Pittsburgh Penguins unearthed numerous assets from 2007 draft

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Robert Bortuzzo (Right) watches practice with fellow 2007 draft pick Eric Tangradi, who was acquired in 2009 via trade with the Anaheim Ducks. Both Bortuzzo and Tangradi have seen a fair amount of time in the NHL with Pittsburgh this season, though neither looks to be ready for full-time duties. (Photo courtesy of Ian Altenbaugh/HF)

With eight selections in the 2007 NHL draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins added significant skater depth, selecting five forwards and three defensemen. Except for third-round pick Casey Pierro-Zabotel, every player was drafted out of the CHL.

Under the GM Ray Shero, the Penguins have gone with the "Best Player Available" policy when it comes to drafting and while that appeared to be true in 2007, the organization seemed to be willing to take more high risk players than they have historically, likely because of a relatively shallow 2007 draft pool.

Those risks at the draft table proved to be fruitful, at least from an organization standpoint, as it helped facilitate several trade deadline deals over the years. Every member of the Penguins 2007 draft class was signed to an entry-level deal and several look to have solid NHL careers ahead of them.

Angelo Esposito, C, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) – 1st round, 20th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 0

Though still signed to an NHL contract, it is safe to say Angelo Esposito's NHL future has become more about what he could potentially do than anything he will likely do. Coming out of a fairly weak 2007 draft class, Esposito was projected early as a potential first overall pick, a questionable projection, even at that time, especially given the undisputed pedigree of players such as Patrick Kane and James Van Riemsdyk. So while it was a surprise to some that Esposito dropped as far as the 20th spot in the draft, it really shouldn't have been. He had been coming off a weak draft year, in which he managed almost 20 fewer points (including 12 fewer goals) than his rookie season in 2005-06.

He made his debut as a member of the Penguins organization in their 2007 prospect camp and showed off the offensive acumen and scoring prowess that made him highly touted in some circles. That would serve to be the highlight of his career with the Penguins as seven months later he would be shipped away, along with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, and the Penguins 2008 first round pick, to the Atlanta Thrashers in one of the bigger trades in Penguins history.

As for Esposito, after sputtering to a finish in his junior career, he joined the Atlanta Thrashers organization in 2009-10 where, after two unspectacular seasons, he was traded two more times, first to the Florida Panthers for forward Kenddal McArdle, then later to the Dallas Stars for Ondrej Roman.

Esposito is currently playing for the Texas Stars of the AHL where he has one goal and two assists. Before being traded to the Dallas Stars, Esposito had two goals and three assists in 16 games with the San Antonio Rampage.

Keven Veilleux, C/W, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL) – 2nd round, 51st overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 0

Drafted out of the QMJHL, Veilleux was drafted because of his unique blend of size and skill. In 2007-08, the year after he was drafted, Veilleux managed 64 points through 61 games. Respectable numbers, but his effort and compete level remained a concern.

At the conclusion of the 2007-08 season, he was signed to an entry-level deal on May 17th 2008.

He ended up missing the bulk of the 2008-09 season because of shoulder problems, though returned for the end of the season, managing 48 points in 29 games, 19 in 13 playoff matches.

In his first professional season, Veilleux joined the Penguins AHL affiliate but missed all but nine games. He would return healthy for the 2010-11 season though and the hulking forward seemed to have finally started to realize his immense potential. He had 12 goals and 23 assists, but more importantly was playing the role of a physical, power forward. He also dropped the gloves 12 times, and was surprisingly effective in a pugilistic role, something that was unexpected, but more than welcome.

In his third professional season, Veilleux was once again hit with health problems, and shut-down for the first half of the 2011-12 season, possibly more. He is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Considering how close the Penguins are to the 50 contract limit, it is easy to see why the Penguins may opt to not extend his contract. On the other hand, a player with his package of skills is unique, so the Penguins might extend him for at least another year.

Robert Bortuzzo, D, Kitchener Rangers (OHL) – 3rd round, 78th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 6

Bortuzzo is yet another player drafted by the Penguins in 2007 who has seen his hockey career limited by injury, albeit not yet to the extent of Veilleux or Esposito. Drafted out of the OHL, he was projected as a tall, rangy defenseman who played a tough, two-way game. So far those projections have been realized, at least to the point where his health has allowed.

After several seasons of solid but unspectacular play in the OHL, Bortuzzo joined the Penguins organization full time in 2009-10 where he spent much of the season playing third-pairing minutes, though he would see time on the penalty kill. Like Veilleux, Bortuzzo brought a surprise pugilistic element to his game. Not a heavyweight by any means, he nonetheless dropped the gloves nine times in his rookie pro season. He would continue develop in his second professional season as a solid top-four defenseman at the AHL level, often used alongside defenseman Brian Strait.

Now in his third season, Bortuzzo is on the cusp of being an NHL caliber defenseman. He has and never will excel in any one facet of the game, but brings a blend of size, toughness, mobility, and skill that is highly coveted in the NHL.

Casey Pierro-Zabotel, C/W, Merritt Centennials (BCHL) – 3rd round, 80th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

Considered to be a high-risk/high-reward pick, Casey Pierro-Zabotel has been one of the few busts of the Ray Shero era. Drafted because he possessed a blend of size and skill, Pierro-Zabotel was originally scheduled to play for Michigan Tech, where he could slowly develop his game before the Penguins would have to make a decision on him. Unfortunately, he failed to meet academic criteria, and after spending some time finding a place to play, he finally wound up on the Vancouver Giants (WHL), where over the next two seasons, he would play significant minutes alongside the immensely talented Evander Kane (WPG).

