Penguins Top 20 prospects

By Adrian Barclay

The Pittsburgh Penguins have one of the deepest pools of prospects in the league, No. 2 on the Hockey’s Future latest Organizational Rankings. Headed by franchise players Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have many high quality players who have a chance at being successful at the NHL level.

Many of these players are having superb seasons, and a few quality prospects did not make the cut for this latest Top 20. In all, the list contains 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders, with eight being drafted by the Penguins in the first two rounds of the Entry Draft.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Evgeni Malkin, C (+1)
2. Marc-Andre Fleury, G (-1)
3. Ryan Whitney, D (–)
4. Noah Welch, D (–)
5. Colby Armstrong, RW (+1)
6. Sergei Anshakov, LW (-1)
7. Maxime Talbot, C (–)
8. Matt Murley, LW (+1)
9. Michel Ouellet, RW (+4)
10. Ben Eaves, C (–)
11. Andy Chiodo, G (-3)
12. Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C (–)
13. Paul Bissonnette, D (+1)
14. Michel Sivek, C (-3)
15. Ross Lupaschuk, D (–)
16. Alex Goligoski, D (+4)
17. Daniel Fernholm, D (-1)
18. Ryan Stone, C (NR)
19. Matt Moulson, LW (-2)
20. Erik Christensen, C (-1)

1. Evgeni Malkin, C (+1) 1st Round, 2nd overall 2004, 6’3, 180 lbs, 18

Taking over the No. 1 spot in this edition of the Penguins Top 20 prospects is Russian phenom Evgeni Malkin. Despite being taken second overall in the 2004 draft behind fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin, many consider Malkin to be the better overall player. He is a rare talent who has excellent skills with and without the puck, great vision and supreme skating. Many believed he was not physical enough, but proved critics wrong during this year’s WJC, with a number of thunderous hits on opponents.

Back home, Malkin is competing in his second season in the Russian Super League and is performing extremely well, keeping pace with many locked out NHL’ers. He posted three goals and nine assists in winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2003-04, and has already nearly doubled those numbers this season with six goals and 14 assists from 35 games in 2004-05. In the 2005 WJC, Malkin finished fourth overall in the tournament in scoring with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in only five games, and showed all the skills that make him one of the premier prospects in the world.

When Penguins scout Mark Kelley was asked to comment on the improvement of Malkin at the WJC, he told Hockey’s Future, “I think that he is a more mature player now, he is stronger physically and his skating has also improved since last year. He is also a more all-around player. I mean, we are ecstatic with our choice. He is having a great season in the Superleague. He started the year playing very well. Since a month or so ago, he’s really started to become an offensive force there.”

Malkin is expected to remain in Russia for perhaps another season before arriving in Pittsburgh, but is sure to make a huge impact for many years in a Penguins uniform.

2. Marc-Andre Fleury, G (-1) 1st Round, 1st overall 2003, 6’2, 172 lbs, 20

After an eventful season in 2003-04 which saw him playing for three different teams, as well as back-stopping Canada to a WJC silver medal, Marc-Andre Fleury has been able to settle down to business as the No. 1 goaltender for the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The ultra-talented Fleury has already shown many glimpses of brilliance in his short professional career, with his lightning quick reflexes and sharp glove hand.

Fleury began the 2004-05 season sharing the goaltending duties with fellow prospect Andy Chiodo, but has been playing a higher percentage of the games lately. Despite a slow start, the Quebec native has already posted 15 wins, including two shutouts to add to his first professional shutout that he achieved last season against the Chicago Blackhawks. His numbers are solid, with a 2.58 GAA and a .904 save percentage. The Baby Penguins owe much of their success this season to the play of Fleury, who has kept them in many games with countless important saves, proving his last period capitulation against the USA in the gold medal game of the 2004 WJC was only a distant memory. There is no doubt that he will be a great NHL goaltender, as the 20-year-old is still probably a few seasons away from his best form.

