Pittsburgh Penguins organziation filled with NHL-ready talent

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Drafted 20th overall in 2010, forward Beau Bennett brings elite potential to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With no major prospects graduating and several 2010 draft picks exceeding expectations, the Penguins top-20 is about as deep and talented as it has been for three or four years. There is depth at every position and for the first time in years several forwards with elite offensive potential.

What makes the prospect pool special though is the sheer volume of players either ready to play in the NHL, or getting close. In February, five of the organization’s top prospects (Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey, Brian Strait, Nick Johnson, and Joe Vitale) were all on recall to the NHL. With only seven forwards signed to NHL deals through 2011-12 and between 5-7 million dollars to fill out the rest of the roster, expect at least a few of the aforementioned players to see fulltime duties next year.

1. Simon Despres, D, 8C
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2009

There is no denying his thick 6’3 frame and mobile skating ability. Despres is easily among the best defensemen in the QMJHL and is playing for one of the best teams in the league in the Saint John Sea Dogs. Still, at 19, his ceiling is still somewhat unknown. He has improved his shot from last season but there should be more from him offensively. He is producing at roughly a point-per-game but is surrounded with brilliant talent such as potential 2011 first-rounder Jonathan Huberdeau and is among the oldest players on the team.

Despres will almost certainty join the Penguins organization for the 2011-12 season. There are still certain issues with his game that need to be worked out before he can be anointed the Penguins number one defenseman though. His hockey IQ is not through the roof so mastering things like gap control and zone play will be especially important for him. Also, he does not play as physically as his large and strong frame would suggest. Still, he is a naturally gifted athlete with the tools to one day be a top-pairing defenseman able to play around 30 minutes a game. Unless the Penguins radically alter their defense in the off-season, expect Despres to play in the AHL next year and possibly contend for an NHL roster spot in the 2012-13 season.

2. Eric Tangradi, LW, 7.5B
Acquired: Trade with Anaheim Ducks, February 26th 2009

An up and down season for the young winger, Tangradi started the season in the NHL, and while he didn’t look out of place, he was not producing offensively and his ice time gradually diminished. The Penguins decided to send him to the AHL and although the increased ice-time and role on the Baby Pens didn’t pay immediate dividends, Tangradi gradually developed into one of the top forwards in the AHL. In 27 games played through December and January, he would post 14 goals, 14 assists, and register 100 shots. Beyond the stats he played a physically dominant brand of hockey, finishing checks, and using his large frame and wingspan to protect the puck.

When injuries hit the Penguins in February, Tangradi was recalled to Pittsburgh and looked like a different player than the one who started the season with them. He would repeatedly finish his checks in the corners and along the boards, and was often times a ferocious net-front presence. He was the unfortunate recipient of a Trevor Gillies cheap shot in an ugly, fight-filled New York Islanders match in mid-February and has since been out with a concussion.

While there is no reason to think the injury will harm Tangradi’s future as a prospect with the organization, it is a nonetheless dangerous injury and the power forward could very well be done for the season. He projects to be a 25-30 goal scorer and should be able to contribute at the NHL level, at least in a third or fourth-line role, next season.

3. Beau Bennett, RW, 8D
Acquired: 1st round, 20th overall, 2010

Probably the most offensively gifted prospect in the Penguins organization, Bennett looks to have finally adjusted to the NCAA level of hockey. After going pointless in his first six games and goalless in his first nine, the points started to pour out and Bennett started producing at a point-per-game pace.

Unfortunately, on a December 3rd match against Minnesota-Duluth, having already registered his sixth point in four games, the 19-year-old’s skate would hit a rut in the ice, and he would suffer what was initially thought to be a severe knee injury. After a re-examination, his injury was determined to not be nearly as severe as originally thought and while he would have to several weeks and wear a knee brace for the rest of the season, he would be able to return for the season. Bennett would have to miss about six weeks before returning on January 14th. To that point, he had three goals, seven assists through 17 games. In the 14 games since returning from the injury, he has five goals and six assists, playing mostly on the second-line with highly regarded 2011 draft prospect Nick Shore.

