Penguins Top 20 prospects, Fall 2009

By Ian Altenbaugh

The Penguins have spent the last few seasons drafting and developing talented wingers with hopes that they can eventually compliment the team’s trio of talented centers currently playing in the NHL. With Luca Caputi and Nick Johnson returning to the Penguins AHL affiliate for their second season and Eric Tangradi, Casey Pierro-Zabotel, and Keven Veilleux starting their first season in the AHL in 2009-10, the plan appears to be well in motion.

In addition to the large contingent of offensively-minded wingers in the system, the Penguins have made great strides to assure their defensive prospect pool remains deep, drafting four defensemen in the 2009 Entry Draft.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Eric Tangradi
2. Alex Goligoski
3. Simon Despres
4. Brian Strait
5. Luca Caputi
6. Dustin Jeffrey
7. Nick Johnson
8. Casey Pierro-Zabotel
9. Ben Hanowski
10. Keven Veilleux
11. Alex Grant
12. Joe Vitale
13. Nathan Moon
14. Robert Bortuzzo
15. Carl Sneep
16. Brad Thiessen
17. Nicholas D’Agostino
18. Philip Samuelsson
19. Alexander Pechurski
20. Alex Velischek

1. Eric Tangradi, LW – 8.0B

6’4, 225 pounds
2nd round, 42nd overall, 2007
February 10th, 1989

The Philadelphia native was acquired this spring as part of the deal that brought winger Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh and sent defenseman Ryan Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks. An impressive OHL playoff run in which Tangradi posted 21 points in 16 games was cut short in an April 26th match against Brampton when the winger suffered a deep laceration along his wrist, severing a tendon to the point where it partially recoiled up his arm. After a series of off-season procedures and physical therapy, Tangradi looks to have regained full mobility in his wrist, just in time for the beginning of the 2009-10 season.

With a prototypical power-forward build and skills to match, Tangradi can score goals off the rush with a hard accurate wrist shot, one-time pucks from the high-slot with a hard slap-shot, redirect passes and shots from in front of the net, and use brute force to create offense off the cycle. His size, strength, and demeanor allow him to be a dominating force around the net and along the boards. He has also shown a willingness to drop the gloves.

Tangradi’s offensive game is dynamic, but it is the physical aspect he brings that makes him a special prospect. His physical play along the boards and around the net has stepped up in the past year. He has also shown a greater willingness to mix it up and this enthusiasm for physical play should not change despite his recent injury.

Signed to an entry-level deal before the trade, Tangradi seems likely to start his first professional season in the AHL.

2. Alex Goligoski, D – 7.5B

5’11, 180 pounds
2nd round, 62nd overall, 2004
July 30th, 1985

It was an up and down, back and forth 2008-09 season for Goligoski, but it ended with him getting a Stanley Cup ring. It was the misfortune of teammates that put the slick skater on the NHL roster at all. Goligoski made the team out of training camp because both Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar were out with injuries. Later in the second round of playoffs, after Gonchar went down with a knee injury, Goligoski once again came to the rescue, starting two games.

At no point during the regular season or playoffs did Goligoski look out of place in the NHL. His growing pains were at times on display for all to see but more times than not, the talented puck-mover looked comfortable, and showed great poise. He was particularly effective on the power play where he scored 4 goals, 4 assists, playing mostly on the second unit. Unlike Gonchar, Goligoski seems to speed up the play as opposed to slow it down. He is also very effective joining the rush and acting as a fourth forward.

If there are any weaknesses it would be his size, at 5’11 and 180 pounds. His build is somewhat slight but he has played two professional seasons without sustaining any major injuries. Improving his strength a little would mean not getting knocked off the puck so easily.

On June 17 the Penguins announced that Goligoski was signed to a three-year contract worth approximately $5.5 million dollars. The deal is not only assures Goligoski will be in the organization for the foreseeable future, but will also start the 2009-10 season in the NHL.