3. Ryan Whitney, D 1st Round, 5th Overall 2002, 6’4, 202 lbs, 21

Pittsburgh’s third entry in HF’s top 50 prospects at No. 45, Ryan Whitney is starting to show why he was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft. After being the top scorer for Boston University in his final college season, Whitney was added to the Wilkes-Barre roster for the Calder Cup playoffs, where he impressed with a goal and nine assists. Whitney has a huge upside with his size and puck handling skills, and is gaining valuable time on the power play and the penalty kill for the Baby Pens.

Whitney has shown improvement as the season has gone on, and has taken well to the extra responsibility he has needed to shoulder with a continuous injuries among his defensive teammates. His large 6’4 frame allows him to be physically imposing defensively, and possesses a fantastic outlet pass and a good shot from the point. Through 40 games, Whitney sits second amongst team defensemen with three goals and 12 assists.

4. Noah Welch, D 2nd Round, 54th Overall 2001, 6’4, 212 lbs, 22

Noah Welch continues to impress with his solid all around play as captain of the Harvard University Crimson. Welch combines his size with excellent skating ability, as well has having outstanding vision and hockey instincts. Welch can be a blueline stalwart or jump into the attack where necessary. Many believe him to be the finest all around defensemen currently playing college hockey, and projects to be a top four defensemen in the NHL.

Welch’s value goes beyond goals and assists, with his leadership in the locker room one of his well known assets. Now in his senior year with Harvard, Welch has posted three goals and six assists in 19 games, making him sixth in the team in points, second amongst defensemen.

5. Colby Armstrong, RW (+1) 1st Round, 21st Overall 2001, 6’2, 185 lbs, 22

A first round pick in 2001, Colby Armstrong jumps into the top 5 with his stellar play so far in the 2004-05 season for Wilkes-Barre, his third as a Baby Penguin. Armstrong has improved every year of his professional career, and now finds himself one of the most valuable players in his team. Armstrong is destined to be a coveted NHL role player in years to come.

Although the winger is unlikely to ever put up massive numbers, he is always a steady point contributor. Armstrong plays on the Penguins second line, and sees time on the power play and the penalty kill. He is strong with or without the puck, and is known for his commitment and work ethic, from getting back in defense to blocking shots and making great passes. This season has been Armstrong’s best as far as scoring goes, with nine goals and 19 assists for 28 points in 40 games.

6. Sergei Anshakov, LW (-1) Acquired in trade with Los Angeles, 6’4, 196 lbs, 21

Acquired in the Martin Straka trade in 2003, Anshakov is one of the most highly skilled prospects in the Penguins system. He combines blinding speed with quick hands, but his numbers are affected by playing in the Russian Super League, where his ice time is limited. Anshakov showed what he could do against competition his own age, top scoring for Russia in the 2004 WJC with nine points in five games. Anshakov has the potential to be a high scoring forward, and the possibility of a future combination with Evgeni Malkin is mouth-watering. Anshakov still needs to improve his size and on-ice vision if he is to be successful at the NHL level.

The influx of players into Europe due to the NHL lockout has meant that Anshakov has struggled to get regular playing time at his normal club of CSKA Moscow, so in late December he was loaned to weaker club Salavat Yulayev for the remainder of the season. Anshakov has started well there, scoring five points (one goal, four assists) in his first seven games.

7. Maxime Talbot, C 8th Round, 234th Overall 2002, 5’11, 176 lbs, 20

After a fantastic junior career, Maxime Talbot has impressed many in his first season in the professional ranks for the Baby Penguins. The talented center scored plenty of points in his QMJHL career, but projects to be a valuable role player in the future. Talbot is well known for his leadership and defensive skills, and was rewarded with a role as alternate captain for Team Canada at the 2004 WJC. Talbot scored three assists in that tournament, playing mainly against the opponents’ top lines.

After missing a couple of weeks with a shoulder injury, Talbot has returned in good form and is centering a line with Ben Eaves and Tomas Surovy that is causing plenty of trouble with the opposition. When Ben Eaves spoke to Hockey’s Future in December he said of Talbot, “He’s just a really great energy player and he gets in the corners and he gets does a lot of the small things that make the game easier for the rest of us out there.”

