Bennett new top prospect for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Scott Harrington debuts at the 12th spot for the Penguins 2011 fall top-20. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Penguins went lengths to improve their prospect pool over the last six months, adding seven players including first-round pick Joe Morrow and free agent signings Paul Thompson and Brian Gibbons. The organization also created two new positions centered on player development, hiring Bill Guerin as their Player Development Coach and Mike Bales as their Goaltender Development Coach.

1. (3) Beau Bennett, RW, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2010

Probably the most skilled forward in the Penguins prospect pool since Jordan Staal, Beau Bennett is coming off an eventful, yet solid freshman season with Denver. Bennett’s season flew under the radar due to a knee injury suffered in early December, causing him to miss the U20 WJC as well as several weeks with DU.

"I was getting into my groove right about that time, feeling more comfortable, my linemates were clicking, then something like that happens. I’m just across the ice, no one around, and I slipped, my knee buckled, and I felt a pop," said Bennett. "I couldn’t really put any pressure on it and was just hoping for the best. Luckily it was just a grade two tear in my MCL."

Bennett would return five weeks later and finish out the season with a total of nine goals and 16 assists in 37 games.

Numbers aside, he brings an uncanny level of creativity to the rink, something he attributes to playing roller hockey as a youth. "There’s no hitting, no offsides, no icing, so you just kind of have the freedom to do whatever you want out there."

The creativity he brings is on constant display too as he frequently tries things, often to great success, many players won’t even try in practice. His stick-handling and ability to move the puck particularly stand out.

The biggest hurdle Bennett faced when drafted was his conditioning and strength levels, both of which were considered average at best. Those weaknesses are something he committed the past off-season to improving.

"I think my legs have got a lot stronger. [I also] got stronger in the upper body and gained a little weight. I’m where I need to be with my breathing and my heart rate but as far as my leg conditioning, it still needs to improve. That’s something I need to work on before I get to Denver."

Bennett has been repeatedly referred to as a two-year player, by Denver Head Coach George Gwozdecky, by Penguins management, and by many others, something which he is quick to downplay.

"I don’t want to have a set date because I don’t want to disappoint myself if it doesn’t work out that way. My short term goal is to be a two-year guy and work as hard as I can to get to that point."

2. (1) Simon Despres, D, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2009

The Penguins top defensive prospect, Despres saw quite a bit of high caliber tournament play this season, playing in the WJC, Memorial Cup, and QMJHL regular and post-seasons, lacing up for a total of 76 games for three different teams. Over that stretch Despres was normally deployed in a shutdown role against opposing top forwards. In the QMJHL however, he also saw considerable time on the powerplay and managed 13 goals and 28 assists.

Locked up to an entry-level deal and having exhausted his junior eligibility, the next step for Despres is to join the Penguins in a professional capacity. It is believed in some circles he could contribute to the NHL level very soon, but the Penguins play an extremely complex defensive system and place a lot of responsibility on those who patrol the blue line. There is an emphasis on smart play in the defensive end but the defense also has to be responsible for distributing the puck up ice and activating offensively. They also have to be among the best conditioned members of the team. None of those things should be an issue for Despres. His skill-package suggests down the road he should be able to fulfill all of those duties with aplomb and physically he is close to being ready.

The Penguins tend to ease their blueliners into the pros slowly, having them focus on their defensive game early on, so expect Despres to play 2011-12 in the AHL in a primarily defensive role.

3. (2) Eric Tangradi, LW/RW, 7.5B
Acquired via trade with Anaheim Ducks, February 2009

After returning from a concussion in April, Eric Tangradi appeared in two games with the Penguins, one in the regular season and another in the post-season. He played both ends of the ice, was physical, and provided a consistent and tough net-front presence for the offense. With the Penguins exit in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Tangradi went into the off-season more determined than ever.

"I’ve been training at a level that I have never trained at this summer. Last year I came into camp at 224. Right now I’m about 232." said Tangradi. "It’s been a very tough summer. I’ve been in the gym and I’m excited about September and that’s kind of fueling my work ethic."

Tangradi brings a blend of size, strength, skill, and leadership to the ice and should get a crack at an NHL job in training camp. His offensive game might not immediately translate to the NHL but he should at least bring a blend of size and physicality that the Penguins lost in the off-season. Tangradi however believes he can contribute even more at the NHL level though.

"The way I played [in the AHL] and the type of game I had there is something I think I can definitely translate to the NHL."

That type of game he speaks of is that of a top-six power forward who can provide a consistent physical presence while chipping in on a fairly regular basis offensively. Whether or not his production translates directly to the NHL, Tangradi will bring plenty of character and physical play.