3. Simon Despres, D – 8.0C
6’4, 215 pounds
1st round, 30th overall, 2009
July 27th, 1991

The newest member of the seemingly ever-growing fraternity of mobile, puck-moving defensemen in the Penguins system, Despres was the Penguins 2009 first-round draft pick. The silky-smooth defender is the first blueliner the Penguins drafted in the opening round since 2002, when they took Whitney fifth overall. Despres was among the top-rated North American skaters going into the draft but because of a poor second half, including the U18 tournament, many teams stayed away. He also had limited offensive output, 2 goals, 30 assists in 66 games. But since December, Depres had been playing on an injured hip, which could be much to blame for his bouts of inconsistency.

Despres is only 18, but already has an NHL size frame. However, his physical play and work in the offensive zone are extremely raw. Despres needs to learn how to hit. He uses his frame to effectively rub opponents out on the boards or take them out of the play, but with improved upper-body strength, he could be an intimidating presence along the blue line. His defensive play is above average for a player at the junior level, but he still needs to further work on his gap management to turn into the shutdown defender many envision him becoming.

Despres only recently turned 18 and will be returning to St. John of the QMJHL in the fall. After an impressive first showing at the Penguins prospect conditioning camp in late July, there is reason to be optimistic about him.

4. Brian Strait, D – 6.5B
6’1, 200 pounds
3rd round, 65th overall, 2006
January 4th, 1988

It was an exciting spring for the Boston native as he helped the BU Terriers to an NCAAchampionship on April 11th and watched the Penguins march to the Stanley Cup. After weighing his options, Strait opted to forgo his senior year of college and sign with the Penguins.

A player who does not excel in any one facet of the game but thinks the game at a higher level than most, Strait is never the flashiest player on the ice, but typically the most reliable. A smart, stay-at-home defenseman, he has been compared favorably to former Penguin defenseman Rob Scuderi on many occasions. While that comparison is fairly accurate, Strait is farther along developed at his age than Scuderi and should be able to make a more immediate impact at the professional level.

Strait can play on both special teams, has an underrated shot from the point, and is excellent with gap management. He uses his stick effectively to break up passing lanes and has a quick outlet pass. He will never deliver earth shattering body checks but the thickly built defender can effectively use his body to separate opponents from the puck.

The Penguins are fairly set with their defensive group for the 2009-10 season so unless injuries hit, Strait should be starting the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.

5. Luca Caputi, LW – 7.0C

6’3, 185 pounds
4th round, 111st overall, 2007
October 1st, 1988

After coming on strong mid-way through the 2008-09 season, posting 9 goals, 18 assists in the 25 appearances he made in December and January, Caputi was rewarded with an NHL cup of coffee. On the first shift of his NHL debut on Feb. 3, the winger scored his first NHL goal. After five games, Caputi was returned to the AHL where he posted 2 goals, 3 assists in eight games before an off-ice incident resulted in a demotion and three-game stint with the Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers. After swallowing his pride and playing hard in the ECHL, posting 2 goals, 1 assist, Caputi returned to the AHL in mid March, finishing out his regular season with 18 goals, 27 assists in 66 games. It was in the playoffs where the 20-year-old winger’s tumultuous rookie season seemed to finally settle down in as he posted 3 goals, 5 assists in 12 games.

In the brief time he spent in the NHL, Caputi did not look out of place, playing mostly on a fourth line as well as the second-unit power play. Not a speedster by any means, Caputi is nonetheless an underrated skater, particularly when he does not have the puck. He has several good shots, including a hard and accurate wrist shot. He also has a strong base in which he uses to his advantage against often larger sized defensemen. Caputi’s biggest issue is simply transitioning to the next level. He still needs to work on the defensive aspects of his game, but a proven producer at the junior and AHL levels, Caputi seems destined for bigger and better things next season.

6. Dustin Jeffrey, C – 6.5B

6’1, 205 pounds
6th round, 171st overall, 2007
February 27th, 1988

Among the Penguins prospects who are vying for a roster spot in October, Jeffrey distinguished himself in his AHL rookie campaign with his strong two-way play, presence on the penalty kill, and tenacious play in the offensive zone. A consistent offensive force throughout the year, Jeffrey did not go more than four games without registering a point and finished the season with 11 goals, 26 assists in 63 games. In the playoffs, the 21-year-old center elevated his play, posting 5 goals, 5 assists in 12 games.

