Derrick Pouliot leads deep and talented group of Pittsburgh Penguins prospects

By Ian Altenbaugh

Beau Bennett - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Winger Beau Bennett has been impressive in his short time in the NHL. Recalled in mid-February, Bennett has played almost exclusively with forwards James Neal and Evgeni Malkin. (courtesy of Travis Golby/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the NHL salary cap scheduled to go down by almost 6 million dollars in the 2013-14 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to have positioned themselves well for the short and long-term future. Many of their top prospects are either playing in the NHL or knocking on the door, and given the typically affordable salaries young players make, the organization should have plenty of room to retain several star players who will be up for contract in the coming years.

The blueprint appears simple enough, acquire and develop prospects at certain positions that are typically overpriced in free agency and use those assets to address their NHL roster needs as they come. Penguins GM Ray Shero also has a history of making savvy trades and is not afraid to move a prominent young player if he feels it can benefit the team.

Currently the Penguins system is stocked mostly with defensemen but there are several talented young forwards with potential.

1. (3) Derrick Pouliot, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2012

Possessing a thick, stout frame, fluid skating, and good offensive instincts, Derrick Pouliot was drafted by Pittsburgh eighth overall to develop into an offensive, puck-moving defenseman in a similar mold as current Penguin Kris Letang. Getting there however is another thing. Pouliot possesses a similar skill package in terms of skating and offensive ability, but is guilty of not always being as involved in the play as he should be, or appearing at times a little disinterested. 

Pouliot plays with a bit of a mean streak and it is something he will need to learn to better balance. He can very effectively play the body and take players off their game, but is too talented of a player to spend as much time in the penalty box as he has this season. 

He was playing at a point-per-game clip this season before sustaining a mild high ankle sprain on December 18th. Though the injury was not particularly severe, it nagged him enough to affect his game and in late January, Pouliot shut things down until he was 100 percent. He took a trip to Pittsburgh for a second opinion from the Penguins medical staff and after a month of rehabbing in Portland, returned to action on March 5th.

Only recently turned 19 years old, Pouliot remains another year away from being able to make a contribution at the AHL level, but he possesses the skill and physical pedigree to make a fairly quick transition once he gets there. He will likely return to Portland for the 2013-14 season where he will be expected to fill more of a leadership role.

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

Despres made the Penguins NHL roster out of training camp and has been battling for a roster spot and ice time ever since. He has been in a rotation with fellow rookie defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, and when in the lineup, has rotated between playing with Kris Letang and Deryk Engallend.

A big, confident young defenseman, Despres' greatest asset is his skating. He is exceptionally agile for a big man, able to move around the ice in a very quick fashion, and seems to always have his feet in motion.

At this point in his development, Despres needs to see more ice time. He has been on a tight leash with Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, with his ice time ranging from a season high of 19:12 to a low of 8:46, and he has even been a healthy scratch on several different occasions. The decision to limit ice time is common with young defensemen, but given the high level Despres has performed when given the opportunity, it does not make a lot of sense. The Penguins coaching staff points to his need to play more consistently on a shift to shift basis, but Despres is visibly a better player when given greater ice time and responsibility, so there is still a balance that needs to be worked out in that regard.

The mid-season signing of veteran defenseman Mark Eaton further muddles Despres status in the starting lineup and brings to question the Penguins overall confidence in his ability over the stretch and in the playoffs. That all being said, his status on the 23 man roster does not appear to be in jeopardy.

3. (4) Beau Bennett, LW/RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2010

One of the biggest concerns the Penguins organization had at the NHL level was regarding who would replace the departed Steve Sullivan in the top-six at the NHL level. With the NHL lockout however, the Penguins were afforded the rare opportunity to allow one of their prized prospects, former DU forward Beau Bennett, develop at the AHL level with no pressure on getting called up. As it turns out, that time would allow Bennett to develop his game to fit the pro system, and by mid-February, the Penguins finally decided to recall Bennett to the NHL.

"He's earned a call up (to the NHL)," said Bylsma. "He's played exceptional this year."

While it has been no surprise Bennett has brought a ton of skill an energy to the Penguins lineup, what is surprising is how he has been able to play tough in the corners and down low, despite not having not yet fully matured physically.

"[Beau is] a guy not necessarily as strong maybe as you think he could be and wonder how he would compete against NHL (and) pro players," commented Bylsma during the Penguins abbreviated NHL training camp.

"I think in the two and a half, three months he has been down in Wilkes-Barre he has shown he can play, shown he can be physical in the corners, can handle down low, and win puck battles. He has shown his skating is at a decent level. It's not the smoothest of skating but he's shown he can get up and down the ice, and he's shown he can be a responsible pro."

After seeing time on all four of the Penguins forward lines, Bennett appears to have found a comfort zone with star forwards Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, and has been productive in that spot. He has also seen time on the powerplay.

Though the Penguins could still pursue a top six quality winger at the trade deadline, Bennett's emergence has removed some of the urgency from that need. They appear to have finally developed a long-term winger to play alongside Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby.

