After winning the Stanley Cup with a core of homegrown players, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospect pipeline was left a little thin by trades, picking lower in the draft and some selections not reaching their potential.
While the 2004 and 2005 drafts brought Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Tyler Kennedy, the only NHL regular Pittsburgh has drafted since 2006 is Jordan Staal, who was traded this summer to Carolina. General manager Ray Shero and his staff have been replenishing the system, particularly with blue-chip blueline prospects, and after early positive reviews on the 2011 and 2012 draft classes and the Staal trade, the Penguins’ pipeline is flush again.
Shero’s group has clearly focused on defense, and Pittsburgh might have the deepest collection of potential impact defensemen in the League. The depth up front and in goal isn’t nearly as strong, and a couple of the organization’s top forward prospects have dealt with injury problems. Those aren’t exactly pressing areas of need though with guys like Crosby, Malkin, James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury still on the front nine of their careers.
Here’s a look at Pittsburgh’s top 10 prospects:
1. Joseph Morrow, D: Morrow isn’t expected to earn a roster spot in Pittsburgh at the start of this coming season. Of course, the same was said before last season and Morrow nearly forced the organization’s hand with a dynamic showing at training camp.
The 23rd pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Morrow had 17 goals and 64 points for Portland of the Western Hockey League after being one of the last cuts at training camp. He was also one of Canada’s final cuts from the 2012 World Junior Championship squad.
At 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, Morrow will begin this season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League — unless he surprises again during camp. He turns 20 years old in December and possesses the all-around skills to be a top-pairing defenseman in the NHL.
2. Simon Despres, D: Despres was ranked No. 8 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in 2009, but the Penguins landed him with the final pick of the first round and it looks like they got a steal. Big (6-foot-4, 214 pounds) and skilled, Despres impressed in limited duty with Pittsburgh last season and has the inside track to a regular spot in the lineup vacated by Zbynek Michalek for this coming campaign.
He had five goals and 15 points in 44 AHL games to go along with a goal and four points in 18 contests with the Penguins in 2011-12. Despres has the potential to be a top-four defenseman for Pittsburgh in short order, and being a long-term partner for Letang isn’t entirely out of the question.
3. Brian Dumoulin, D: He’s the least-publicized asset acquired from Carolina in the Staal trade, but Dumoulin could end up being just as important in the long term to the Penguins as Brandon Sutter or Derrick Pouliot. Carolina was willing to include him in part because the Hurricanes are also loaded with talented, young defensemen.
Dumoulin was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a junior last season with Boston College. He had seven goals and 28 points while anchoring one of the best defense corps in the country for the eventual NCAA champions.
He signed with the Hurricanes before the trade, so Dumoulin will begin the year in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Penguins’ roster out of training camp. There is going to be a lot of competition for at the most one or two spots, but Dumoulin could be ready to help the Penguins at some point in the coming season.
4. Olli Maatta, D: Maatta was actually Pittsburgh’s second first-round choice (22nd overall) in the 2012 Draft, which was held at CONSOL Energy Center, but some draft experts had him ranked higher than Derrick Pouliot, who was selected by the Penguins at No. 8 overall. At 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, Maatta had a strong first season with London of the Ontario Hockey League (five goals, 27 points in 58 games and 23 points in 17 playoff contests) and was projected as a potential top-10 pick before ending up at No. 22 for the Penguins.
He represented Finland at the 2012 WJC, but he also got hurt during the tournament. Maatta, who doesn’t turn 18 years old until later this month, will likely return to London for a second season.
5. Derrick Pouliot, D: Pittsburgh’s scouting staff should be plenty familiar with Pouliot after seeing him play on the same WHL team (Portland) as Morrow. The Penguins made Pouliot the eighth choice in the 2012 draft just minutes after the Staal trade was announced, and he was welcomed to the organization with a healthy roar from the hometown fans still buzzing about the transaction.
Pouliot is similar to Morrow as an offensively-talented defenseman, but he’s a little smaller than his teammate at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. He did have 11 goals and 59 points in 72 games for Portland last season while matching Morrow’s postseason output (17 points in 22 games). He’ll slide into Morrow’s role as the No. 1 guy on the Winterhawks’ blue line this season.
6. Beau Bennett, RW: Bennett is easily the Penguins’ top forward prospect and could rank higher on this list if not for a wrist injury that limited him to just 10 games in his sophomore season at the University of Denver. He had four goals and 13 points after a strong freshman season.
Bennett is listed at 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, and the California native is the one forward in Pittsburgh’s system with clear, top-six potential. Bennett signed with the Penguins in April, so he’ll likely continue his development with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton barring a fantastic camp.
7. Scott Harrington, D: Harrington is another guy who has been part of the same blue line corps as someone else on this list. A second-round choice in 2011, Harrington had three goals and 26 points in 44 games for London last season.
Unlike Morrow, Harrington made Canada’s entry in the WJC. Unfortunately, like Maatta he was also injured at the event and ended up missing part of the OHL season with a shoulder issue. He’ll be back with the Knights for another season.
8. Brian Strait, D: If it feels like Strait has been a Penguins’ prospect for a long time, well, he was taken in the same draft class as Staal in 2006. While Staal starred in Pittsburgh immediately, Strait spent three seasons at Boston University before signing a professional contract.
A stay-at-home type, Strait has had a couple of call-ups in the past two seasons, but he’s also amassed more than 200 games of AHL experience. He turns 25 in January, and has a chance to earn a spot with the Penguins this season.
Pittsburgh has six defensemen on one-way contracts, so all of the guys on this list (plus free-agent signing Dylan Reese and fellow prospects Robert Bortuzzo and Carl Sneep) will all be competing for one or two roster spots. Despres is a sizable favorite to land in the top six, while Strait would probably be more likely to stick as the seventh or eighth guy than some of the younger options.
9. Ben Hanowski, RW: Hanowski led St. Cloud State with 23 goals and 43 points last year as a junior, and will be the team’s captain as a senior this fall. He was a third-round pick by the Penguins in 2009 and will turn 22 in October.
He’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, and is one of several interesting forward Pittsburgh prospects a notch or two below Bennett currently playing college hockey.
10. Matia Marcantuoni, C: Marcantuoni was considered a potential first-round pick before the 2011-12 season began, but for the second year in a row was held back by injury. He’s missed time with ankle and shoulder injuries as a well as a concussion, and has played only 66 regular-season games in two years for Kitchener in the OHL.
Listed at six feet and 197 pounds, Marcantuoni instantly became one of the fastest prospects in the Pittsburgh system. Should he avoid injury with the Rangers in 2012-13, he has the potential to move much further up this list by this time next year.