Penguins NCAA prospects update

By Jason Seidling

The Pittsburgh Penguins have nine prospects playing at the collegiate level including a senior, four juniors and four sophomores. Winger Nick Johnson, the lone senior, appears on track to sign his first professional contract in the next few months while a pair of sophomore defensemen playing in the New England area, Carl Sneep and Brian Strait, should one day help toughen a usually soft Penguins defense core.

Chad Johnson, G

University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Junior
5th round, 125th overall, 2006 Entry Draft

As the Alaska-Fairbanks record has continued to plummet, so too has the playing time afforded to their former No. 1 netminder Chad Johnson. After appearing in 19 contests a season ago, the lanky Johnson has made only five starts thus far in the 2007-08 campaign, with very limited success. The junior has a 0-5-0 record, a 3.40 goals-against-average and an .892 save percentage. In Johnson’s defense, his team does have a porous 7-12-3 record, which places them eighth in the CCHA, 17 points behind first place Miami (OH).

While Johnson’s statistics have suffered during the course of the season, his head coach, Doc Delcastillo maintains that his goalie has some skills that make him a potential NHL prospect.

"He is very good at handling the puck, at rebound control and with using his size to his advantage when playing angles," said Delcastillo.

However, for Johnson to make an impression on Penguins’ management he still has to work on reacting better to rebounds and has to continue to "develop off the ice to fill into his frame" added Delcastillo.

Chris Peluso, D

Bemidji State University, Sophomore
7th round, 194th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Slightly undersized for a defenseman, Peluso has maintained a simple style during his sophomore campaign for Bemidji State. In 28 contests Peluso has recorded a goal and six assists to go along with his plus-two rating and 26 penalty minutes.

As the penalty minute total suggests, Peluso has added a rugged approach to his stay-at-home presence. Peluso’s solid contributions have helped push Bemidji State to first place standing in the CHA with their 10-3-3 conference record. They have an eight-point advantage on second place Niagara heading into the home stretch of the season.

Carl Sneep, D

Boston College, Sophomore
2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006 Entry Draft

Description: A physically imposing defender with the size and tenacity to clear out the front of the net defensively. The ability to spearhead the offensive attack with good outlet passing. A solid penalty killer who can also contribute to the second power play unit.

That sounds like the perfect description of the type of defender that Penguins GM Ray Shero would like to add to his squad at the upcoming trade deadline. Shero already has such a player in his system with Sneep patrolling the blue line for Boston College, however, Sneep is still two to three years away from being NHL ready.

While Shero waits and Sneep bides his time in the NCAA, his 2007-08 statistics prove that Sneep is progressing as expected. In 23 games the sophomore has scored three times and assisted on five others to rank eighth in scoring on the second place Eagles. Sneep sees minutes in all situations, and has recorded two of his goals with the man advantage.

Brian Strait, D

Boston University, Sophomore
3rd round, 65th overall, 2006 Entry Draft

The third member of the sophomore trio of defensemen that the Penguins have in the NCAA ranks, Strait continues to develop into a player who could one day serve as a leader at the NHL level. Although the Terriers have struggled thus far, Strait has managed to continue his upward progression. Strait has appeared in 23 games for Boston, registering nine assists, a solid plus-five rating, and only eight penalty minutes thus far.

Strait’s development also benefited from his experience with Team USA during the World Junior tournament. Named team captain, Strait led the squad to a 4-0 preliminary round record, and a fourth place overall finish. Individually, Strait was held scoreless during the tournament but did spend six minutes in the penalty box and finished with a plus-one rating.

Tim Crowder, W

Michigan State University, Junior
5th round, 126th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

It has been a very productive season for well-rounded prospect Crowder. As the Spartans have soared so has Crowder’s offensive production. He is tied with current linemate Bryan Lerg for second on the squad in points with 26. Crowder has scored 11 goals to go along with 15 assists. Junior Matt Schepke makes up the third member of the trio that was just recently put together by Michigan State Head Coach Rick Comley. Crowder had spent the previous two-and-a-half seasons playing with classmates Tim Kennedy and Justin Abdelkader (DET).

"It is always tempting to leave him with those two, but I moved him to balance us out a little bit," said Comley.

Comley describes Crowder as an intelligent player who excels in all areas of the game. Crowder is a member of both the power-play and penalty-killing units in addition to contributing on the top-two lines. Some other attributes that Comley says Crowder possesses include good hands, a nifty skating ability and that sense of finding good areas to score from. His best skill? A rifling shot.