Talbot has shown good play on both sides of the puck, creating many scoring opportunities and diffusing opposition attacks. When the Penguins were struggling early in the season, Talbot topped the team with +3, and has now improved to a +6. Talbot has compiled three goals and four assists so far this season, but more offense is bound to come from Talbot as he adjusts to the professional game.

8. Matt Murley, LW (+1) 2nd Round, 51st Overall 1999, 6’1, 192 lbs, 25

Solid in all areas of the game, Murley is developing nicely into an NHL-caliber player. Already a young veteran, Murley was made an alternate caption for the WBS Penguins for season 2004-05. He possesses excellent playmaking abilities, as well as being a strong skater and good forechecker. Murley has already played 18 NHL games, but didn’t score at the pace he is used to, with only a goal and an assist in those games. It is expected that he will be in the running for a third or fourth line role with the senior club whenever the league returns, but will need to produce more points to become a regular.

In season 2004-05, Murley has found great chemistry with his linemates, and they have become one of the most productive lines in the AHL. Playing on the team’s top line with offensive guns Kris Beech and Michel Ouellet, Murley has posted nine goals and 18 assists, along with an astounding +27 rating. That rating tops the team and puts him second in the entire league. Murley plays on the top penalty-killing unit as well as seeing some time on the power play. Murley is always on the ice for the last minute of play.

9. Michel Ouellet, RW (+4) 4th Round, 124th Overall 2000, 6’1, 201 lbs, 22

Making the biggest jump in the rankings is second year Penguins winger Michel Ouellet. The 22-year-old is making waves in season 2004-05 by doing what he does best, scoring goals and lots of them. As a junior with Rimouski of the QMJHL, Ouellet scored over 40 goals in his last two seasons, and has carried over that form to the professional ranks. In his rookie year in the AHL in 2003-04, Ouellet posted 30 goals and 49 points, and was named in the AHL All-Rookie team. As with many snipers, his defensive deficiencies have held him back from being considered a top flight prospect.

2004-05 has proven to be somewhat of a turnaround year for Ouellet in that respect. No sophomore slump, Ouellet has powered to a league leading 27 goals, including two hat tricks. He has also been deadly when games have gone to a shootout, scoring on eight of 12 occasions. He has consistently proved that he can be defensively responsible, breaking up many opposition plays this season while going an amazing +22, fifth in the league. Ouellet is strong on his feet, and can get into great positions in front of the net allowing him to make a tip-in or score a garbage goal. His vision also allows him to get into open space, making him a deadly opponent on an odd man rush. His skating is improving, meaning that an NHL call-up might not be far away.

10. Ben Eaves, C 4th Round, 131st Overall 2001, 5’8, 180 lbs, 22

After a successful tenure with Boston College, Ben Eaves is beginning his professional career with the WBS Penguins in 2004-05. Although Eaves is only 5’8, he possesses all the skills to be successful in the NHL. He packs 180 pounds onto that frame, and has great playmaking and goal scoring ability, scoring at 1.34 points per game during his college career. Beyond that, Eaves has plenty of hockey smarts, and his low center of gravity helps him stay on his feet.

Eaves retuned from a knee injury in December, scoring one goal in two games for the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL before being called up to WBS. Eaves continues to show improvement as he gains confidence on his knee, and played his best game in his fourth outing with the Penguins, where he scored a first period goal and an assist. After spending most of his first few games as the fourth line center, Eaves has moved to the wing and is earning much more ice time playing on the Penguins third line. If he can stay healthy, it seems as though he will have a good NHL career as a second or third line center. Currently Eaves has a goal and three assists from 13 games.

11. Andy Chiodo, G (-3) 7th Round, 199th Overall 2003, 5’11, 192 lbs, 21

After being snubbed by the New York Islanders, Chiodo re-entered the draft in 2003 to be chosen by the Penguins 199th overall. After being assigned to Wilkes-Barre, Chiodo did enough to be called up to Pittsburgh while they were mired in franchise record losing streaks. Chiodo broke both the overall and home streaks, and finished with three wins from his eight NHL games. When he returned to the Baby Pens, he secured a Calder Cup playoff birth, but was replaced by Marc-Andre Fleury and Sebastien Caron as the back-stoppers for the playoffs. When Fleury and Caron failed, leaving the Penguins in a 3-1 hole, Chiodo took over in game five and won three straight games to get to the next round. His hot hand took the Penguins all the way to the Calder Cup Final, where they were finally swept by the Milwaukee Admirals.

