Top Shelf Prospects: Pittsburgh Penguins
As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not static rules though, as I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Top Prospect: Simon Despres, Defence
Born Jul 27 1991 — Laval, PQ
Height 6.04 — Weight 229 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 1 #30 overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Simon Despres has consistently been a top defender and all-star at all levels. His trophy case is overflowing with accomplishments. In 2011 he was on Team Canada’s top defence pair at the World Junior Championships and won a silver medal. He went on to win the QMJHL defenceman of the year, playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs. In the playoffs, Despres would help the Sea Dogs to the QMJHL title and the Memorial Cup, even scoring a huge goal in the Championship game. This past season, Despres would graduate to the pro game. He would be an AHL All-Star and even played 18 games for the Penguins, scoring his first AHL goal.
Despres is a solid two-way defender who does it all. He is a very good skater. He has good top end speed and good acceleration which allow him to lead the rush with ease. His agility, edgework and pivots allow him to be mobile in all directions and make him difficult to beat off the rush. His quick changes in direction, and good first step allow him to effectively close gaps quickly and to throw some nice hits when defending.
Despres has very good vision and passing ability he’s a natural quarterback on the Powerplay play. He has good vision and can set up the play for his teammates. He reads the play well and make smart decisions. His slapshot is above average. He also utilizes a good wrist shot with a quick release.
Defensively Despres does nearly everything right. He reads the play well and cuts down on options his opponents have by closing time and space. He fights hard and uses his size and strength to win board battles and clear the front of the net. He also uses his long stick and great reach to cut down on passing lanes. If there is one area Despres can improve it is in coverage when his man doesn’t have the puck, as he can occasionally lose his man working down low. This is not a huge issue, but one that Despres should work to correct nonetheless.
Despres will push for a job in Penguins training camp this season. With Zybanek Michalek gone at least one spot has opened up on the Pens blueline, however there is a lot of competition and it won’t be easy. The Penguins are absolutely loaded in young defencemen right now, and while Despres may have a leg up headed to camp, he is by no means a lock.
Top Prospect, Joe Morrow, Defence
Born Dec 9 1992 — Sherwood Park, ALTA
Height 6.01 — Weight 206 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 1, #23 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
If Despres is the Penguins #1 prospect, than Morrow is the 1B. There really isn’t a lot to separate these two young players. Morrow is coming off a terrific season in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks where he scored 17 goals and 64 points in 62 games. His point total was second only to Brenden Kichton’s 74 points for top scoring defenceman in the league. Its important to note however that due to a January injury, and a December trip to the try out camp for Canada’s National Junior team, Kichton played 9 more games than Morrow. Based on his pace, those 9 games would have made things very close in the scoring race.
Morrow might be the best skater out of all the prospects I profile in this series. His stride is textbook, its graceful and fluid. He is very fast, possessing both excellent top end speed, and the acceleration to hit this top speed in just a few strides. He loves to lead the rush and is always a threat to go coast to coast with the puck. Morrow has excellent agility, and great use of his edges. His pivots are crisp. This allows him to make quick cuts and to be mobile in every direction, which is useful both offensively and defensively.
Morrow is a natural on the Powerplay. He is calm and poised with the puck on his stick and keeps his head up looking for the smart play. His mobility at the line breaks down defenders and opens up passing and shooting lanes. He is a crisp and accurate passer, setting the table for his Winterhawks teammates. When shooting Morrow has an absolute rocket of a slapshot, and is especially lethal with his one timer.
Defensively Morrow has improved over the past year, but is still a work in progress. On the plus side, his great skating ability makes him difficult to beat one on one. His puck moving skills and great passing allow him to move the puck quickly and efficiently and remove it from danger in his own end. He is also aggressive in his own end, a good body checker, and someone who wins board battles and clears the front of the net.
On the downside, Morrow is a bit of a “Riverboat Gambler”. He can sometimes make bad decisions rushing the puck, or pinching at the blue line that can lead to odd-man rushes against. He also has a habit of looking for the big hit a little too often, which also gets him out of position and creates issues defensively. Morrow will need to reign himself in going forward.
As a late 1992 birthday, Morrow is eligible to go to the AHL this season, and that is likely where he’ll end up. While he’ll probably push hard for a spot on the Pens in camp, he needs time in the AHL to work on his decision making and defensive game. If the Penguins are patient, they could have an excellent blueliner on their hands.