4. (5) Tom Kühnhackl
, C/W, 7.5C
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

No Penguins prospect experienced more of a meteoric rise over the past season than Tom Kuhnhackl. He went from being a fourth-round pick playing in German tier-II professional hockey to being one of the top players in the OHL in less than a year.

The 19-year-old is quick to point out he needed time to adjust, "If you think about the first [few] games I had in the [OHL], zero points and fourth line."

In his first seven games he may have gone pointless, but in the next 56 he managed 39 goals and 29 assists. His two-way game, particularly on the defensive side, also saw dramatic improvement as the season went on.

Locked up to an entry-level deal, Kuhnhackl is in the unique situation of being able to play in the AHL or OHL. That decision will be on hold until training camp however. Regardless of where he plays for 2011-12, the Penguins look to have struck mid-round gold in selecting the young German.

5. (NR) Joe Morrow, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2011

Coming from the WHL, Morrow brings a slightly more offensively oriented game than 2009 first-round pick Simon Despres, and most of the other Penguins defensive prospects for that matter. He was one of the main offensive catalysts on the blue line for the Portland Winterhawks and showed immense toughness and leadership in the process. Throughout the season the team battled injuries, forcing Morrow to play far more than originally planned. He responded positively though and the Winterhawks coaching staff continued to pile on the responsibilities and ice-time.

Morrow models his game after Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, but he projects more similarly to a player like Dan Hamuis, very mobile, with good size, and puck-moving ability.

Expect him to develop at a similar pace as Despres has over the past two seasons. He’ll take on greater defensive responsibilities for the Winterhawks next season, likely in a top-pairing role, and possibly spend an overage season in the WHL after that.

6. (4) Dustin Jeffrey, C/W 6.5B
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2007

A prospect in name only, Dustin Jeffrey did as much as he could last season to prove he belonged in the NHL. Unfortunately he suffered a season-ending knee injury on March 24th that required surgery.

The injury seems to be in no way a cause for concern as the Penguins locked him up to a three-year deal, the last two years of the deal being one-way.

He’ll probably miss training camp and the preseason but the 23-year-old should be ready for action by the end of October. Expect him to play a brief conditioning stint in the AHL before getting a crack at an NHL roster spot. Depending on the Penguins situation down the middle, Jeffrey could play a third or fourth-line checking center role or in the top-nine as an offensive winger. Regardless of where he plays in even-strength, he brings valuable penalty-killing skills, a solid presence in the faceoff circle, and can even play the point or the half-boards on the powerplay.

7. (7) Robert Bortuzzo, D, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

Playing defense for the Penguins organization requires a blueliner to be a mobile skater, able to confidently move the puck up ice, and in excellent physical condition, qualities of which Robert Bortuzzo possesses in spades.

A regular defensive partner of Brian Strait, Bortuzzo is entering his third year with the Penguins organization and will be looking to build off a 2010-11 season that saw him post a plus-28, four goals, and 22 assists while playing as half as the Baby Penguins’ shutdown defensive pairing.

He’ll be expected to contribute more offensively, as he has grown more comfortable with the system and is more confident in taking risks in the offensive zone.

8. (6) Brian Strait, D, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2006

Like defensive partner Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait is entering his third season of AHL hockey and is continuing to round out the finer points of his game.

Strait has a slightly lower ceiling than Bortuzzo, he doesn’t fight as often and has a slightly less offensive bend to his game. However, he plays an all-around safer game defensively and is probably the closest to the NHL of any of the Penguins defensive prospects.

In terms of ceiling, Strait has been compared to former Penguin Robert Scuderi. That comparison is fairly accurate though Strait is a little farther along in terms of his development, particularly his skating, than Scuderi was at the same age.

With an organization-wide logjam at defense, Strait will likely start the 2011-12 season in the AHL, more than likely once again paired with Bortuzzo on the Baby Penguins top defensive unit.

9. (9) Ken Agostino, LW/RW, 7C
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2011

In his first season with Yale, Ken Agostino turned a lot of heads, posting 11 goals and 14 assists in 31 games and outworking most of his much older teammates. All while playing mostly third-line duties.

In May, not long after his freshman season concluded, Agostino went down with mononucleosis. Consequentially he was unable to workout for about six weeks and gained almost ten pounds of fat. Scheduled to attend the USA National Junior Evaluation Camp in August, Agostino trained vigorously for five weeks with Extra Edge Academy in Pine Brook, New Jersey.

At the evaluation camp, Agostino was the third-lowest selected draft pick, surrounded by first-rounders such as Charlie Coyle (MIN) and J.T. Miller (NYR). Draft spot mattered little though as he was Team USA’s top scorer, managing three goals and seven assists in only six games. His work ethic, skating ability, and hockey IQ were all impressive at the camp and left a very good impression with Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma, who was serving as a camp assistant coach.

