Defense remains strong point in Penguins system

By Ian Altenbaugh
Photo: Joe Morrow is the new top prospect in the Pittsburgh Penguins system. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

The Penguins have continued a slow and steady approach to developing their talent, a philosophy that has paid dividends in 2011-12, as the organization’s defensive depth was critically tested early and often.

The strength of the organization remains their talent on the blue line, where Joe Morrow, Simon Despres, Brian Strait, and Robert Bortuzzo are all potentially ready for full-time NHL duties next year. The Penguins forward prospects have also experienced positive growth, with some players such as Scott Wilson and Ken Agostino producing noteworthy, point-per-game seasons.

1. (5) Joe Morrow, D, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2011

A stellar performance in Penguins training camp and later in the WHL has vaulted Morrow to the top of Pittsburgh’s prospect pool. Playing for the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks, Morrow has quickly established himself as one of the top two-way defensive prospects in all of junior hockey, playing in all situations, and really being the key cog in a strong transition game.

Growing up on a farm in Western Canada, Morrow comes from good hockey stock. His father was a defenseman who was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 1977, and his brother Josh, also a defenseman, was drafted by Nashville in 2002, coincidently when Penguins GM Ray Shero was working as an assistant GM for the Predators.

Much of Morrow’s game is NHL ready, particularly his skating, shot, and puck-distribution abilities, though that does not mean he is a lock to make the Penguins NHL roster next year. Quite the contrary, the Penguins tend to allow their defensemen to slow cook in the minors for as long as possible, giving them ample time to learn the organization’s defensive systems, but also develop into the type of defenseman who can be deployed in all situations and play big minutes if needed. Morrow projects as a top-four, all-purpose defenseman who can play a shutdown role with the same ease he can run a powerplay.

2. (2) Simon Despres, D, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2009

After a lackluster training camp, Despres was assigned to the AHL where he almost immediately took on a top-four role with the Baby Penguins. That did not last for long however, as injuries started to mount up on the Penguins NHL roster, Despres was recalled to the big show. Over the month of December, he would be called up several times; looking calmer and more poised every game he played in the NHL. Things took a horribly wrong turn in early January however when, in an attempt to deliver a hip check, Despres injured his knee and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. The defenseman has since returned from his injury and has played mostly in the AHL, though made a brief appearance in the NHL in late March.

At 20 Despres is still very young, and while he has looked good in his time spent in the NHL, he was often insulated, not coming on the ice for defensive zone faceoffs, and playing against favorable matchups when possible. Still, he demonstrated a steady, calming presence on the ice and fantastic mobility, particularly in his lateral movement with the puck, which might be the best of any Penguin defenseman since Sergei Gonchar. Despres also is not afraid to mix things up physically and has been spotted throwing the occasional hip check.

He should get a look in training camp but the Penguins have six defensemen under NHL contract next year, so another season in the AHL would not be out of the question.

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

At the beginning of the season it was thought that forward prospect Beau Bennett might be ready to make the jump to the NHL following the completion of his sophomore season with Denver. That sentiment has since changed. In October, Bennett injured his wrist in practice, and while he fought through initially, managing four goals and nine assists through 10 games, it was obvious the injury was limiting his abilities and he had surgery to repair the injury on December 8th.

If there was any silver lining that came out of the experience for Bennett, it is that he addressed a major concern for him before going pro, putting on some muscle mass.

"I actually stayed off cardio for the whole eight weeks I had my cast on because I didn’t want to sweat in that," Bennett said in an interview in early March. "But I’ve been doing a lot of lower body and core work. I’ve actually gained weight since I’ve been out, so I’ve been feeling pretty good."

Bennett has since returned from the injury though not in time to play for the Pioneers playoff run. He remains the Penguins top offensive prospect by a wide margin, as he possesses innate abilities with the puck, and can create offense out of nothing. His skating is also superb, a quality necessary in order to play the up-tempo style of play the Penguins employ.

The Penguins could ultimately make an offer to him at the end of the season, but it may serve him well to spend another year in DU where he can continue to add more strength and develop his offensive gifts.

4. (3) Eric Tangradi, RW/LW, 7B
Acquired from trade with Anaheim Ducks, February 26th, 2009

The clock is ticking for Eric Tangradi, who now in his third professional season needs to prove he can develop into an NHL caliber forward. So far, while the early returns haven’t been great, they have shown some promise. Tangradi has slowly worked himself into the NHL lineup on a semi-regular basis, playing primarily as a fourth-line grinder. Now the biggest obstacle for the 23-year-old is to turn up his offensive game, which has not been particularly noticeable in his time spent in the NHL so far. While there is no simple answer for how he can improve his offensive output, his safest bet is to continue to play a consistent, highly physical style of game, particularly on the forecheck or down low where he can use his giant frame to protect the puck and create space. He needs to also continue to develop a power forward mentality. He has started to get there, but it will take awhile for him to fully round out his game, as it does with most big, physical forwards.

