Penguins Top 10 Prospects: Wealth of young talent on defense

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The Penguins have been stockpiling young defensemen for several years, routinely investing early round draft choices in them and occasionally acquiring them in trades.

It should be no surprise, then, that six of the organization's finest eight prospects work on the blue line. This season's rankings of the Penguins' top 10 young players also includes three forwards and a goaltender.

The top half of the rankings, which stem from the observations of men who evaluate and develop young talent for a living, could have been arranged in any order, because there appears to be so little, at this stage, to distinguish the NHL potential of one player from another.

To keep the number of candidates for inclusion to a manageable number, the rankings are limited to unsigned draft choices and players on entry-level contracts. That eliminates prospects such as Eric Tangradi, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait, among others, from consideration.

After biographical and statistical information for each player, assistant general manager Jason Botterill or assistant to the general manager Tim Fitzgerald offers an assessment.

1 Derrick Pouliot

Age: 18.

How acquired: First-round draft choice, 2012.

Position: Defense.

Height: 5 feet 11.

Weight: 186 pounds.

Team: Portland (Western Hockey League).

Stats: Eight goals and 28 assists in 35 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He's a top-notch skater with very good -- very good -- offensive instincts. He moves the puck extremely well, accurate and hard for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice well, especially in the offensive zone. He can see those seam passes. You try to envision him making those hard, crisp passes to the top players we have in Pittsburgh, and it's hard to not get real excited. ... He plays high-end minutes, so he's going to have the puck a lot. He's going to make mistakes -- he will turn pucks over -- but when you have the puck as often as he does, that's [to be expected]. He needs to work on his consistency. One shift, he'll swing the net and make a breakout pass, jump by the forechecker, then support and join the rush, and look unbelievable. Then, a couple of shifts later, he'll make the same pass, and just kind of watch it, and watch his forwards skate."

2 Beau Bennett

Age: 21.

How acquired: First-round draft choice, 2010.

Position: Right wing.

Height: 6 feet 1.

Weight: 180 pounds.

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

Stats: Five goals and 16 assists in 25 games.

Botterill's assessment: "Whenever a player makes the transition from college hockey [University of Denver] to pro, there is an adjustment, and you wonder how much of an adjustment there really is going to be. Especially for a guy like Beau, who didn't play in the second half of last year [because of injury], you take those things into consideration, and we've been very, very happy with Beau's progress in Wilkes-Barre. His offensive instincts [and] his vision are very noticeable at that level already. He creates chances on the power play, has the ability create stuff off the rush and also down low. And what's excited us the most is we see a stronger player out there. Is there still room for him to grow and improve his strength and his physical game? Without a doubt. But what we've noticed is here's a kid who's willing to go in the corners, hasn't backed down from going in front of the net and that has got us real excited."

3 Olli Maatta

Age: 18.

How acquired: First-round draft choice, 2012.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6 feet 2.

Weight: 202 pounds.

Team: London (Ontario Hockey League).

Stats: Three goals and 21 assists in 32 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He is eating up a ton of minutes for London. Maybe sometimes too much, because they play a lot. He and Scott Harrington are leaned on real, really heavy, but that's what you want. You want to be on the ice for the power play, you want to be on the ice for every penalty-kill. For every special situation, Olli is getting that experience. He's young in age, but when you watch him play, you tend to shake your head because you can't believe he just turned 18 at the end of August. You realize how special this kid can be, down the line. He's very consistent with his game. He's as good offensively as he is defensively. He moves the puck well, he can anchor your power play, he can be on your top penalty-killing unit. His demeanor and poise, he just has a presence out on the ice. ... He does everything well."

4 Joe Morrow

Age: 20.

How acquired: First-round draft choice, 2011.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6 feet.

Weight: 197 pounds.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

Stats: One goal and five assists in 21 games.

Botterill's assessment: "It's an easier transition for a forward to pro hockey, so a guy like Beau Bennett may make the transition a little easier than Joe Morrow. The big thing with Joe Morrow is that his attributes -- the skating, the shot, the offensive attributes -- even at the American Hockey League level now, with all the skill there, stand out. Being a defenseman, [the adjustment period is] always a little bit longer. You look back on players such as Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, it wasn't a smooth transition from junior or college hockey at times. With Joe being a little bit younger than those guys and the league being that much better, there's been some struggles, for sure. What gets us excited is that these are struggles that can easily be fixed. Defending a little better down low, you can be taught those type of things. What he does in the offensive end -- his skating ability and his shot -- those are pretty difficult things to teach."

5 Simon Despres

Age: 21.

How acquired: First-round draft choice, 2009.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6 feet 3.

Weight: 218 pounds.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

Stats: Four goals and three assists in 21 games.