This season hasn’t been as kind to Chiodo, with his early season struggles seeing him relegated to the role of backup to Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as a couple of trips to the ECHL. His record in 10 games with Wilkes-Barre is 4-7-1, with a 3.54 GAA and a .870 save percentage. Chiodo has fared better in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers, with a 2-1-1 record and a 1.69 GAA. Despite those average numbers, Chiodo’s proven big game performances mean that he is still considered a strong goaltending prospect for the Penguins.

12. Johannes Salmonsson, LW/C 2nd Round, 31st Overall 2004, 6’2, 183 lbs, 18

One of the most promising talents to come out of Sweden in the last few years, Salmonsson is fast becoming one of the Penguins best prospects. He is a strong skater who can mix it up on the boards, as well as having plenty of creative skill. Since signing on to play in the Swedish Elite League with Djurgarden as a 17-year-old, Salmonsson has struggled to get decent playing time with just the five assists in 39 games over two seasons. When Salmonsson does get a chance to play a little more, he has shown just what he can do. In the 2003-04 season, he spent six games with Djurgarden’s Under-20 team, and posted four goals and nine assists.

Without a goal in 24 games at various levels in Sweden leading up to the 2005 WJC, Salmonsson made sure he lit the lamp in Grand Forks, posting a team leading eight points which included five goals in his six games. Salmonsson also finished with a +2 rating. When Mark Kelley was asked for his thoughts on Salmonsson in the tournament he said, “He has come over here and is playing very well. He works very hard. He’s been very effective on the forecheck, going to the net. He forces things to happen.”

13. Paul Bissonnette, D (+1) 4th Round, 121st Overall 2003, 6’3, 210 lbs, 19

Not many 18-year-old defensemen show enough skill to make it onto an NHL roster straight out of training camp, but Bissonnette almost did just that after being taken in the fourth round of the 2003 draft. Bissonnette competed for a roster spot deep into camp, impressing many. The 6’3, 208-pounder has a wide array of talent, capable of a bone-crushing hit or sweet outlet pass. He is a strong leader and was made captain when a member of the Saginaw Spirit, but is also not afraid to drop the gloves to protect his teammates.

After struggling at the Spirit where losses were much more frequent than wins, Bissonnette was traded to the Owen Sound Attack, where he has had an immediate impact. After going scoreless in October, Bissonnette scored a goal and six assists in November before being moved to Owen Sound. In his first outing with his new team, Bissonnette scored two assists, and has since totalled a goal and four more assists. Perhaps the best indication of the difference for Bissonnette between the two teams he has played for this season is his plus/minus rating. In 28 games for the Spirit he was a -19 but was +15 with Owen Sound in his first nine games.

14. Michel Sivek, C (-3) Acquired in trade with Washington, 6’3, 210 lbs, 24

Injuries and poor form have seen Sivek drop in the rankings over the last couple of seasons. Once considered among the finest juniors playing hockey, Sivek’s professional career has been somewhat undulating. His size and skills mean that with the right atmosphere Sivek can produce highly at the NHL level, but has yet to nail down a spot over three previous seasons. After playing only 22 games last season because of injury, Sivek decided to play in the Czech Republic rather than remain on contract in North America.

Suiting up for Sparta Praha, Sivek has only managed the one goal and three assists in 25 outings, far below expectations for the former Washington Capitals draft pick. Hope is still held for Sivek, who would give the Penguins much needed size up the middle.

15. Ross Lupaschuk, D Acquired in trade with Washington, 6’1, 218 lbs, 24

As one of the young players acquired in the famous Jaromir Jagr trade with the Washington Capitals, it was hoped that Lupaschuk would play a big part in the future of the Penguins. Four years later, Lupaschuk is still one step away from the NHL, plying his trade with Wilkes-Barre again this season. The offensively gifted Edmonton native has always performed well at the AHL level, but has yet to crack a decent go in the top league. He is well known for his abilities in quarterbacking the power play and his booming slap shot.