Bennett is a prototypical offensive forward, possessing a high hockey IQ, strong skating, a solid shot, and good puck-distribution abilities. He does his best work making plays off the rush and playing on the powerplay but can play in most situations. He is not a particularly physical player though and can get knocked off the puck too easily. He has repeatedly stated he plans to spend two seasons at DU before going pro and there is no reason to think that timetable has changed. To this point Penguins organization has shown patience with their prospects, allowing them to develop at their own pace, and there is no reason to think that should chance with the former first-round pick.

4. Dustin Jeffrey, C/W, 6.5B
Acquired: 6th round, 171st overall, 2007

Of many players who have seen some time in the NHL because of injuries, Dustin Jeffrey likely is the one to most likely force the Penguins to keep him in the NHL for the remainder of his career. The young forward road the shuttle between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh for much of the season but when Mark Letestu, who was already filling in for an injured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, suffered a torn meniscus, the door opened up for Jeffrey to see some time as a top-six forward. He didn’t disappoint in the role, posting two goals and an assist while playing north of 15 minutes a night over a five game span. Unfortunately, like many other centers who played for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, Jeffrey suffered an injury on February 10th and was placed on injured reserve for two weeks. Upon returning, he was once again placed in a top-six role. For the season, Jeffrey has 17 goals and 28 assists through 40 AHL games and seven goals and three assists through 19 NHL games.

Like Tangradi, Jeffrey will likely start the 2011-12 season in the NHL. Offensive contributions aside, his talent in the faceoff circle, special teams play, and ability to play both wing and center makes him a versatile prospect able to play anywhere in the lineup.

5. Tom Kühnhackl, C/W, 7C
Acquired: 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

It was known that Kuehnhackl had talent going into the 2010-11 season, he was after all drafted by an NHL team and also into the OHL by the Windsor Spitfires. But nonetheless, a player coming from German tier-2 hockey is a known unknown until he establishes himself otherwise. Suffice to say the young German forward has firmly entrenched himself as one of the Spitfires top forwards and a legitimate top-six prospect. After a slow start to the season, Kuehnhackl has been among the top goal-scoring forwards in the OHL. He is currently leads the Spitfires with 36 and fourth on the team in points with 64 through 58 games.

All praise aside, the 19-year-old has a lot of work to do on a lot of different facets of his game. He’s still fairly lanky and came to the OHL behind his peers in the conditioning aspect of the game. His habits and routines have improved over the season but his physical conditioning will greatly benefit from a rigid off-season regime.

Even if the goal-scoring doesn’t translate at the professional level for the young German, he possesses the mental makeup and physical pedigree to be an effective checking forward. Expect him to spend at least one more season in the OHL before the Penguins explore their options with him.

6. Brian Strait, D, 6.5B
Acquired: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2006

Another of the many Penguins prospects to be recalled to the NHL this season, Strait is among the steadiest and most reliable defensemen in the Penguins’ system. He set career highs last season with two goals and 14 points through 78 AHL games so it is safe to say he will never post big offensive totals. He does however possess the mobility and puck-moving acumen to develop into a middle or bottom-pairing defenseman able to devour minutes on the penalty-kill and shutdown opposing forwards. Like Bortuzzo, Strait is among the top-20 in plus/minus at the AHL level. That statistic is not always indicative of a player’s performance in his own end, as he could see limited ice-time or lesser competition but Strait consistently plays 18-20 minutes a game and is often matched against the oppositions top forwards.

Also like Bortuzzo, Strait will have a hard time cracking the Penguins NHL lineup on a full-time basis in the near future. Expect him to see some call-up duties next season and potentially compete for a regular spot in the 2012-13 season.

7. Robert Bortuzzo, D, 7C
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

A smart, mobile defenseman, Bortuzzo does not standout amongst his peers in any one facet of the game but is so adept at all aspects he has been one of the best defensemen for the Penguins AHL affiliate the entire season. He plays in most situations and paired with Brian Strait, makes up one of the most formidable defensive pairings in the AHL.

