limited him to 40 games and 18 points. The 18-year-old winger is extremely tenacious on the forecheck and likes to deliver crunching body checks. He is not extremely tall at 6’1, but is thickly built, strong, and hard to knock off the puck.
Assuming he is healthy, Lindo should have an offensively productive 2014-15 season with the Owen Sound Attack, especially if he is able to secure a regular spot in the top nine.
Top Amateur Prospect
Jake Guentzel, C, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (NCHC)
If his late season offensive surge was any indication, Jake Guentzel should be primed for a big offensive year for Nebraska-Omaha. Guentzel managed 18 points in the final 14 games of the 2013-14 season, finishing with 34 points in 37 games as a freshman.
Guentzel will have to play with a bit more of a goal-scorer’s mindset now that linemate Josh Archibald went pro, but he has the hands and the hockey IQ to make it happen. He is not overly big at 5’10 and 175 pounds, but he has the skill, speed, and mindset to one day develop into an effective top-nine forward in the NHL.
Teddy Blueger, C, Minnesota State Mavericks (WCHA)
It is not as if Teddy Blueger had a poor sophomore season at Minnesota State. He managed 26 points in 40 games, seven more than he posted as a freshman, but expectations were substantially higher. Blueger is a dynamic talent, polished in the faceoff circle and quite adept at playing with and without the puck. He is also extremely responsible defensively and tries to somehow always be involved in the play.
Minnesota State is a hard working team that is not as deep as some of the other teams in the WCHA. Combined with the graduation of several of their top scorers, Blueger will likely see increased time in both even strength and special team situations.
Blaine Byron, C, Maine Black Bears (Hockey East)
The offense came in spurts for Byron during 2013-14. A dynamic, but undersized forward, Byron should be much more consistent for the Black Bears in 2014-15 and has the overall potential to be a very productive forward in the NCAA.
Byron does his best work with the puck. However, he became comfortable playing wing during his freshman season, which often involves playing a lot more away from the puck, and should be a more productive player as a result.
Top European Prospect
Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa (Liiga)
Forward Kasperi Kapanen might be starting the 2014-15 season in the NHL, so his status as a European prospect could be fleeting. However, if he does not make the NHL roster, Kapanen is expected to return to KalPa for another season.
The 18-year-old is an elusive, skilled player with blazing speed and soft hands in tight. He is a natural right wing, and should eventually slot in comfortably next to superstar centers Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Kapanen is not the biggest player on the ice, but he is already bigger than his dad, Sami Kapanen, a speedy forward who was remarkably durable during his 12-year NHL career. Furthermore, the younger Kapanen oozes hockey sense and is extremely elusive, which allows him to avoid a lot of physical punishment.
If he is returned to Finland, it will not be for long.
Oskar Sundqvist, C, Skelleftea (SHL)
Like Kapanen, Sundqvist might not be long for European prospect status. Sundqvist has made a lasting impression on Penguins head coach Mike Johnston, who loves Sundqvist’s size, tenacity, and ability to kill penalties. The big Swedish center has played mostly on a fourth line in training camp with Blake Comeau and Craig Adams, and there is an off chance he could center the fourth line for the Penguins at the NHL level, if not this season, then in the near future.
Ultimately, Sundqvist projects as a top nine forward who can play both center and wing, kill penalties, and chip in offensively. He has a unique combination of size and speed, and the fact he enjoys playing physical is an added bonus. If Sundqvist does return to Skelleftea for the 2014-15 season, he will almost assuredly join the Penguins roster when his season in the SHL is over.
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