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

There is no better description of Joe Morrow than the one Penguins coach Dan Bylsma provided one February afternoon, when Morrow was called up to the NHL as a seventh defenseman.

"He can skate. He's big. He's a strong guy," said Bylsma. "He's highlighted for his shot, his offensive ability, skating ability, which is very high end. But he is also a big body and he's a farmer strong kind of player down low."

Morrow is also a very hard worker and demonstrates a lot of leadership qualities on and off the ice. He ultimately projects as a top four defenseman in a similar mold as Canucks defenseman Dan Hamuis. He has good size and the physical pedigree to play a lot of minutes in all situations. He is not far from NHL ready, but needs to simplify his game in the defensive zone and play with more confidence.

5. (5) Olli Maatta, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 22nd overall, 2012

Heading into the 2012-13 season there were questions as to whether or not Maatta could replicate the dominating point-per-game effort he demonstrated in the OHL playoffs over an entire regular season. Now with the 2012-13 regular season almost over, the questions regarding his overall offensive upside remain mostly unchanged. He started the season playing at roughly a point-per-game, but his production fell off dramatically in December, and upon returning from the 2013 WJC, where he acquitted himself fairly well on disappointing Team Finland, he continued to be unproductive.

He appears to have rediscovered his offensive game in time for the OHL playoffs, but expectations for his point production should remain tempered until he can gain a greater level of consistency. It is also important to remember that Maatta was very young for a 2012 draft pick, and will not turn 19 until August 22nd.

6. (6) Brian Dumoulin, D, 7.0B
Trade with Carolina Hurricanes, June 2012

Brought in as part of the package that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina, Brian Dumoulin has undergone some growing pains in his first year of professional hockey. At the NCAA level, Dumoulin was a big, puck-moving defenseman who had a hard shot from the point and was not afraid to play physically. All of those traits in his game still apply now that he is in the AHL, but he has not yet put them together into a consistently effective package.

Dumoulin projects as a third or fourth defenseman who can be used in a shutdown role and on both special teams. He will likely get a few games in the NHL next season as an injury call-up, and depending on how that goes, consideration for a more prominent role the following year.

7. (7) Scott Harrington, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2011

It is hard to describe how Scott Harrington plays without using a myriad of hockey clichés. He is a smart, hard-working defenseman who prides himself on being difficult to play against. The captain of London Knights this season as well as an alternate for Team Canada's entry into the 2013 World Junior Championship, Harrington is prized for his leadership ability on and off the ice. He plays a fairly simple game, opting for high percentage plays out of his own zone. His positioning is also very strong.

Harrington will be joining the Penguins AHL affiliate for the 2013-14 season and given his extremely high hockey IQ and ability to adapt to new systems, his transition to the professional game could be fairly quick. He does not possess the type of offensive potential that many of the other Penguins defensive prospects have but he is far more of a sure thing in terms of developing into a regular NHL player.

8. (15) Robert Bortuzzo, D, 6.0A
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2007

Bortuzzo is the most recent defensive defenseman to graduate from the Penguins minor league system. Possessing a large frame and rangy build, Bortuzzo has paid his dues in the AHL over the past three seasons, where he was one of the top defensive defensemen in the league.

Like most of the Penguins defensemen, Bortuzzo owns a good first pass, and can capably move the puck up ice. His game is played almost entirely in the defensive end, but he is able to contribute offensively if the need arises. He plays a tough game in his own end, though he is not the heavy weight enforcer that fellow defenseman Deryk Engelland is.

Bortuzzo is currently in a defensive rotation that also includes Despres, Engelland, and veteran Mark Eaton. He ultimately projects as a third-pairing defenseman who can contribute on the penalty kill and possibly play a shutdown role.

9. (10) Teddy Blueger, C, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd, 2012

Blueger has established himself as a prospect with promise in his first season of college hockey. He is known for his faceoff and two-way ability but also possesses a fair amount of offensive skill. It remains to be seen how much of that skill will translate to the NHL level but the Penguins hope he will develop into a two-way center who is able to contribute on both special teams.

Though born in Latvia, Blueger has played in the United States for the last couple years with Shattuck St. Mary's prep school and this year Minnesota-Mankato. He is considered a long-term prospect at this point which is typical of forwards playing in the college ranks.

10. (13) Ken Agostino, LW/RW, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 140th, 2010

Ken Agostino has improved his all-around play in each of the three seasons he has played with the Yale Bulldogs. Drafted for his offensive potential, Agostino has gradually started to realize that skill and now is among the more effective forwards in the NCAA.

Agostino will likely play his senior year in Yale before signing with the Penguins but has said in the past that he would leave college early if the opportunity presented itself. He projects as a top nine forward in a similar mold as the New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.

11. (17) Josh Archibald, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011

No Penguins prospect at the NCAA level had more forward growth in his development in 2012-13 than Josh Archibald. A member of the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, Archibald posted 19 goals and 16 assists through 36 games this season, and has been one of the top goal-scorers in the nation this year.

Archibald plays a style of game that should allow him to find a role within the Penguins system. He is a strong, fast skater who battles extremely hard in the corners and along the boards. He also has the skill and smarts to play on both special teams.

