Despres ranks as Penguins' top prospect
Saturday, December 25, 2010
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Defenseman Simon Despres was the Penguins' first-round pick in 2009.

Prospect lists tend to be organic, with players moving up and down, and on and off, over the course of a season or two.

Having quality talent in the pipeline is critical if a franchise is to have sustained success, though, and the Penguins appear to have a solid, if not spectacular, collection of young players on the way.

The top 10 prospects list, which includes three players who were not on it a year ago, is limited to those who either are unsigned or working on an entry-level contract.

Two of the choices, forwards Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey, have appeared in NHL games this season.

Tangradi dressed for the first nine before being assigned to the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre; Jeffrey played in three earlier this month and was recalled Thursday by the Penguins before their game with the Washington Capitals.

The following are the top 10 prospects in the organization with the greatest potential to contribute in the NHL someday, with coments from assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as general manager of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, and assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald offer insights on each of the selections.

1. Simon Despres

Age: 19.

How acquired: First round, 2009 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Ht./Wt.: 6-4, 205.

Team: Saint John (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League).

Stats: Nine goals, 17 assists in 22 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He can move well, he can move the puck, and he's big. I would say there's a bunch of things we like about him. He's on a very good team, and he's a major, major part of why that team is so strong. Keeping him around here in training camp was very beneficial to his development. You watch him with the way we teach defending with our guys -- stick on puck, getting up on the play so your gap's established -- and I just watched him do that every single time he was on the ice. Is the league easy for him at times? Sure, and you can get bad habits. But he's a big body who moves well. We have high hopes for him."

2. Beau Bennett

Age: 19.

How acquired: First round, 2010 entry draft.

Position: Right wing.

Ht./Wt.: 6-1, 180.

Team: Denver University.

Stats: Three goals, seven assists in 17 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He's in a big-time program, playing big-time minutes, and you can't forget that he's still [19] years old. He's a guy who gets you off your seat when you watch some of his hand skills. The way he handles the puck, the way he sees the ice, he knows what he's doing with the puck before he gets it. It's like he's playing chess when other guys are playing checkers. He really thinks the game very well and his skills set is fun to watch. ... There's not one kid where we don't talk about getting stronger, but that will come, especially in a program like Denver."

3. Eric Tangradi

Age: 21.

How acquired: Trade with Anaheim, 2008.

Position: Left wing.

Ht./Wt.: 6-4, 225.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (American Hockey League).

Stats: 12 goals, five assists in 24 games.

Botterill's assessment: "He's open and receptive to what our coaches are saying to him, whether it's in Wilkes-Barre or Pittsburgh. Last year, we really challenged him about his play [along the boards]. You saw at the start of this year that he was making smart plays along the wall, getting the pucks to the center. And you saw in the preseason that instead of being a guy who wanted to go into the high slot and try to make fancy plays, he knew what his game was all about. He knew what his foundation was, and he went straight to the net. He created traffic out there for whoever he was playing with. He's a big body, is willing to play a physical game, when need be, and has the hockey sense to complement more elite players."

4. Dustin Jeffrey

Age: 22.

How acquired: Sixth round, 2007 entry draft.

Position: Center.

Ht./Wt.: 6-2, 191.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: 14 goals, 18 assists in 27 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He could be the smartest player we have in the organization, hockey IQ-wise. He's a very bright player. The puck always follows him around. Pucks don't follow guys around if they're not smart and don't know where to go. ... He's always had a good skills set, so [his assets are] his skills set and his hockey sense. His biggest hurdle to being an everyday NHL player probably would have been his skating, and that has improved, because of his dedication. To us, that is not a hurdle anymore. Can it still improve? Absolutely. But he's worked on his deficiencies. He can play against a top line as a checker or he can play against top lines as a head-to-head power guy. He's got it going on."

5. Philip Samuelsson

Age: 19.

How acquired: Second round, 2009 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Ht./Wt.: 6-3, 198.

Team: Boston College.