Top Prospect #3, Scott Harrington, Defence
Born Mar 10 1993 — Kingston, ONT
Height 6.01 — Weight 203 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 2, #54 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
It was a year of highs and lows for Scott Harrington. In December he made Canada’s National Junior team and was an important shutdown defender for the squad. A shoulder injury suffered against the Americans would hamper him somewhat in the actual tournament, and a crushing Semi-Final loss in a failed comeback attempt against the Russians meant that Harrington brought home a Bronze medal, instead of the gold he was surely hoping for. Undeterred Harrington would return to his London Knights squad, and forming a top pairing shutdown duo with Jarred Tinordi would help lead them to be the best defensive squad in the OHL. The Knights would go on to win the OHL Championship, but would lose the Memorial Cup final in heartbreaking fashion in Overtime.
Harrington is a shutdown defender. He reads the play very well and positioning in the defensive zone is superb, and as a result he is able to cut down passing lanes and block a lot of shots. He has good size and plays a strong physical game along the boards and clearing the front of the net. He has good mobility due to strong agility, a good skating stride, and strong edgework. This mobility allows him to stay with any forward and he is rarely beaten by speed. A good first pass helps him to clear the zone and gets the Knights transition game started.
Offensively, what you see is what you get from Harrington. He’s a decent passer and has good vision, but he isn’t going to wow you with this part of his game. He also has a decent slapshot, but its not at the level of Morrow, or even Despres. His offensive instincts are average and he doesn’t join the rush very often preferring his role as a stay at home defender. He puts up a few points in the OHL, but going forward we shouldn’t expect huge offensive numbers. His game will be centred around his defensive abilities.
Harrington has another year of junior eligibility left, and will likely be back in London. The Knights will again have a strong team and he should be able to go for redemption and another shot at the Memorial Cup. He should also be a key returning piece for Canada’s National Junior team, and will be looking to bring back the gold from this year’s tournament in Russia.
Sleeper Pick, Tom Kuhnhackl, Left Wing/Right Wing
Born Jan 21 1992 — Landshut, Germany
Height 6.02 — Weight 183 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 4 #110 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Kuhnackl missed a lot of time this season playing in only 32 regular season games due to various injuries and a 20 game suspension for a charging play which left Hurricanes’ prospect and Kitcheer Ranger Ryan Murphy out with a concussion. Niagara’s long playoff run was extremely beneficial as Kuhnhackl was able to get in another 19 games. Unfortunately Kuhnhackl’s scoring pace was down quite a bit from his rookie season in Windsor where he was well over a point per game in both the regular season and the playoffs. Kuhnhackl would only score 37 points in 51 games this past season.
Kuhnhackl is a strong offensive player. He has good stickhandling skills and excellent creativity. He can score goals through his good wrist shot and snap shot, both of which feature a quick release, or he has the ability to drive the net. He reads the play well and understands how to get open to get his shot off. He is also a good playmaker who sees opponents and moves the puck well.
Kuhnhackl is also a smart defensive player, working on penalty kill in his stints with both Windsor and Niagara. He is good at reading the play and anticipating passes in order to create turnovers. He plays a strong positional game and is a willing shot blocker. Kuhnhackl also uses his good speed and quickness to pressure puck carriers and create mistakes.
Kuhnhackl is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice or to compete along the boards for loose pucks, but he needs to add some serious upper body strength to be more competitive in these aspects of the game both defensively and offensively. He is likely to start next season playing for Wilkes-Barre in the AHL, and will need some time there to refine his game and to gain more consistency in his production.
Ray Shero has had the Penguins absolutely load up on young defencemen. Their top 3 prospects in this report are defencemen, and they used both of their first round picks in the 2012 Draft on defencemen. They also traded for Brian Dumoulin, and have players like Brian Strait, Rober Bortuzzo, Nick D’Agosino and Philip Samuelsson in the pipeline. In terms of prospects the Penguins might have the deepest group of defencemen in hockey. At forward, its another issue. Beau Bennett is a good young winger, a talented skater with good hands and instincts who needs to bulk up and stay healthy. However aside from him and Kuhnackl there is not much in the Penguins system. Sure there are some longshot depth players, but by and large the forward ranks just do not compare to the defence. The Penguins must beef up this area, or they will be in a perpetual cycle of not having enough top 6 wingers to create two lines around their stud centres in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
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