One downfall for Lupaschuk is that he has been unable to stay healthy on a regular basis in the last few seasons. After missing the beginning of this season, he has returned with a bang, and now leads Penguins defensemen with six goals and ten assists for the Penguins in 27 games. Another hindrance to Lupaschuk is that the NHL Penguins already have two offensive defensemen on their roster in Dick Tarnstrom and Ric Jackman so he may have to wait even longer for his next big stint in Pittsburgh.

16. Alex Goligoski, D (+4) 3rd Round, 61st Overall 2004, 5’11, 180 lbs, 19

The Penguins surprised some when they took Goligoski with the 61st overall pick in the 2004 draft, but it appears they knew exactly what they were doing. Goligoski burst onto the college scene with the University of Minnesota and found his way into Team USA’s squad for this year’s WJC.

“He is a very gifted offensive player. He can move the puck and he can skate. He has great instincts to create offensive opportunities from the point,” Penguins scout Mark Kelley said at the tournament. “We think that so far his development is unbelievable. We drafted him on the second round and were very high on him. When we heard that he was considered by USA Hockey to make the national junior team it didn’t really surprise us, but it did in some ways by the fact that he has never been involved in USA hockey before, in the summer camp, the Under-18 or any other teams.”

After struggling early in the tournament, Goligoski seemed to find his feet, and played better as the games went on. He finished the tournament with one assist and was a –2 from six games.

His speedy development has meant that Goligoski is earning plenty of valuable ice time with the top ranked Golden Gophers, which is a strong effort for a freshman considering the depth at the position within the team. Already he has contributed two goals and ten assists from his first 19 games of college hockey, only two points behind the team lead for defensemen despite playing five fewer games.

17. Daniel Fernholm, D (-1) 4th Round, 101st Overall 2002, 6’5, 230 lbs, 21

Listed at 6’5 and 230 pounds, Fernholm isn’t the kind of guy you want to see as you approach the opponent’s net. He combines his great size with a good all around game, playing his best when on the boards and in the corners. He played 37 games with Djurgarden in Sweden’s Elite League last season and scored a more than respectable four goals and seven assists.

With continued development in Sweden, Fernholm could come over to North America and make a good impact in the ECHL or AHL playing as the steady stay at home guy who can make a crisp pass or two. He, like Salmonsson, is finding hard to get ice time this season with the locked-out NHL players taking many roster spots, so he was recently loaned to Italian club Bolzano.

18. Ryan Stone, C (NR) 2nd Round, 32nd Overall 2003, 6’1, 205 lbs, 19

Bursting into the top 20 with a dynamite season with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL is Ryan Stone. Considered a defensive forward prospect, Stone has shown that he also knows how to score and has spent the majority of the 2004-05 season leading the WHL scoring race. Stone is a combination of skill and toughness, and his good playmaking abilities have seen him post a league leading 40 assists so far this season, mostly to line-mate and goal scoring leader Eric Fehr. Stone showed early in the season that he can put it in himself, scoring 16 goals in his first 25 games, but did not score for the next 16 games until he tallied against Saskatoon on January 19.

Stone was invited to try out for this years WJC for Team Canada, but was cut at the final selection, and showed his disappointment by scoring four assists in his first two games back with Brandon. Stone may never be a high scorer in the NHL, but has the potential to be a good checking forward.

19. Matt Moulson, LW (-2) 9th Round, 263rd Overall 2003, 6’1, 212 lbs, 21

Taken in the ninth round of the 2003 draft, Moulson has proven to be a much better player than expected. He combines excellent offense with sound defensive work and strong play on the puck. Moulson continues to impress on the scoresheet for Cornell University, leading the team in scoring for the second consecutive season with 11 goals and eight assists in 17 games.

Moulson is Cornell’s key contributor on the power play, leading his team by a wide margin with his eight goals with the man advantage. With one season left of college eligibility, Moulson should be a good chance to play either with Wilkes-Barre or even Pittsburgh within a few years.