A restricted free agent at the end of the season, Tangradi will likely be re-signed for at least for one more year, with the hope he can continue the progression he has demonstrated so far.

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

Harrington is coming off another solid regular season in the OHL, where he managed three goals and 23 assists in 44 games. He also gained some international notoriety in the 2012 WJCS, where he managed four points in five games while representing Canada.

In many regards Harrington is the prototypical Penguins defensive prospect. Foremost he has fantastic power skating ability, which is required to play in the Pittsburgh defensive system. He brings other familiar qualities though, such as steady relatively error-free play in his own end, solid puck-moving abilities, and a mean streak. He also has the look of a player who can log lots of minutes in all situations.

Like most of the Penguins defensive prospects, a slow approach should be expected with Harrington. He has only recently turned 19 years old and while his frame already looks about NHL ready, he is still a few years away, with another year of OHL play followed by a year or two in the AHL.

6. (4) Tom Kuhnhackl, RW/LW, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

The 2011-12 season certainly hasn’t lacked drama for the 20-year-old German forward. Traded just four games into the season to the Niagara IceDogs, Kuhnhackl was suspended for a big chunk of the season due to a punishing hit he delivered on defenseman Ryan Murphy (CAR). The forward has since returned and looked comfortable playing in the top-six for Niagara

His numbers with the IceDogs (seven goals and 18 assists) are way off pace with last year, where he managed 39 goals and 29 assists in 63 games, but much of that is due to a slightly reduced role with his new team as well as a greater emphasis in the defensive zone.

Already under contract, Kuhnhackl will join the Penguins AHL affiliate at the conclusion of his OHL season.

7. (7) Robert Bortuzzo, D, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

On many other teams, Robert Bortuzzo could probably be playing as a sixth or seventh defenseman. The tall, rangy young man is in his third year of NHL play and along with partner Brian Strait, continues to be one of the most effective defensive defensemen in the AHL.

Bortuzzo made six appearances in the NHL this season and looked quite comfortable, logging minutes in a variety of situations, mostly as a third-pairing defenseman. He may have made even more appearances in the NHL this season but the injury bug, something he successfully avoided the previous two seasons, has come back to haunt him, and he has missed about a third of the season because of one injury or another, including a concussion.

The injuries do not appear to deter Bortuzzo from playing a physical, gritty game however, and he has done so with aplomb for the Penguins AHL affiliate this season. Like Despres, Morrow, and frequent partner Brian Strait, Bortuzzo is at the bottom half of a defensive depth chart that goes 11 deep with NHL caliber talent.

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

In what has been familiar narrative, Brian Strait was called up to the NHL early on in the season because of mounting injuries, only to fall to injury himself, in this case a hyper-extended elbow. Probably the most ready of any of the Pens defensive prospects to step into the NHL, Strait has seen seven games in the big show this season and has looked solid. His game is reminiscent of former Penguin Rob Scuderi, who he has been often compared to since he was drafted in 2006.

At 24 years old, Strait is nearing his physical prime and should be expected to compete for a regular spot in the NHL lineup over the next two seasons.

9. (NR) Ben Hanowski, LW, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

A year of physical maturation can do wonders for a young player. This time last year Ben Hanowski looked like a player who may never develop into the high-scoring forward he was projected as when the Penguins picked him in the third round of 2009. He was playing a lot on the perimeter and his skating was not adequate for a player of his finesse style of game.

That seems like a long memory now, as Hanowski has been one of the top goal-scorers in the NCAA this season, managing 23 goals and 20 assists through 39 games. He has done it while playing a physically robust game too, getting into the dirty areas of the ice and battling hard for pucks in the corners.

10. (9) Ken Agostino, LW/RW, 7C
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2010

Like many of the other forwards the Penguins have selected, particularly over the last two years, Agostino possesses a particular skill package the organization seems to covet; hard work, good skating, and the ability to play an up-tempo style of game.

This season Agostino has seen a lot of positive growth in every aspect of his game, he has added a bit of muscle, continues to play an aggressive, attacking style of game, and has been racking up the numbers, managing 14 goals and 20 assists through 33 games.

11. (10) Brad Thiessen, G, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, April 3rd, 2009

At the onset of the 2011-12 season, Brad Thiessen seemed like the eventual heir apparent to back-up Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury. Six months later that sentiment does not seem to be as widely shared.

Called up to fill in for current NHL backup Brent Johnson, who has languished quite a bit himself this season, Thiessen initially looked solid, playing a little wildly in net, but nonetheless winning games for the Penguins. His play gradually dipped however, as it became apparent he was having difficulties with certain aspects of the NHL game.

"Speed [is the biggest issue]. Guys are [also] bigger," Thiessen said when asked about the difference between the AHL and NHL. "Plays in front of the net are a little more of a problem, I think guys are really good with their sticks, deflections, plays in tight, so definitely the plays around the crease."

Thiessen has since returned to the AHL where he remains the Baby Penguins starter. He is a restricted free agent at the end of the season and while the Penguins don’t seem ready to give up on him, his record (21-14-2), not to mention his 2.86 goals against average and .886 save percentage, are quite disappointing.