The Penguins are expecting a breakout sophomore campaign from Agostino and based on his impressive freshman season and performance at the Team USA evaluation camp, those expectations are realistic. Agostino is also a front-runner to represent Team USA at the 2012 WJCs in Calgary and Edmonton, so his profile could see a meteoric rise over the next six months.

10. (8) Brad Thiessen, G, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, April 2009

If Brad Thiessen was playing for another organization last year, such as the New York Islanders or Anaheim Ducks, there would have been a good chance he’d have at least a few NHL starts already under his belt. Since he plays for the Penguins though, behind firmly entrenched starter Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Brent Johnson, Thiessen has experienced hardly a whiff of the big show.

Unless injuries hit the Penguins goaltending duo in 2011-12, things are unlikely to change for Thiessen. He will probably see more starts than the 46 he had last year but likely not too many more. The Baby Penguins have traditionally tried to split starts 50/30 between their goaltenders and with Patrick Killeen continuing to emerge as a viable netminding prospect, that seems a likely scenario.

It will be difficult for Thiessen to repeat, let alone improve upon, the 1.94 goals against average, 35-8-1 record, .922 save percentage, and seven shutouts he managed last year. Though based on his quick ascension up the depth charts, it shouldn’t be out of the question.

Thiessen was recently re-signed to a one-year contract by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

11. (NR) Paul Thompson, LW/RW, 7C
Signed as a free agent, March 2011

The Penguins picked up one of the top available collegiate free agents when they signed Paul Thompson last spring. With soft-hands, good size, and solid skating, Thompson brings the tools to suggest he could develop into a solid top-nine NHL winger down the road and quite possibly an ace on the powerplay.

For the immediate future though, Thompson needs to prove he can be a consistent scoring threat at the AHL level, and that his strong albeit small sampling of AHL play last year (four points in 10 games including the regular and post-season) was indeed not a fluke.

Thompson has at least one avid supporter in Wilkes-Barre Coach John Hynes, who believes Thompson simply needs to adjust to the structure of the AHL game to be a strong offensive presence.

The 22-year-old will likely start on a third or fourth line to open the season in Wilkes-Barre but should gradually work his way onto a scoring line as he adjusts to the speed and structure of the AHL.

12. (NR) Scott Harrington, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2011

At the beginning of the 2010-11 season Scott Harrington was among the top-ranked defensemen for the 2011 draft. He was coming off a strong rookie season with the London Knights of the OHL and was expected to develop into a dynamic two-way threat. Instead, the Knights struggled during much of the season and Harrington was put into a shutdown role, often alongside fellow Penguin prospect Reid McNeill.

Over the course of the season Harrington found a comfort zone in making the job of opposing forwards as difficult as possible. Aside from playing a physical shutdown game Harrington is a mobile skater who knows how to distribute the puck and create offense from the blue line. He models his game after former London Knight and current New York Ranger Daniel Girardi, a player who also prides himself in being difficult to play against.

Harrington was a standout in the Penguins prospect development camp and was signed to an entry-level deal announced on July 26th. He is still a project at this point, so expect him to see one if not two more years of juniors, and a possibly few seasons in the AHL after that.

13. (11) Phil Samuelsson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009

Unfairly or not, Phil Samuelsson will draw comparisons to his legendary pugilistic father Ulf for at least much of his early professional hockey career. Standing at 6’3 and about 200 pounds, he bears a striking resemblance, particularly in a Penguins uniform, but the comparison doesn’t end there, as Phil seems to take pleasure in shutting down and irritating the opposition, much the way his father did in the NHL for over 15 years.

"He played a little bit more physical than I do, but that’s certainly something I don’t like to shy away from. We’re pretty similar shutdown style defensemen."

One major distinction the younger Samuelsson can take pride in is he does not have the dubious reputation for borderline play his father did. "I usually get in trouble with the referees but you have to try and sneak it in every once in awhile."

Like with other defensemen who are just entering the Penguins professional ranks, Samuelsson will be given primarily defensive assignments in his first year, playing likely in a second or third-pairing shutdown role. It’d not be out of the realm of possibility for him to play alongside former Boston College teammate Carl Sneep.

He projects as a mobile defenseman who can chip the puck up ice and pinch in offensively, but is more comfortable playing physically in the defensive end and shutting down opposing forwards.

14. (13) Bryan Rust, RW/LW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2010

Another attendee of the USA National Junior Evaluation Camp, Notre Dame forward Bryan Rust didn’t open eyes as widely as fellow Penguin prospect Ken Agostino, but few did. Rust did however further cement his reputation as a hard working forward who is not afraid to play physically and can chip in with more than an occasional goal.