He has shown some good puck-distribution as well but the defenseman is at his best when he is using his mobility and 6’4 211 pound frame to shutdown opposing forwards. With the glut of mobile defensemen in the system, Bortuzzo will likely not get a regular shot at the NHL with the Penguins organization for another few years. He could however see an occasional call-up next season to fill in for an injury. He has all of the tools to develop into a tough, mobile defenseman at the NHL level capable of playing 18 or more minutes a game.

8. Brad Thiessen, G, 6.5B
Acquired: Free agent, April 3rd, 2009

Thiessen has been stellar for the Penguins AHL affiliate this season and has been unquestionably one of the top goaltenders in the league the entire season. His 1.94 goals against average, six shutouts, and 27-7-0 record are among the best in the league and his .921 save percentage is ranked ninth. What makes it all the more impressive is the rotating roster playing in front of him all season. At one point in February as many as eight forwards and nine totals players had been on recall (and subsequently on the IR in some cases) from the AHL. It was no matter for Thiessen as he posted his best month of the season and possibly his hockey career, going 8-2, allowing only 12 goals in 10 games, registering three shutouts, and a .943 save percentage. For his effort, he was recognized as the Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month.

Having essentially stolen the starting role for the Baby Penguins, the next step for Thiessen will be to prove he is capable of playing in the post-season, which he has very little experience at. A stand-up goaltender, Thiessen plays with the calm demeanor to suggest he would be able to handle the higher stakes of the playoffs but only time can determine that.

As far as his future is concerned, if he was playing in some other NHL organizations, he could have very well seen an NHL recall during the course of the season. However, since the Penguins have one of the stronger goaltending duos in the NHL and both starter March-Andre Fleury and backup Brent Johnson have remained relatively healthy, Thiessen has not had a sniff. With Johnson signed through next season that is likely not to change. Nonetheless, since he will be only 25 years old in mid-March and is only in his second season as a pro, so spending another full season in the AHL can be only beneficial. He is up for contract renewal at the end of the season and there is every reason to think the Penguins will re-sign him for at least one if not two or more seasons.

9. Ken Agostino, C/W, 7C
Acquired: 5th round, 140th overall, 2010

Playing for one of the top NCAA programs in the nation, Ken Agostino went into the 2010-11 with much intrigue. A high-scoring, dynamic player at the high school level, the concern about Agostino never had to do with whether or not he would be able to play at the collegiate level, but how quickly would he adapt and at what level would he be able to contribute. Judging by his point-per-game performance thus far in the season, he appears to have adapted fairly quickly.

Only 18 years old, it is still too soon to project the type of offense Agostino can produce at the professional level although he has the goal-scoring and playmaking ability to potentially develop into a top-nine if not top-six forward. The energy and moxie he brings to every game suggest that even if the offense doesn’t translate to the next level, he could develop into a capable checking forward and penalty-killer.

With his fast assimilation to the collegiate level as well as his offensive success thus far, it is fair to say the Penguins may have unearthed a late-round gem in the energetic forward.

10. Carl Sneep, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006

The Boston College product is in his first professional season with the Penguins after helping his team to three appearances in the Frozen Four finals and two national championships. He’s played throughout the Penguins AHL lineup this season, primarily as a middle or bottom pairing defenseman, and has performed very well for stretches.

Like teammate Bortuzzo, Sneep does not excel in any one particular aspect of the game but is good in many facets of it. He has good enough puck skills to start a play from his own zone and pinch in offensively but also possesses the size (6’3 212 pounds) and determination to develop into a more defensive shutdown player. He can man the point from the powerplay and has a strong point shot.

Although the defenseman is still discovering his role at the professional level, he brings valuable depth to the Penguins organization and has been a crucial contributor for the Baby Penguins as times this season.

11. Philip Samuelsson, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009

A student at Boston College, Philip Samuelsson will forever be associated with his father Ulf, a former Penguins defenseman who’s physical and occasionally reckless style of play forever immortalized him among Pittsburgh hockey fans. Philip does not play with the level of reckless abandon his father did in the early 1990s but is a large, physical defenseman in his own right.

