Deep and talented group of defensemen lead Pittsburgh Penguins Top 20

By Ian Altenbaugh

Beau Bennett - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Following a strong rookie year in 2012-13, forward Beau Bennett is expected to start the upcoming NHL season playing alongside Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The Pittsburgh Penguins have developed a reputation over recent years as a team that likes to select defensemen early and often in the NHL Draft. The philosophy shifted recently however, as the Penguins have started to build up their goaltending pool.

The 2013 off-season marked the second year in a row when the Penguins added two goaltending prospects to their ranks, with free agent signing Eric Hartzell and 2013 second round pick Tristan Jarry joining 2012 draft picks Matt Murray and Sean Maguire. Though none of these goaltenders will be ready for the NHL anytime soon, they fill a gaping hole in the organization pipeline.

New goaltending additions aside, the makeup of the Penguins prospect pool remains relatively the same. There are numerous very talented defensemen at the top of the pool, several NCAA forwards possessing high skill level, and a minor-league system full of role players.

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

Possessing elite vision and passing ability, defenseman Derrick Pouliot has the ability to make difficult plays look easy. He can quickly transition the puck through the neutral zone with his head up, give and receive passes in mid-stride, and stick-handle through traffic. He has a wide stance and though not overly big, is strong and tough to knock off the puck.

Pouliot missed the AHL cutoff date by about a month, so he will either play in the NHL or return to the Portland Winterhawks for a fourth and final season in the WHL. The latter is more likely since the Penguins are set to enter training camp with eight NHL defensemen and another in Brian Dumoulin who appears close to NHL ready.

The 19-year-old recently represented Canada in the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, which is considered a first step for many players aspiring to represent their countries at the 2014 World Junior Championships. So an appearance at the 2014 WJC could be in the future for Pouliot.

Pouliot has drawn comparisons to a young Kris Letang, however his defensive game is arguably more polished than Letang's was as a 19-year-old. Much will depend on how Pouliot is coached and develops over the next few years, but he has the skills to be a top four defenseman in the NHL who can run the powerplay and create offensive from the back-end.

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

Beau Bennett is a lock to play in the Penguins 2013-14 NHL opening night roster but it remains to be seen exactly where he fits into the lineup. Bennett became a regular in the Penguins lineup mid-way through the lockout abbreviated NHL season and split his time between the second and fourth line.

For the 2013-14 season it appears to be much of the same for Bennett, as he is penciled in for a top-nine role, and will likely spend a fair amount of time on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Regardless of where he plays, he brings a ton of creativity and enthusiasm to the ice and is a solid contributor on the powerplay. He should develop into a dynamic offensive threat for the Penguins and, alongside one of their superstar centers, has the potential to post lofty offensive totals for years to come.

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

Though he finished the 2012-13 in the NHL, defenseman Simon Despres remains a work in progress. Possessing a unique combination of size and skating ability, Despres is quick and mobile by any standards and plays with an exceptional amount of poise. He brings energy to every shift and showed he can be used in a variety of roles and situations in the NHL. He is also an exceptional natural athlete and capable of regularly playing over 20 minutes a game.

With the off-season addition of veteran shutdown defenseman Rob Scuderi, Despres will likely spend the upcoming season in the NHL playing a two-way role alongside either Deryk Engelland or Robert Bortuzzo. Long-term he projects as a shutdown defenseman who can play on both special teams and contribute offensively.

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

Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta has already compiled an impressive résumé and it should only get better with time. The recently-turned 19-year-old has made two consecutive appearances in the Memorial Cup with the London Knights and already represented his country three times at the U20 WJC.

"Olli's been great for us," said Knights teammate Scott Harrington. "He was awesome [in 2011-12] and I was really impressed with his transition to the North American style of game. He improved again [in 2012-13], he was on our powerplay and was a good penalty killer for us. He ate up a lot of minutes and was a good leader."

Maatta grew into a leader both on and off the ice last season, as he was not only depended on to play in all situations for the Knights, but he also provided a mentoring presence for Knights defenseman Nikita Zadorov (BUF), who like Maatta the year prior, was making the difficult transition from European to North American style hockey.

Expect Maatta to play the 2013-14 season in the OHL with London and make a fourth appearance at the World Junior Championships. The Penguins will give him a long look in training camp, but he needs more seasoning in juniors to develop his all-around game. He is a strong skater with good size, excellent stick work, and smart decision making in all zones, but he needs to round out the offensive part of his game, as he was often cast in a defensive role with London. He projects as a top four defenseman in the NHL who can play in all situations.