Jeffrey was called up to the NHL in late December and stuck for 14 games, finally being returned to the AHL in late January. Playing on the fourth line and on the penalty kill, Jeffrey posted 1 goal, 2 assists, and averaged 10:47 in ice time. At no point did Jeffrey appear to be out of place in the NHL, but he does need to upgrade his ability in the faceoff circle.

The center is expected to contend for an NHL roster spot out of training camp.

7. Nick Johnson, RW – 6.5C
6’2, 200 pounds
3rd round, 67th overall, 2004
December 12th, 1985

Another offensively-minded forward headed into his second season of professional hockey, Johnson, like Caputi and Jeffrey, has little left to prove at the AHL level of hockey. After starting the season in the ECHL, Johnson was promoted to the AHL in late fall where he finished out with 14 goals, 17 assists in 56 games. When the playoffs rolled around, Johnson elevated his play, posting 4 goals, 6 assists in 12 games.

A left-handed shot who typically plays on the right wing, Johnson has a nasty one-time shot, and overall, an excellent repertoire of shots, all hard and accurate. His defensive play is fairly good, as his ability to cycle the puck down low. The greatest thing that Johnson brings to the ice though is his non-stop hustle, and willingness to do anything to win the game. As a result, even if his offense never translates to the NHL level, he should always have a role as a least a bottom-six forward and penalty killer.

Johnson should be among those on the top of the call-up list.

8. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, LW – 7.5D

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

It was a season of notoriety for Pierro-Zabotel. After getting married in December, the big winger went on to be named WHL player of the month in January as well as to the WHL West first All-Star team. He was also the leading scorer in the WHL this season, posting 36 goals, 79 assists in 72 games. After a strong individual performance in the playoffs in which Pierro-Zabotel posted 4 goals, 13 assists in 17 games, he went on to sign an entry-level deal.

Pierro-Zabotel is an intriguing prospect because of his size and propensity for putting up big numbers wherever he plays. There are still questions about the actual level of offense he can bring to a team. While playing with the Giants, Pierro-Zabotel was not only older than the majority of the competition but also played alongside Evander Kane (ATL) for most of the season. Regardless, Pierro-Zabotel appears to have the offensive tools to produce at the AHL level. He is strong on his skates, and while not overly physical, has shown the ability to take a beating while protecting the puck. He has a sneaky wrist shot and his skating is also above average. For the Kamloops native, assimilating to the professional style game will be the biggest transition.

The high-scoring winger will start the 2009-10 season in the AHL.

9. Ben Hanowski, RW – 7.5D
6’1, 198 pounds
3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009
October 18th, 1990

Drafted out of Minnesota High School, Hanowski opened a lot of eyes last season when he posted 73 goals, 62 assists in only 31 games for Little Falls High School in Minnesota.

Because of the level he played at, it is difficult to gauge what kind of offensive production will be expected out of him as he moves up. Some things are undisputable though, such as his ability to turn defenders around, thread a puck through a goaltender’s five-hole, and rifle a shot off the crossbar. He has good size, at only 18 he has a thick upper body and seems to be strong on the puck. And his skating with the puck is top-notch. Still, he needs to dramatically improve his play away from the puck, and his backward and lateral skating need a considerable upgrade.

Hanowski is committed to play college hockey for St. Cloud State University next season.

10. Keven Veilleux, C – 7.5D

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

The offensively dynamic center forwent shoulder surgery in January and decided to join his team Rimouski Oceanic for their playoff run. In Veilleux’s abbreviated regular season, he posted 15 goals and 33 assists in only 29 games. During his playoff run, Veilleux posted 7 goals, 12 assists in only 13 games.

Veilleux could very well be the most offensively gifted prospect in the Penguins pool right now, but has several major hurdles to cross before he can be considered a blue-chip prospect. For one, he does not use his 6’5 frame to physically dominate opponents the way he could. He is also too easily knocked off the puck and out of the play. Also, he needs to bulk up and add strength to his wiry frame. If Veilleux can improve his physical play and transition to the wing, he could be a dynamic, playmaking linemate for one of the Penguins stellar young centers already in the NHL.