Now in his second season, Samuelsson has carved out a role as a top-four defenseman at Boston College and plays in most situations. He has also developed into the intimidating physical presence on the blue line the Penguins hoped he would when they spent a second-round pick on him. Since the young defenseman is playing in a strong collegiate program and the Penguins organization is flush with young blue line talent, there is every reason to think Samuelsson will spend at least one if not two more years in college.

12. Nick Johnson, RW, 6.0B
Acquired: 3rd round, 67th overall, 2004

Like Jeffrey and Tangradi, Johnson was called up to the NHL in February and saw some extensive time, playing on the powerplay and in a top-six role, before sustaining an injury. At 26 years old, Johnson is a prospect in title only. Physically he is fully mature and he has an established role at the AHL level as a goal-scoring forward. Through 48 games with the Penguins AHL affiliate, Johnson posted 20 goals (10 of which came on the man-advantage) and 39 points. When recalled in February, he potted two goals and an assist in four games before sustaining a concussion in a February 16th match against the Colorado Avalanche. He has since been out and will be ineligible to play for the Penguins AHL affiliate for the remainder of the season because he was on the NHL roster during the February 28th trade deadline. Because he was injured while playing in the NHL, the Penguins were prohibited from returning him to the AHL until he is cleared to play.

Like Tangradi, Jeffrey, and Joe Vitale, Johnson showed flashes of talent in his NHL call-up. His even keeled demeanor and ability to find open shooting lanes make him a potentially intriguing offensive contributor. With 10 games of NHL experience over the past two seasons and almost three full-seasons of minor-league experience under his belt, expect him to compete for a fulltime spot at the NHL level next season.

13. Ben Hanowski, C/W, 7D
Acquired: 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

While it is far too early to write Hanowski off as a legitimate goal-scoring forward, it is safe to say his sophomore season has been a bit of a disappointment. Going into his second year of collegiate hockey, Hanowski was expected to take the next step in his development and establish himself as one of the go-to offensive forwards for St. Cloud State. Instead he has been inconsistent at best and at times a liability.

The biggest knock on Hanowski has and continues to be his skating. When the puck is not on his stick, he seems to plod around the ice like he was running in a foot of mud. Even when carrying the puck, he is not a very explosive a skater and seems to lack the extra gear to separate himself from opposing defensemen. These issues though can be addressed through training and conditioning and even overlooked if he can start consistently finding the back of the net.

Often goal-scoring forwards require two or three seasons at the NCAA level before finding their comfort zone. With that in mind, expect him to return to St. Cloud for at least his junior if not also his senior year, at which point the Penguins will make a decision on him.

14. Bryan Rust, RW, 6.5C
Acquired: 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010

A smart, two-way forward with some puck-skills, Rust has played effectively in his freshman season with Notre Dame. Through 32 games, he has chipped in five goals and 10 assists while playing in a second or third-line role. More importantly, he has shown the ability to play in both special teams, and in the dirty parts of the ice. Interestingly, for being a physical style of player, Rust plays a smart enough game to rarely be penalized, being called for only two minors the entire season.

With solid two-way abilities, a willingness to play physically, and some offensive upside, Rust fits the profile of what the Penguins look for in their forwards. He will likely never be a big-time point producer but down the road could develop into solid top-nine forward able to contribute around 40 points a season.

15. Nick D’Agostino, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 7th round, 210th overall, 2008

In his second season with Cornell, Nick D’Agostino has established himself as an all-situation, top-four defenseman at the collegiate level. His stat line of seven goals, 10 assists through 27 games is fairly modest but still ranks fourth on the team. Much of this can be attributed to the defensive-system he plays in as well as the lack of offense the Big Red has up front.

He is a smart player with the necessary tools to play in all situations and should at the very least develop into a solid depth defenseman for the Penguins organization.

16. Joe Vitale, C/W, 6B
Acquired: 7th round, 195th overall, 2005

Another of the many call-ups, it is safe to say Joe Vitale fits the prototype in what the Penguins expect from their bottom-six forwards. He finishes his checks, kills penalties, mixes it up with opponents, and even chips in the occasional goal.