5. (5) Brian Dumoulin, D, 7.0B
Acquired in trade with Carolina Hurricanes, June 22nd, 2012

Brian Dumoulin has only been in the Penguins organization for a little over a year, but he has already established himself as one of the top prospects in the system and a defenseman who should see NHL time sooner rather than later. Like many of the Penguins defensive prospects, Dumoulin makes sound decisions in his own zone as and excels at retrieving the puck and transitioning it up ice. He possesses good size at 6'4 and over 215 pounds and will play physically and block shots, but his game will never be characterized for devastating open-ice hits.

Of the Penguins defensive prospects who are bound for the AHL to start the 2013-14 season, Dumoulin is at the top of the depth chart. If injuries occur to the Penguins NHL blue line, and they typically do over the course of a season, Dumoulin will be among the first to get a call-up. He projects as a two-way defenseman who can play on both special teams and be used in a variety of different roles.

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

The Penguins have a large collection of defensemen in their system but few are as steady and reliable in their own end as Scott Harrington. Hailed as a quality defensive prospect since he was 15, Harrington will start the next chapter in his hockey career this fall, when he joins the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

"It was a lot of fun," Harrington said, reflecting on his time with the London Knights. "It was unfortunate to have it end the way it did, but I learned a lot from the Hunter brothers and everyone else who worked in the Knights organization. I'm looking forward to making the next step."

In four years with the London Knights, Harrington made consecutive appearances to both the WJCs and the Memorial Cup. He was the captain for the London Knights in 2012-13 and one of the alternate captains for Team Canada's entry into the 2013 WJC.

Down the road Harrington should fill an important role for the Penguins. He will not be a big offensive producer, but his power skating ability is already top notch and he is very good at quickly getting the puck out of his own zone. He also possesses an exceptional hockey IQ and is able to quickly adapt his game to different styles and competition levels.

Ideally he will develop into a player similar to Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi, someone who can either play a shutdown role or complement a more offensively minded defensive partner. He will join the Penguins AHL affiliate for the 2013-14 season.

7. (NR) Tristan Jarry, G, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2013

The second goaltender selected in the 2013 NHL Draft, Tristan Jarry will have the opportunity to display his immense potential on a more regular basis this upcoming season for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Jarry spent the 2012-13 season in the WHL backing up Laurent Brossoit (CAL) where through 27 games he managed six shutouts and a 1.61 goals against average, both of which ranked among the best in the WHL.

The Penguins like Jarry for his seemingly unflappable demeanor and ability to recover from bad goals quickly. He also has good size and athleticism. The upcoming season will be very telling for Jarry's development. If he is able to replicate his production over a 45-plus game schedule in the WHL, he will trend upwards very quickly as a prospect, in both the Penguins system and league-wide.

In a show of confidence, the Penguins recently signed Jarry to an entry-level NHL contract.

8. (7) Teddy Blueger, C/LW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2012

A native of Latvia who has spent much of his adolescence in the United States, Teddy Blueger is coming off a strong freshman season with Minnesota State University, where he managed 19 points in 37 games. Blueger also represented Latvia at the U20 WJCs for the second straight year and posted a goal and an assist for a Latvian team that was frequently and greatly outmatched.

Assistant to the General Manager Tom Fitzgerald provided a scouting report for Blueger at the Penguins 2013 Development Camp:

"[He is a] skilled, very skilled, smart, cerebral-type player. Obviously, [he] needs to get bigger and stronger and that's what college will do for him."

Blueger will need to grow and add considerable strength before he can contribute in the NHL, as he is still on the small side. Assuming he can add that strength, his combination of skill and two-way play should allow him to develop into a strong middle of the lineup forward able to play multiple positions and both special teams. He prides himself in being able to do lots of the smaller parts of the game well and particularly at faceoffs. He will likely finish out his college eligibility before signing professionally.

9. (8) Josh Archibald, W, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2011

Josh Archibald heads into the 2013-14 NCAA season as an alternate captain for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, so when he asked Penguins assistant to the organization if he could stay back and help with incoming freshmen, there were no qualms.

"Being around the incoming freshman and in a leadership role I felt was more important for him in his career," said Fitzgerald. "He's (already) in tremendous shape and can skate. For him to ask is very mature."

Aside from leadership, what Archibald brings to the Penguins organization is a lot of speed, grit, and skill. He battles hard along the boards and in the corners and is good at creating offense around the net. What kind of player he ultimately projects as remains to be seen, but he possesses the speed, skill, and toughness to develop into a top-nine player capable of contributing on both special teams.

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

The most immediately noticeable quality Oskar Sundvist possesses is size. The Swedish forward stands at 6'3 and 186 pounds and his hulking frame suggests he could add another 20-30 pounds before all is said and done.

Sundqvist is the only Penguins prospect who is currently playing overseas. The organization has numerous European players, such as Tom Kühnhackl, Olli Maatta, and Teddy Blueger, but all are playing at various competition levels in North America. Sundqvist appears to be doing his part to make that eventual transition as seamless as possible. His English is vastly improved from where it was a year ago and he believes that the transition to the smaller North American rink size will not be too difficult.