In his second and last season in the WHL, Pierro-Zabotel posted 36 goals and 79 assists through 115 games and at the end of the season signed an entry-level deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That would prove to be the highlight of his hockey career thus far as Pierro-Zabotel would be assigned to the ECHL out of training camp. In his rookie season, he managed 41 points in 49 games, unacceptable numbers for a player of his supposed offensive pedigree, though it would be his second season in 2010-11 that would prove to be his undoing. Midway through the season, he would be loaned to the Cincinnati Cyclones. Through 49 games in 2011-12, Pierro-Zabotel, now with the Bakersfield Condors, has only 22 points.

Luca Caputi, RW/LW, Mississauga IceDogs (OHL) – 4th round, 111th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 35

Drafted for one reason, goal-scoring, Luca Caputi was one of the top offensive producers in the OHL, managing 51 goals following his draft year, more than every player in the OHL but Steven Stamkos and Brett MacLean.

His pro career got off to a solid start, he produced 18 goals and 27 assists in his rookie season and even got into five NHL games, scoring his first NHL goal. He followed that up with an even more impressive 2009-10 season, posting 23 goals and 25 assists before getting traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Alexei Ponikarovsky at the 2010 trade deadline.

He spent the entire 2010-11 season in the Toronto organization, splitting time between the AHL and NHL when he wasn't hobbled by injury. Mid-way through the 2011-12 season, Caputi was traded to the Anaheim Ducks. With the Ducks AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, he looks to have regained his old scoring touch, and has been producing at roughly a point-per-game clip.

Like seemingly every player the Penguins selected in the 2007 draft prior, Luca Caputi has all of the skills but the parts so far have been greater than the sum.

Alex Grant, D, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) – 4th round, 118th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games: 0

As typical with the Penguins 2007 draft class, Alex Grant was drafted as a project player who possessed good size, skills, and mobility. Also typical of this Penguin draft class, Grant has missed significant time to injury.

Grant was drafted after his second season in the QMJHL. He was the top defenseman on a languishing Saint John team, posting solid offensive numbers (12 goals and 20 assists through 68 games) but also a garish minus-32. He would follow that season up with comparable offensive totals (15 goals and 33 assists through 70 games) but more importantly, a plus-17 rating. For the 2008-09 season, Grant finally started looking like a complete defenseman. He was traded mid-way through the season to the Shawinigan Cataractes and finished the season with 50 points in 60 games.

Grant would start his professional career with the Penguins ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers. He would play well at the ECHL level and would be rewarded with several call-ups to the AHL.

Entering the 2010-11 season, Grant was expecting to compete for a regular spot in the AHL lineup. Instead, during a September exhibition game, Grant was awkwardly slammed into the boards, breaking his wrist, and missing all but last two months of the season.

Now healthy, Grant has firmly established himself as a solid two-way defenseman at the AHL level. He remains a long-term project in terms of being an NHL player.

Jake Muzzin, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) – 5th round, 141st overall
Status: Prospect (LAK)
NHL Games: 11

A blend of size and skill, Jake Muzzin was a once highly touted major junior player who's stock fell because of a major back surgery in 2006. He possessed a blend of size, skill, and nastiness however that is highly coveted at the NHL level, and taken in the fifth round, that combination could be had at relatively low risk.

Muzzin would go on to play two seasons in the OHL as Penguins property, managing 18 points in 2007-09 then 29 in 2008-09. He played for a genuinely terrible team in 2008-09, one that allowed 118 more goals than it scored, and it showed in Muzzin's minus-30 rating, which wasn't even worst on the team.

At the end of the 2008-09 season, the Penguins opted to not sign Muzzin to an entry-level contract. Consequentially, he became a free agent and returned to the OHL. In 2009-10, playing as a 20-year-old, Muzzin started to realize his potential. Through 64 games, he managed 15 goals and 52 assists. The Los Angeles Kings took notice early on and signed him to an entry-level deal in January of 2010.

Muzzin would make his NHL debut the following season, playing in 11 games and posting a single assist. Turning 22 in late February, Muzzin has the look of an NHL defenseman who can play in the top-six, and be deployed as a physical, shutdown type of defenseman.

Dustin Jeffrey, C/W, Sault Ste. Marie Grehounds (OHL) – 6th round, 171st overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 61

Jeffrey in many ways epitomizes the type of forwards the Penguins have sought during the Ray Shero era. He is a strong skater, good two-way player, and whatever offensive success he has, is generated from hard work rather than created through higher-risk offensive plays.

Jeffrey was selected as a 19-year-old following a breakout season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, where he managed 92 points in 68 regular season games and 18 in 13 playoff matches. He would follow up that season with a 97 point one in 2007-08. Following the completion of his OHL season, he joined the Penguins AHL affiliate during their playoff run.

Jeffrey would officially debut as a Penguins player in 2008-09 playing primarily with the Penguins AHL affiliate, though seeing a 14 game cup of coffee in the NHL as well. His 2009-10 season would see him explode offensively, posting 24 goals and 47 assists in 77 games, moving from his natural position at center to playing mostly on the wing.

It was 2010-11 however where Jeffrey finally established himself as an NHL caliber forward. With an NHL roster ravaged by injuries, the Penguins would recall Jeffrey for an extended period of time, and use him in every situation imaginable, including point on the powerplay. He would go down with a severe knee injury however, which would require surgery and a summer of rehab. The Penguins reaffirmed their confidence in Jeffrey however, and signed him to a two-year deal. After a slow start to the 2011-12 season, Jeffrey has established himself as a solid NHL forward, capable of playing a sound two-way game and contributing timely offense.