Stats: One goal, five assists in 16 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "Philip has been a picture of consistency this year. Every game you watch him play, it doesn't change. I would say he is probably their best defenseman, every single night, and they've got some good players. He moves the puck well, he sees the ice well. He can play on your second power play, which he does, or he can play against top lines, which he does. He's only a sophomore, but plays with the demeanor of an older player, a senior. ... In the transition game, he can move the puck. They have some nice forwards on that team, but it doesn't matter how skilled they are if the defense doesn't move the puck up the ice. His first couple of steps could improve and will with his strength development."

6. Tom Kuehnhackl

Age: 18.

How acquired: Fourth round, 2010 entry draft.

Position: Right wing.

Ht./Wt.: 6-2, 172.

Team: Windsor (Ontario Hockey League).

Stats: 17 goals, 16 assists in 33 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "His dad is 6 feet 6 and is like the Wayne Gretzky of German hockey. He's a big man, and this kid is about 6 feet 2, and I think he's still growing, so he has good size. He's so untapped when it comes to the physical part of the game, lifting [weights] and things like that that he doesn't understand yet. That's our job, to help educate him through our development program. He had a tough time at the beginning of the year. He came over and wasn't producing like he thought he probably could have or should have, but he finally settled in and he's a point-a-game guy now. ... He's a top-nine guy, with the potential to be a top-six because of his size. He has a good skills set, and he can skate."

7. Brian Strait

Age: 22.

How acquired: Third round, 2006 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Ht./Wt.: 6-1, 200.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: One goal, five assists in 30 games.

Botterill's assessment: "Strait and [Robert] Bortuzzo have really raised their games in their second year, compared to the first. That's huge. It was all so new to Brian last year. You sometimes forget that these kids coming out of college don't have the training-camp experience of a person like Simon Despres. Brian came out last year and had never been to a training camp. Brian's such a cerebral player. He sat back after [his first pro season] and understood what he'd learned, and that he had to get stronger and be a little harder on guys down low and in front of the net. He wanted to put himself in a position where the coaches would put him out in the last minute of games and against the other team's top lines, and that's what's happened."

8. Robert Bortuzzo

Age: 21.

How acquired: Third round, 2007 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Ht./Wt.: 6-3, 196.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: Two goals, 11 assists in 29 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He moves the puck well, he can play on your second power play and a shutdown pairing, and kills penalties. He's added an element [in] the physical part of the game. He's using his size. He's not a 6 feet 4 nice player anymore. He's a 6 feet 4 guy who has a nasty streak in him. That's what he adds to that back end. He does a lot of things well, and he's confident now. He knows he can play against top lines. [He and Strait, his defense partner] are always going to be linked."

9. Brad Thiessen

Age: 24.

How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent.

Position: Goal.

Ht./Wt.: 6-0, 180.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: 12-2 record, 2.25 goals-against average, .921 save percentage in 15 games.

Botterill's assessment: "When he's on, he's aggressive, he challenges guys. To me, what was so helpful for him was that down the stretch last year, Wilkes-Barre had these pressure-packed games where [the Baby Penguins] were trying to get into the playoffs, and Brad just had this confident demeanor. I don't think he gets too rattled. I don't think he gets too excited over a shutout, and he doesn't get too rattled if four or five get in. He has a very even-keeled personality. We're asking him every game to continue to be focused, and he's done a great job. He proved in that playoff stretch that when the pressure's on, he can raise his game."

10. Nicholas D'Agostino

Age: 20.

How acquired: Seventh round, 2009 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Ht./Wt.: 6-1, 177.

Team: Cornell University.

Stats: Three goals, four assists in 10 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He went back and played Junior B hockey right after we drafted him. He had a year where he dominated, could do whatever he wanted. He probably picked up some bad habits, but that's what happens when you get sent back or go to a lower level. He had a great freshman year at Cornell. The expectations for him this year are to be a leader on and off the ice. He can transition the puck well. He's more of an offensive-minded type of kid. He can run your power play, eat up big minutes. That's what his job has been there. He's a fun player to watch. He has to work on his play away from the puck and in his own end."
Dave Molinari:

Read more:
Sounds like they are doing a decent job keeping the talent flowing.