12. (11) Paul Thompson, LW/RW, 7C
Signed as a free agent, March 28th, 2011

Thompson has not had a particularly easy rookie professional season. He has battled for a regular spot in the lineup and when he has been on the ice it has been typically on either the third or fourth line. In 61 games, the 23-year-old has managed 10 goals, 12 assists, and 33 penalty minutes.

Expect the Penguins to be very patient with Thompson as he has taken awhile at every level of hockey he has played to find his offensive game. He projects as a top-nine forward who can cycle the puck well in the offensive zone and contribute on the powerplay.

13. (NR) Scott Wilson, LW/RW, 7C
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011

Another very solid offensive player among the Penguins NCAA ranks, Scott was one of the top rookies in the nation this year, and was the key cog in an upstart UMass-Lowell team.

He plays an attacking, aggressive style of game in the offensive zone, reminiscent of many prospects the Penguins have drafted of late. On the season he has 16 goals and 22 assists in 37 games.

14. (NR) Brian Gibbons, C/LW, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent April 4th, 2011

In his first professional season, Brian Gibbons has looked solid, though like Thompson he has had difficulty getting premium ice time. Like many other prospects in the Penguins system, Gibbons is a versatile forward who can play a variety of different positions in a multitude of different situations. He also plays with a high motor and is not afraid to get in the face of opponents and mix it up.

At 5’9, the biggest issue for Gibbons to overcome is his stature. Though solid at the NCAA level, he needs to add some more muscle in order to be an effective presence in the pros, particularly down low where he seems to do some of his best work. He projects as slightly less skilled version of current Penguin Tyler Kennedy.

15. (15) Carl Sneep, D, 6B
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2006

Like Strait and Bortuzzo, Carl Sneep saw an NHL cup of coffee earlier this season when the Penguins defense was battling injures. For Sneep it came on December 17th, when the Penguins were without the services of blueliners Paul Martin, Kris Letang, and Zbynek Michalek. Since he was returned to the AHL, Sneep has battled injuries, appearing in just 10 games over the last three months.

Similar to Strait and Bortuzzo, Sneep brings a package of skills that is not spectacular in any one area but diverse enough that he can fill a variety of different roles. If there is a detracting quality in his game, it is his lack of physical play. Despite being 6’4 and well over 200 pounds, Sneep does not provide a particularly intimidating presence on the Penguins blue line. A quality even more noticeable when compared to teammates Bortuzzo, Strait, and Despres, who all play with a fair amount of jam in their own end.

16. (16) Nick D’Agostino, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 2010th overall, 2008

In his third year with Cornell, D’Agostino has continued to assert himself as one of the Penguins more intriguing two-way prospects. He was the top point-getting defenseman for Cornell this season, amassing a total of eight goals and 20 points in 34 games. He was very much the key cog for Cornell’s low-scoring offense, as six of his eight goals came on the powerplay and five were game-winners.

D’Agostino projects as a dependable two-way forward, similar to former Penguin Mark Eaton.

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

Rust has not had a particularly stellar 2011-12 campaign, managing just five goals and six assists while playing mostly third line minutes for the Fighting Irish.

Lack of offensive game aside, Rust actually plays a game conducive to the pros, especially in terms of his defensive and physical play. He is not afraid to get his nose dirty around the net and can play a fairly simple, north-south type of game. Still, much more should be expected of him offensively and physically he is not yet ready for the NHL.

18. (NR) Josh Archibald, RW/LW, 7D
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011

Another solid NCAA draft pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Josh Archibald had a breakout freshman year, managing 10 goals and 5 assists for the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Despite a wiry build, Archibald plays a physical, chippy style of game, which is in part to what led to his selection to the Team USA Roster in the 2012 WJCs. He remains a long-term project for the Penguins, but early returns have been good so far.

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

It has been a good year for the Penguins 2011 draft class, as all of them have surpassed prior totals and demonstrated positive growth. One of whom probably went a little more unnoticed though was Spokane Chief forward Dominik Uher. In 63 regular season games, he managed 33 goals, 35 assists, and a plus-29.

When Uher first arrived to North America, he was not particularly fluent in English nor was he familiar with the culture. As he grew comfortable and physically matured, his offensive game exploded, and this season he really seems to have found a role as a goal-scoring power forward.

The Penguins however will take the slow and steady approach with his development, as they have with most of their prospects so far.

20. (13) Philip Samuelsson, D, 6C
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2009

Like Sneep before him, Samuelsson is on oft maligned pick by Penguins fans, mostly because he lacks the perceived pedigree that a second-round pick should have. While he hasn’t necessarily dispelled that notion yet, he has looked like a viable defensive prospect in his first AHL season.

Still only 20 years old, Samuelsson should follow a fairly slow developmental path. He projects as a defensive defenseman and traditionally they take a very long time to develop, often not becoming NHL regulars until their mid-to-late twenties.