Having signed an entry-level deal last spring, Veilleux will likely start the 2009-10 season in the AHL.

11. Alex Grant, D – 7.0C
6’2, 200 pounds
4th round, 118th overall, 2007
January 20th, 1989

Another talented puck-moving defenseman in the Penguins prospect pool, Grant finished up his third season in the QMJHL with the Shawinigan Cataractes, posting 13 goals, 37 assists in 60 games. Grant continued to produce in the playoffs with 4 goals, 9 assists in 21 games.

Grant is an immensely gifted puck-mover with extremely soft hands. He has a diverse shot repertoire which includes a hard and accurate slapper from the point. Still, it is Grant’s soft hands that make him stand out. Although he is occasionally prone to over-handling the puck, Grant is able to carry it along the blue line with ease, quarterback a power play, and start the rush.

The biggest obstacle in Grant’s progress as a defenseman is his propensity for trying to do too much. He already has the size, skill, and skating ability to be a special player. Once he is able to simplify his game, particularly on the defensive side of the puck, he will be an elite-level defensive prospect.

Grant signed an entry-level deal at the beginning of the 2008-09 season and will begin the 2009-10 season in the AHL.

12. Joe Vitale, C – 6.5C
6’0, 205 pounds
7th round, 195th overall, 2005
August 20th, 1985

Named the best defensive forward in Hockey East, Vitale signed an entry-level deal on April 2nd, and was assigned to the Penguins AHL affiliate for the remainder of the season. In the five games he made an appearance during the AHL’s regular season, Vitale posted 2 goals, 2 assists, and +3 rating. In 12 post-season games, Vitale did not register a point, though looked strong throughout.

Vitale is a physical, defensively-minded forward with some offensive ability. He has a meat and potatoes approach to creating offense, cycling the puck down low, and creating havoc around the front of the net. He will never overwhelm with his physical presence but is strong, thick, and hard to knock off the puck.

At 23, Vitale will be expected to make an impact on the professional roster earlier than some of his peers. It seems likely that he will start the 2009-10 season in the AHL but because of his defensively sound play, he could see a cup of coffee in the NHL before the season is over.

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

Moon finished the season with 32 goals, 40 assists, good for 25th in the OHL. And done on a team that scored the second fewest goals in the league. Moon fell to the fourth round of the 2008 draft primarily because he was considered a defensive liability and a one-dimensional forward. He was well on his way to continue cultivating that reputation until former NHLer Doug Gilmore took over the head coaching duties for the Frontenacs in mid-November. However, it was not until February that Moon really turned his season around, posting 15 goals, 17 assists, and a +10 rating in his final 19 games.

A hard-skating forward who plays on the edge, Moon projects to be an agitating forward who can also contribute offensively. His wrist shot is hard and accurate, and his passing and vision are highly underrated. Still, it is Moon’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of opposing players that makes him a valuable prospect in the Penguins organization.

The Belleville native will return to the OHL for another season.

14. Robert Bortuzzo, D – 7.0C

6’4, 207 pounds
3rd round, 78th overall, 2007
March 18th, 1989

Before the start of the 2008-09 season, Bortuzzo underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.  After months of therapy and rehab, the right-handed blueliner returned on January 23rd playing for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. In his 23 appearances, Bortuzzo posted 1 goal, 16 assists while seeing minutes on both special teams.

Bortuzzo is a towering defenseman who played on the power play and penalty-kill. While he seems be a competent puck-handler, his role with the Penguins will be more defined on how he plays in his own zone. The blueliner is a physical presence in his own end but because he has had only limited playing time over the past season, it is hard to gauge his physical game. Bortuzzo has upgraded his skating considerably since last season. He will never be the fluid, mobile presence that Despres is in his own end, but Bortuzzo improved his lateral and backward skating to the point where he is very swift for a big man.

Bortuzzo projects to be a shut-down type of defender. He has not started a season fully healthy in many years so he will be one to watch in training camp and into the start of his rookie season. Still something of a project, Bortuzzo is destined for the minor leagues this fall, mostly likely with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL.