"I think, from big to small, it's easier than going from small to big," Sundqvist said. "I feel like [the timing] is the most important thing. [When] you have a guy on you directly, in Sweden you'd have a little more time, maybe a few seconds to think what you should to do, so that's a big difference."

"In Sweden there's not as much contact as there is here," he added. "But I like when it's a little bit tougher."

The enjoyment Sundqvist takes in the physical aspects of the game, combined with his size and skill, is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. That said, he is too raw right now to accurately project long term.

Along with Pouliot, Maatta, and Jake Guentzel, Sundqvist recently represented his country at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid and has a chance to participate in the 2014 WJCs, which will be held in his native Sweden.

Sundqvist is expected to return to Sweden for the 2013-14 season. He will likely spend the bulk of the year with Skelleftea, who won the 2013 Swedish Championship.

11. (NR) Eric Hartzell, G, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, April 14th, 2013

Goaltender Eric Hartzell signed with the Penguins almost immediately upon completing his standout senior year with Quinnipiac, where he posted some of the best single season numbers in recent NCAA history and led his team to the Frozen Four championship game. Though he has not played any games with the Penguins organization, 24-year-old has already made a positive impression with the Penguins both on and off the ice.

"One of the things that jumps of the page is his size and his athleticism, that's something that in today's day and age you want to have in your goaltenders," said John Hynes, the head coach of the Penguins AHL affiliate. "He's a very competitive player and he's a guy that we're going to look to come in and create a real competition with Jeff [Zatkoff] in Wilkes-Barre and see how he develops from there. We think we have a real competitor in net, and with a little growth and development we feel he has the potential to be an NHL goaltender."

"I'm going to do whatever they tell me to do," Hartzell said when asked about playing in the AHL in 2013-14. "Wherever they tell me to go….all I can control is how good I play. They're going to tell me what to do and I'm going to do my best, whatever that is and hopefully it works out for me. If not, then it doesn't. But let's hope it does."

Hartzell recently signed a two-year contract with the Penguins, so he will have at least two years to develop in the organization. He has the requisite size and skill to play in the NHL, and a calm demeanor to match, but must first adapt to the longer schedule and higher skill of the professional game.

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

A tall, rangy goaltending who thrives when facing a barrage of shots, Matt Murray showed a lot of potential in his first year starting for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. His goals against average (3.67) and save percentage (.894) were pedestrian, but that was very much a reflection of a young and inconsistent defense in front of him.

As a sign of faith, the Penguins recently signed Murray to an entry-level contract. He will return to the OHL for a fourth season, and likely join the Penguins organization in a professional capacity after that. He projects as a possible starting goaltender, his size and speed are already high quality, but he must continue to mature physically. The Penguins have a very good group of defensemen in the minors, so how Murray plays in the professional ranks will be very telling of his future in the NHL.

13. (NR) Tom Kuhnhackl, W, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

Few Penguins prospects enter the 2013-14 season with as much pressure as Tom Kuhnhackl. Once thought to be an extremely high value pick in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, Kuhnhackl has missed over a full season worth of hockey in the last two years due to injury and suspension.

"He's a talent for sure," said Fitzgerald. "Strength was always an issue and then [his training] was derailed with the injuries and he has never gotten any traction in the summers because of those injuries and off-season surgeries. He's healthy right now."

Kuhnhackl is expected to play for the Penguins AHL affiliate in 2013-14 and inject some offense into a top-nine that was lacking for much of last season.

"He's [someone] who, with some games under his belt, could come up and contribute," added Fitzgerald. "But it's a big step. Tom's another player that hopefully, knock on wood, the injuries are behind him."

Ultimately Kuhnhackl projects as a top-nine forward capable of fore-checking hard and contributing regular offense. His shot is extremely high quality, and he could also develop into an effective triggerman on the powerplay. He must stay healthy however.

14. (NR) Anton Zlobin, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 173rd overall, 2012

One of the more exciting offensive talents in the Penguins prospect pool, Anton Zlobin was rewarded with an entry-level contract last April after showing a lot of growth in his overall game. He is scheduled to play the 2013-14 season with one of the Penguins minor-league affiliates, however exactly when he makes his debut remains to be seen, as he underwent shoulder surgery after he joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last spring.

"[The surgery] happened when he finished his junior year when he came down to Wilkes-Barre,” said Fitzgerald. “So he’s on the mend right now and is probably looking at an October or November timeframe. Maybe earlier, I’m not exactly sure. It takes away from his strengthening in the summer which is huge. But [he’s] a talent for sure and that's part of the reason why we signed him."

Whenever Zlobin joins the Penguins, he will bring a welcome injection of skill into the AHL lineup. How he develops over the next two seasons in the AHL will determine what type, if any player he could become in the NHL. He has a very high offensive upside but must get stronger and faster.