20. Erik Christensen, C (-1) 3rd Round, 69th Overall 2002, 6’1, 190 lbs, 21

Rounding out this edition of the Top 20 is former WHL scoring champ and now AHL rookie Erik Christensen. The Edmonton native set the WHL alight in the 2002-03 season when he took the scoring title with 108 points from 67 games, before dropping to only 62 points last season. The Penguins decided that he was still worth signing, and has spent this season with Wilkes-Barre.

Christensen has always had plenty of offensive firepower, but lacked consistency and a little bit of size. His quick hands mean he is deadly on the breakaway, and proved it by making a good poke-check steal and skating in alone with a minute remaining against Syracuse on December 17, and put it in the back of the net for a 5-4 victory. After starting the season centering the fourth line, Christensen improving play was rewarded with a promotion to the second line after an injury to Shane Endicott. He is also now seeing time on the power play, and looks set to post decent rookie numbers if he continues his good play.

Christensen is improving all the time as he adjusts to the professional game, and now has six goals and four assists in 38 games.

Missing the Cut

Patrick Bartschi, C 7th Round, 202nd Overall 2002, 5’10, 190 lbs, 20

Bartschi has plenty of offensive talent, and has performed well for his Swiss team, Kloten Flyers. He scored 72 points in 84 games over the last two seasons, before missing the start of the 2004-05 season with injury. He has since returned and scored six goals and seven assists in 22 contests.

Lukas Bolf, D 6th Round, 169th Overall 2003, 6’1, 190 lbs, 19

Bolf starred for the Czech Republic at the WJC, scoring four assists and leading team defensemen in scoring. Bolf was also a huge +8.

“I think that he is having a very strong tournament,” Mark Kelley during the tournament. “He makes really good decisions. He moves the puck. I think that what he is giving to the Czechs is a lot of steady minutes. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes out there.”

He has now returned to the Barrie Colts of the OHL where he has five goals and twelve assists from 33 games.

Stephen Dixon, C 7th Round, 229th Overall 2003, 6’0, 200 lbs, 19

Dixon is one of the QMJHL’s top scorers, and is in his fourth season for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. Dixon was selected for the unbeatable Canadian team for this year’s WJC, where he was used on the checking line against other team’s top line. Although scoreless in the tournament, Dixon performed his role with distinction.

“What we really like about Stephen is that he came with this team leading his team in points but he came here knowing the role he had to play for Team Canada” said Kelley. “He plays his role. He checks, he works hard and kills penalties. That is the kind of role he is going to have to play in the NHL.”

Tomas Duba, G 7th Round, 217th Overall 2001, 6’0, 183 lbs, 23

While all the goaltending talk at the Penguins tends to surround Fleury and Chiodo, Duba has been quietly going about his business in the Czech Republic and posting excellent numbers. His record in the NHL laced Extraliga is excellent, with a GAA of 2.48 and a fantastic save percentage of .932 ranking him fifth in the league, ahead of NHL talent including 2004 All-Star Tomas Vokoun, Ottawa’s Martin Prusek and the LA Kings Roman Cechmanek.

Shane Endicott, C 2nd Round, 52nd Overall 2000, 6’3, 214 lbs, 23

After posting only modest scoring totals in his first three seasons in the AHL, Shane Endicott is really coming of age in 2004-05. Before he was sidelined with a finger injury and missed 11 games, Endicott was one of the leading scorers for the Baby Pens, with 13 goals and 12 assists from 28 games. He returned to the side this week and scored his 14th goal, still good enough for third in the team. If ‘Endo’ can retain his form, he may be able to give the NHL Penguins some good size up the middle. Already Endicott has played four NHL games, recording one assist during the 2001-02 season.

Jonathan Filewich, RW 3rd Round, 70th Overall 2003, 6’2, 200 lbs, 20

Playing his first season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes after spending three seasons with the Prince George Cougars, Filewich is having by far his best season. He is currently sitting sixth overall in scoring in the WHL, with 27 goals and 24 assists from 46 games. Filewich combines his scoring touch with some toughness, using his 6’2, 200-pound frame to his advantage. The Penguins will be hoping he progresses into a solid power forward at the NHL level.

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