Going into his sophomore season Rust will be expected to improve upon the six goals and 13 assists he managed last season. Improving his offensive totals however will not be as important as him continuing to improve his two-way game.

15. (10) Carl Sneep, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006

Though Sneep hasn’t developed into the type of player the Penguins projected when they drafted him 32nd overall in 2006, his combination of size, puck-moving ability, and mobility still make him a valuable prospect in the organization. That value was on full display over the course of the 2010-11 season when the Penguins AHL affiliate juggled defensemen because of injuries and call-ups.

For the 2011-12 season, Sneep’s versatility will continue to be his greatest asset. He can play on both special teams and in all situations though it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was part of a third-pairing unit with former Boston College teammate Phil Samuelsson.

16. (14) Nick D’Agostino, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2008

The second to last player to be taken in the 2008 draft, D’Agostino is going into his third year with Cornell, where he plays in the top four in all situations for the Big Red.

What makes the 21-year-old standout among his peers is his combination of poise and smart decision making. He lugs the puck up ice, can distribute it, chip in offensively, and is often the first-man back defensively. He also has an underrated point shot and top-notch hockey sense.

17. (18) Keven Veilleux, RW/C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2007

At 22 years of age, more development was expected out of Keven Veilleux since being drafted 51st overall in 2007. Much of this can be attributed to injury, as the 2010-11 season is the first season since 2006-07 where the forward managed over 65 regular season games.

In his first healthy season playing professional hockey, Veilleux displayed a knack for dropping the gloves, finishing the season with 12 fighting majors, second most on the Baby Penguins behind pugilist Jesse Boulerice. Fighting is far from the center piece of Veilleux’s game however. He is a deft passer with soft hands and good size who finished the season with 12 goals and 24 assists in 66 games. His biggest issue, his skating, has improved some over the past season but still needs to continue to do so in order to make him a viable NHL forward.

With Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi likely to spend the stretch of 2011-12 in the NHL, Veilleux will have opportunity for more responsibilities. Assuming he remains healthy, he could have a monster year in the AHL.

18. (16) Patrick Killeen, G, 7D
Drafted 6th round, 190th overall, 2008

Standing at 6’4 and over 200 pounds, goalie Patrick Killeen is as big as many of the Penguins defensive prospects, if not bigger.

"As a big guy you always have to rely on being at the right place at the right time and hopefully if you go down to make yourself big, the puck is just going to hit you. At the same time I pride myself with my athleticism and even though I try to avoid it as much as I can, I think I can flop around with the best of them."

Athleticism that was frequently on display during a successful rookie pro season in the ECHL where he managed a 2.87 goals against average and a 19-16-2 save percentage. Aside from strong athleticism and a keen ability to take away space in the net, Killeen displays a cool demeanor and can easily forget goals allowed.

Going into the season Killeen will be battling for backup duties the AHL level with free agent signee Scott Munroe.

19. (NR) Dominik Uher, RW, 7D
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2011

As a first year CHL player in 2009-10, Dominik Uher played mostly as a bottom-six left-winger who managed only four goals and 12 assists in 53 games. Like many players from Europe, his struggles were largely due to a new language, culture, and style of game.

He clearly adjusted because in 2010-11, he managed 21 goals and 39 assists in 65 games, while being a consistent physical presence on the ice. Uher attributes the jump in success in increased confidence and consequentially more ice time, which allowed him to carve out an important role with the Chiefs.

"I play kind of as a power forward. [Create] a lot of energy for our team, do the work on the line."

Along with a strong work-ethic and physical style of play, Uher brings a solid build and soft hands in tight. He is also a left-handed forward who is more comfortable playing on the right side. He has the tools to at the very least be a solid utility forward if not somebody who can be effective playing on a scoring line.

20. (19) Reid McNeill, D, 6.0B
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2010

Yet another mobile defenseman who can move the puck up ice and provide a solid defensive presence, Reid McNeill has spent the past two seasons developing his shutdown game.

"Definitely my foundation is the defensive end but I’d really like to be more dangerous in the offensive end," Said McNeill. "Talking to [Alain Nasreddine] the AHL defensive coach, I really want to work on being able to get the puck on the point and being a threat on the blue line."

This shift in emphasis coincides with McNeill’s trade from the London Knights to the Barrie Colts.

"[In London] we always had power up front so I was never really given that shot to be the offensive defenseman. Going to Barrie we are a younger team with a little less firepower than some of the previous years with London, they are going to look to me to be a little more offensive and I’m really looking forward to it."

Aside from his offensive game, McNeil is looking to gain more strength, something he thinks can only help him as he pursues a career in the pros.

"I want to head into rookie camp at about 210 or 208 but still at the same time be mobile. You gotta be able to take a hit a give it back. I’ve definitely got a long way to go but I’m willing to work for it."