"He can really shoot the puck," Comley said.

Comley believes that with added strength, which is something that the training staff works on daily, Crowder could become a solid NHL player.

"He doesn’t take a shift off; he’s not really deficient in anything," Comley described. "He has a very bright future."

Michael Gergen, W

University of Minnesota-Duluth, Junior
2nd round, 61st overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Drafted with the Penguins pick following the selection of Sidney Crosby in 2005, Gergen has been expected to one day fill the void of scoring winger next to either his fellow draft mate or the team’s other franchise pivot, Evgeni Malkin. Gergen’s statistics indicate that he still has a ton of developing to do if he is to ever fill such a role.

In 23 games, the junior winger has recorded only five goals and seven assists. Why has such a quick, strong player as Gergen struggled to produce offensively? His coach, Scott Sandelin, believes that Gergen’s inability to find open areas and a willingness to settle for 30-foot shots is a huge reason as to why he hasn’t found the back of the twine with more regularity.

"He has scored some, but we would like to see him score more," Sandelin proclaimed.

Sandelin went on to talk about how Gergen, especially on the power play, has had most of his success down low and in front of the net. The team would like to have Gergen in a better position that would more utilize his best weapon.

"We try to get him into scoring areas to use his shot. He just doesn’t shoot it enough like most guys. I don’t know what it is; guys don’t like to shoot the puck. They’d rather make the perfect play or get into the perfect position," Sandelin said while describing Gergen’s offensive mindset.

Despite his struggles to find consistency, Gergen has remained on the top two lines all season. Currently he is playing alongside junior Nick Kemp and senior Matt McKnight.

Brian Gifford, C

University of Denver, Sophomore
3rd round, 169th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Any team that wishes to be successful needs those valuable defensive-minded forwards who play smart coverage in their own zone, shadow the opposition’s top lines, and grind it out in the corners offensively. Denver sophomore Brian Gifford appears to be such a player. His offensive statistics of two assists and zero goals in 26 games will not wow anybody, but his willingness to help the team is not lost upon head coach George Gwozdecky.

"Brian has a great attitude and has been willing to help this team in any way possible, whatever that role may be," Gwozdecky said proudly.

Gifford has played all three forward positions this season, and is currently playing with freshman Tyler Bozak and sophomore Brock Trotter. Gifford brings good size, a long reach, and the "willingness to put out energies needed to be a good defensive player." Gifford played a little bit on the second power-play unit earlier in the season, but is now just employed on the penalty killing rotation. That development goes along with Gifford’s maturation into a solid defensive presence.

"Once Brian moved his game to the junior hockey level he was never a big scorer so his development is just following that path," explained Gwozdecky on Gifford’s lack of offensive production.

Nick Johnson, W

Dartmouth University, Senior
3rd round, 67th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Ryan Malone has parlayed a solid collegiate career into being a fine power forward who plays in all situations at the NHL level. Dartmouth’s Nick Johnson could be following a similar path. While his team has struggled to a last place standing in the ECAC, Johnson sits second on the team with six goals and 17 assists in 21 games played. He has spent the entire year on the first line with some combination of J.T. Wyman, Kyle Reeds or Jon Grecu.

A sign of his being a potential complete player is Johnson’s standing as a member of both the top power play unit and the top penalty-kill pairing. Blessed with decent strength, Johnson is effective in the corners and along the boards, while also being able to score from the slot and in heavy traffic with his booming shot.

Joe Vitale, C

Northeastern University, Junior
7th round, 195th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

The Penguins have had great success with low round draft choices over the years, and Northeastern’s Joe Vitale appears to be on track to be another of those. In his second year as team captain, and buoyed by an appearance at the Penguins’ rookie camp this past summer, Vitale has already established career high in assists and points. He leads the team with 17 assists and 24 points. His seven goals are one off of his career high.

Playing between freshman linemates Wade MacLeod and Tyler McNeely, Vitale has already gathered two Hockey East Player of the Week honors. Proving that he is more than just an offensive machine, Vitale has recorded 50 penalty minutes, which includes two major penalties. His feistiness could one day make him an ideal third or fourth line center in Pittsburgh. In the meantime, Vitale must focus on adding more weight to his 6’1 frame.