15. (13) Scott Wilson, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2011

Coming off an appearance in the 2013 Frozen Four, Scott Wilson and the rest of UMass-Lowell will face high expectations in the 2013-14 season. Wilson, who has managed consecutive 38 point seasons with the team, should however be more than up for the task.

In his two years in the Penguins system the talented forward has displayed a creative side that only a handful of players in the pipeline possess. He has good hands in tight and is a solid puck-distributor on the powerplay. He comes by much of his offense honestly too and works hard in the corners and along the boards. Wilson's speed remains a major issue for him developmentally. He is fast enough to succeed in the NCAA but is slow compared to many of the other forward prospects in the system. He has two more years to improve upon it in the college ranks however.

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

In his four years with Cornell, Nick D'Agostino developed into a steady two-way defenseman capable of playing any role and producing offensively in key moments. He is a solid skater and has good size at 6'2, but projects as a depth defenseman in the NHL. He has some nice assets offensively, particularly his hard and accurate shot from the point, but is not the type of defenseman who tries to create offense through taking many risks up ice. He is very good at retrieving the puck in his own zone and transitioning it up ice. He also has a good stick and is solid on the penalty kill.

Though he will be a rookie this upcoming season, D'Agostino is 23 and will be expected to provide some leadership along the blue line as the Penguins AHL affiliate is short on veteran defensive talent. Given his age and simple style of play, he could quickly ascend up the Penguins depth chart.

17. (NR) Harrison Ruopp, D, 6.5C
Acquired in trade with the Phoenix Coyotes, June 22nd, 2012

The Penguins have a slew of defensive prospects in their system but none have the skillset or reputation of Harrison Ruopp. A former third-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Ruopp made a name for himself early in his junior career for his combination of strength, toughness, and ferocity. He has good size at 6'3 and 205 pounds and through four years in the WHL has demonstrated a willingness to throw that size around whenever the opportunity would arise. He also is an accomplished fighter who dropped the gloves 12 times in 2012-13.

Signed to an entry-level deal, Ruopp will begin his professional career this fall. He likely will play with their AHL affiliate, though could be assigned to the ECHL in order to see greater ice time and responsibilities.

18. (NR) Dominik Uher, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2011

Selected as a project forward who showed flashes of potential with the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL, Dominik Uher has quickly carved out a comfortable role with the Penguins AHL affiliate.

"Dom is one of the youngest players on our team and one of the youngest players in the league," said Hynes. "He's a real driving player. He hunts down pucks hard. He brings energy. He's going to become a very good penalty killer."

Uher played primarily for the Penguins AHL affiliate last season and by the end of the season looked very comfortable playing against adult competition. He will likely never replicate his point-per-game output in the WHL, but a modest improvement on the four goals and three assists he managed through 53 AHL games last season should be expected. He projects as a third-line forward who brings a mix of grit, toughness, and skill to the lineup.

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

When the Penguins hold their annual Development Camp, there is typically one or two players who somehow assert themselves in a positive way. For 2013, one of those players was forward Jayson Megna.

Possessing a blend of size, speed, and skill, Megna is an undrafted late-bloomer who signed with the Penguins after playing just one season of college hockey. His inexperience was on full display in his rookie pro season as he lacked overall consistency in his game. By the end of the season however he seemed to find a rhythm and was even contributing on special teams.

"He's a very competitive player," Hynes said. "I think that's the first thing that draws him to you. He has very good speed. He's got the ability to play multiple roles, he can play wing and center. He's also a guy that can play maybe the second powerplay and on the penalty kill."

Though still inexperienced, Megna is more physically mature than many of his peers at 23 years old and there seems to be a sense from the Penguins coaching staff that he could be ready for the NHL fairly soon. Realistically, he will play the majority if not all of the 2013-14 season in the AHL and should be assigned their out of training camp. He has the necessary speed and size, but his game is not yet consistent enough for him to be a checking forward nor dynamic enough for him to play in the top six. With some more seasoning he should be a viable third or fourth line forward who can contribute on special teams.

20. (NR) Jake Guentzel, C/W, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2013

Among the newest additions to the Penguins forward pool, Jake Guentzel is an immensely skilled player who last year posted 29 goals and 44 assists through 60 games with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. He will take his talents to the University of Nebraska-Omaha for 2013-14 where he will join Penguins prospect Josh Archibald.

Guentzel was also invited to the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid and has a chance to represent the United States in the 2014 WJCs in Sweden. Long-term he projects as a skilled forward who can play a variety of positions throughout the lineup. He has quick hands, good vision, and is very creative.

Though he stands at 5'8 and 153 pounds, the Penguins believe Guentzel will grow a substantial amount over the next several years, as his father and brothers are all around six foot and experienced growth spurts in their late teens and early 20s.

Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter: @IanAltenbaugh