15. Carl Sneep, D – 6.5C
6’4, 210 pounds
2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006
November 5th, 1987

Another mobile defender with some puck-moving ability, Sneep’s progress seems to have leveled off this past season. His totals of 2 goals, 9 assists are comparable to his numbers in the past but it was expected by many that the 21-year-old defender would further develop into a dominating presence in his own end. 

Not overly physical, not overly offensively-minded either, Sneep plays a shot-blocking, two-way style of game for Boston College, mostly playing in even-strength situations but also seeing spot duty on the man-advantage. His skating and puck-moving abilities are not bad but Sneep’s forte, his play in his own zone, still needs work.

Sneep is scheduled to return for his senior year in at Boston College.

16. Brad Thiessen, G – 6.5C
6’0, 180 pounds
Signed as a free-agent in 2009.
March 19th, 1986

Thiessen compiled a 25-12-4 record, a 2.12 GAA, a .931 save percentage, and three shutouts in 2008-09 season while also starting every game for Northeastern. After being nominated for a Hobey Baker Award, Thiessen signed an entry-level deal with the Penguins. 

Athletic and good at controlling his five-hole, Thiessen is a dynamic, hybrid style of goaltender. He is good at passing and moving the puck, and able to move from post to post very quickly. He can however get caught up in the play and lose sight of the puck, resulting in the occasional soft goal. He is not particularly large but has shown a propensity for jumping out of the crease and challenging shooters.

Thiessen will compete with John Curry for the starting role on the Penguins AHL affiliate next season.

17. Nicholas D’Agostino, D – 6.5C

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

D’Agostino is another college-bound defensive prospect in the Penguins system. Having ended his Junior A career with a strong senior year at St. Michael’s of the OJHL where he posted 9 goals, 24 assists, D’Agostino now is headed for his freshman season at Cornell.

The native of Bolton, Ontario is a puck-moving presence along the blue line who has shown during his brief career that he can man the power play, start the rush, and play on the penalty kill. His skating is above average for a player his age, particularly his lateral and backward movement. He is not particularly explosive but once in flight, it is more than adequate. While he was a strong, puck-moving presence in Junior A, D’Agostino will likely have to simplify and refine his game to better fit the collegiate style of play.

D’Agostino will start the 2009-10 season playing for Cornell.

18. Philip Samuelsson, D – 6.5C

6’2, 198 pounds
2nd round, 61 overall, 2009
July 16th, 1991

The Penguins second pick of the 2009 entry draft, Samuelsson played a stay-at-home role for the Chicago Steel of the USHL, posting 22 assists in 54 games.

The young defenseman is still very raw though. His puck-moving abilities leave much to be desired as does some facets of his skating, particularly his explosiveness and acceleration. Still, Samuelsson does many of the little things right. He does not overplay the puck, not does he try and play beyond his means. Nonetheless, a little more physicality and an all-around improved defensive game would go a long way in his progression as a prospect.

Samuelsson is scheduled to Boston College next season.

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

Still considered top-shelf prospect who slipped through the cracks because of transfer agreement, Pechurski’s North American debut might be nearer than many expect as he was drafted by the Tri-City Americans of the WHL.

A naturally talented, athletic goaltender, Pechurski is still a largely unknown entity because of his limited starts and his even lesser exposure to North America. The biggest impediment to Pechurski’s career right now is his lack of starts. If he does however get released from his contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL, he could be playing in North America as early as October.

Pechurski’s future in the NHL and with the Penguins is still very much up in the air.

20. Alex Velischek, D – 7.0D
6’0, 200 pounds
5th round, 123 overall, 2009
December 17th, 1990

A late-round pick, Velischek is an intriguing prospect not only because his father Randy was an accomplished NHL defenseman, but because he is a slick skater, and skilled puck-mover.

A prolific scorer in high school, Velischek posted 16 goals, 35 assists and a plus-61 rating last season playing in the Delbarton High School of the Shore Conference. In addition to his ability to move the puck, Velischek is an explosive skater and plays with poise beyond his years. The big question for the young defenseman is not his skill level, but his ability to play in a highly structured setting. He jumps into the play far too much, often getting caught up ice. He also does not have great control over the gaps he gives opponents in his own zone.

The New Jersey native is scheduled to played for Providence College next season.