When injuries ravaged the Penguins NHL lineup, Vitale was one of many players to get recalled. At the NHL level, he played in a solely bottom-six role and saw some time on the PK. He also displayed smart play in his own zone and a fairly high level of physicality through his nine game cup of coffee.

Considering how well Vitale performed in his limited role and how the Penguins will be tight against the cap next season, there is every reason to think the 25-year-old Northeastern grad could be an NHL regular as soon as next season. He is signed through next year at an affordable price tag and the Penguins maintain exclusive negotiating rights beyond then.

17. Patrick Killeen, G, 7D
Acquired: 6th round, 180th overall, 2008

Although Patrick Killeen plays in the ECHL, it has more to do with the talented goaltending in front of him than any lack of ability on his part. He has been among the top goaltenders in the league for most of the season ranking fifth in the league in minutes played and over that span put together a 17-15-0-2 record, a 2.86 goals against average, a .902 save percentage, and three shutouts. His record was even more impressive earlier in the season but the goaltender hit a rut in February, posting an eight game losing streak. Much of this can be attributed to the rash of injuries that hit the Penguins organization recently as most of the Nailers top forwards were or still are playing in the AHL.

With John Curry scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, Killeen could possibly be playing in the AHL next season as Brad Thiessen‘s backup. At 20 years old, he is still very young for a prospect, particularly a goaltender, as they tend to take much longer to develop than other players.

18. Joe Rogalski, D, 7D
Acquired: 6th round, 152nd overall, 2010

Drafted for his ability to move the puck, Rogalski has progressed well in his fourth season of OHL play. He has matched his previous season totals in goals (six) and points (29), has cut his penalty minutes in half, but the most noticeable statistical improvement is his plus/minus, that went from minus-38 last season to minus-18 this season.

Along with his ability to move the puck, Rogalski possesses good size at 6’1 195 pounds, solid skating, and an above average point shot. He is however plagued by many of the same issues that affect young defensemen drafted in the mid-to-late rounds. While he plays physically and will battle for a loose puck in the corners, he does not fully utilize his large frame to his advantage. He also needs to generate more offense from his own end through both shooting the puck more and making better decisions distributing it.

19. Keven Veilleux, C/RW, 7D
Acquired: 2nd round, 51st overall, 2007

No other prospect in the Penguins system possesses the blend of size and skill that Veilleux does. Few other prospects have been as maddeningly frustrating either. In the three seasons since he was drafted, Veilleux has appeared in a total of 99 regular season games, missing long stretches to injury. The 21-year-old looks to have finally overcome some of the injuries that have plagued him though and has appeared in 51 of the Baby Penguins 63 games this season.

Drafted as a center, Veilleux appears to have made the successful conversion to wing this season although with all of the recent minor-league recalls, he has recently played some center. At 6’5 and about 220 pounds, he possesses the size to wreak havoc in the corners and create matchup nightmares for opposing defensemen.

Veilleux possesses great playmaking ability in addition to his hefty frame and has eight goals and 13 assists on the season. He has also developed into a passable fighter, dropping the gloves ten times so far this season. If he can maintain his health through the stretch drive and playoffs, the Penguins could very well have the big-bodied offensive forward they envisioned when selecting him in the second round. He will have to remain healthy though for that to happen, something that has been difficult for the past three seasons.

20. Reid McNeill, D, 6C
Acquired: 6th round, 170th overall, 2010

The 18-year-old McNeill brings a similar package of size (6’3 190 pounds), mobility, and puck-moving acumen that many defensemen throughout the Penguins organization possess.

Having registered only two goals and three assists this season, McNeill is never going to post big numbers. He is however a good puck-distributor and makes solid outlet passes.

Not turning 19 years old until April and only in his second season of OHL play, McNeill is still very raw and his ceiling is somewhat unknown. His skill-set suggests he could develop into a middle or bottom-pairing defenseman able to play in most situations though. Expect him to return to the OHL next season.