Though many parts of his game are extremely advanced for a 20-year-old, Archibald still probably lacks the size and strength to be an effective player at the professional level. Expect him to spend likely one more season in the NCAA.

12. (9) Ben Hanowski, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

Hanowski has seen considerable growth in his fourth season of college hockey with St. Cloud State, despite posting relatively modest totals of 14 goals and 10 assists through 31 games. The biggest difference is not necessarily in his game, which has matured at both ends of the ice, but his size and strength. When drafted in 2009, Hanowski possessed a lot of skill, but did not have particularly dynamic skating and was too easily knocked around for his size. Both of those traits in his game have improved a great deal, and he appears to be capable of making a viable offensive contribution at the professional level.

The Penguins will have to decide in the coming months whether or not to tender Hanowski an offer.

13. (12) Oskar Sundqvist, C/W, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2012

Sundqvist is a tall, gritty center who also possesses a fair amount of skill. He spent the majority of the 2012-13 season with Skelleftea's junior team where he played at about a point-per-game pace. As the season progressed, Sundqvist started seeing more SEL games, and has acquitted himself well in the limited ice time he has seen at that level. Prior to the 2012-13 season he had a reputation for dirty play, and while the edge in his game remains, he has toned down his antics considerably from his 2011-12 season, where he combined for 129 penalty minutes in 39 games.

The big Swedish center will have to play more minutes in the SEL on a consistent basis before a good read can be made on what type of player he could eventually develop into.

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

Rust projects as the type of forward the Penguins seem to be extremely fond of. He is smart at both ends of the ice, can kill penalties, is able to play multiple positions at forward, and possess a good work ethic.

He does not have the offensive upside of some of the Penguins other forward prospects but has enough of an offensive game where he could make a tangible contribution on the scoresheet.

Having just finished his third season with Notre Dame, Rust will likely stay in college for his senior season.

15. (NR) Paul Thompson, RW/LW, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 28th, 2011

Thompson would be having a much better season statistically if the Penguins AHL affiliate were not such a poor team offensively. He has carved out a role as a sniper in his second season of professional hockey, and will shoot the puck from all over the ice. He has also developed a bit of a mean streak this season, which has complemented his game down low and around the net. 

He is fairly high on the Penguins forward depth chart, though that has as much to do with the lack of offensive forward depth in the organization as it does Thompson's development.

16. (14) Matt Murray, G, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2012

Murray has acquitted himself well in his first season as the starter for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. It has not been easy for the young goalie, as the Greyhounds are among the worst defensive teams in the league, preferring to try and outscore their opponent. The squad is also heavily penalized, meaning Murray sees a lot more pucks than most goaltenders.

Murray is, at this point in his career, a long-term prospect. He has started in 52 games this year, more than he has at any other point in his life, and it will be important for him to put together several more seasons where he starts 40-50 games.

17. (20) Scott Wilson, RW/LW, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011

Another high-scoring forward at the college level. Wilson is currently finishing his second season with Umass-Lowell. He is a good skater and plays with equally high levels of skill and determination. He is more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer, but has soft hands, and has been one of the top goal-scorers for Umass-Lowell.

Wilson was drafted as an overage player in 2011, and will turn 21 in April. He could stand to add some more strength to his frame, but seems to otherwise have a game that fits the pro style of game.

18. (19) Nick D'Agostino, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2008

Almost five years removed from being the second-to-last pick in the 2008 draft, Nick D'Agostino has made great strides in his development. He is scheduled to graduate from Cornell this spring and seems all but certain to join the Penguins minor-league affiliate in the near future.

D'Agostino plays a game that should be familiar to Penguins fans. He plays a position oriented game, is good at using his stick to break up passes, and can contribute on both special teams. He is not particularly physical, nor does he possess great offensive upside, but he is smart and skilled enough to make his game fit whatever role he may be assigned.

19. (NR) Sean Maguire, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 113th overall, 2012

Maguire split his starts this season at Boston University with fellow freshman Matt O'Connor, posting a 10-7 record and three shutouts in 17 starts. In his 17 starts Maguire showed good glove and stick hands, quick lateral movement, and the ability to occasionally steal a game for his team.

O'Connor recently underwent surgery to repair a collapsed lung, and while the injury was not as serious as it sounds, he will miss an extended period of time recovering, meaning Maguire will be the starter for BU, at least for the start of next season.

Like Murray, Maguire is a long-term prospect who needs more starts and time developing at the lower levels of hockey. He has shown a great deal of promise early on though.

20. (NR) Jayson Megna, C/W, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, August 1st, 2012

Every season the Penguins sign several young free agents to entry-level contracts in hopes of finding a player who can develop into a viable NHL prospect. This season, that player was 23-year-old Jayson Megna, a big forward who did not play high level hockey until he was 19 years old.

Despite his advanced age for a prospect, Megna is still finding his role at the professional level. He has good strength and skating, and also has a decent shot, but those skills have yet to translate into consistent production in the AHL.