Botterill's assessment: "We're extremely excited about where Simon is right now. What we try to ingrain in these players is that the first year is an adjustment and the second year, you're looking for results. We've certainly seen that improvement with Simon. He took everything that he learned from his first year, got very serious with his off-ice training in the summer and has come back knowing what it is to be a pro player. His game has really escalated. He's playing a lot with Robert Bortuzzo as sort of the shutdown pair. It's a scenario where he's not just looking for offense now. He's really focused a lot more on his defensive responsibilities, and he's increased his compete [level] down low. He's really taken a jump, [to] where he's going to be fighting for a spot at the National Hockey League level. The way he's performed down there the last couple of months proves to us that he's ready for National Hockey League hockey."

6 Scott Harrington

Age: 19.

How acquired: Second-round draft choice, 2011.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6 feet.

Weight: 200 pounds.

Team: London (OHL).

Stats: One goal and nine assists in 33 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He's gone out and played his steady, consistent game. Simple, but effective. First pass [goes] tape-to-tape, he supports the rush, good stick-on-puck detail when he defends, closes guys off, uses his stick well to take away passing lanes. He comes into the [Penguins'] development camp this summer very confident. Obviously, going to the Memorial Cup final and gaining that experience, I think that's the one thing that we're real fortunate with a lot of our guys. ... I sense that he's a quiet leader, because he's a quiet person, but when he says something, I'm sure he has the utmost respect in his locker room. He leads by example. In talking with [London's] coaches, the one thing they're trying to instill is for him to be a little meaner, just a little bit meaner. Try to create more ice for yourself in front of your own net. People might not come into your areas [if they're subjected to] a little whack-and-hack."

7 Brian Dumoulin

Age: 21.

How acquired: Trade with Carolina, 2012.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6 feet 4.

Weight: 210 pounds.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

Stats: Two goals and six assists in 24 games.

Botterill's assessment: "He has such great poise with the puck. He's the type of player who feels comfortable carrying it up on the power play. He's the type who has the ability to make that good outlet pass and get the puck to a forward. [His challenge] is just getting comfortable with the speed of the game, maybe [reduce how often] his shot gets blocked, or his pass gets deflected. He certainly is putting himself in the right spots on the ice, just because he has a high hockey IQ. He's a big guy, but he's not going to be a big, punishing hitter. You look at a guy like a Ben Lovejoy or a Brian Strait or a Robert Bortuzzo, all have increased their compete level down low. None of them are going to be a big, monstrous, heavy hitter like, say, a Brooks Orpik or a fighter like a Deryk Engelland, but they've all increased their compete level down low, and it's really helped their game. That's what we're working on with Brian now."

8 Theodor Blueger

Age: 18.

How acquired: Second-round draft choice, 2012.

Position: Center.

Height: 6 feet.

Weight: 171 pounds.

Team: Minnesota State, Mankato

Stats: Two goals and 10 assists in 18 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He's playing against men for the first time, playing against [opponents] who are bigger and strong, as quick and as smart [as he is]. It's been an adjustment, from a physical standpoint, but he thinks the game very well. He's a smart player, cerebral. [Coach Mike Hasting's] words were, 'He's consistent. He has a strong work ethic. He's quiet by nature. He's detailed. You can see a real smart hockey player who has skill, and every weekend, he seems to gain that confidence.' He's playing more, getting more power-play time, will start being used on the [penalty-killing unit] as the year continues. He's in a real good spot to grow. I see a hybrid. He could give you second power play and penalty-kill. Maybe he's a Brandon Sutter-type player, where he's not overly physical and he's real smart. He plays 200 feet of the ice, which is so important for us."

9 Jayson Megna

Age: 22.

How acquired: Signed as free agent, 2012.

Position: Center.

Height: 6 feet.

Weight: 195 pounds.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

Stats: Two goals and three assists in 11 games.

Botterill's assessment: "Jason came to our development camp this summer and really impressed us. In Wilkes-Barre, during the preseason, he was probably our best forward. He came in in great shape and on a mission, trying to prove to us right off the bat that he was ready to make the jump to pro hockey. Unfortunately, between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season, he sustained a high-ankle sprain. He plays the way we want to play. He plays with great pace, attacks the net once he gets into the offensive zone. As with most young players, he has to continue to work on [his play in] the defensive zone. You've seen it with our superstar players, just with faceoffs and everything, a player like Sid [Crosby] or Jordan Staal gets better on faceoffs with age. That's something Jason will have to continue to work on, his faceoffs and defensive zone positioning."

10 Matt Murray

Age: 18.

How acquired: Third-round draft choice, 2012.

Position: Goal.

Height: 6 feet 4.

Weight: 162 pounds.

Team: Sault Ste. Marie (OHL).

Stats: 14-12-1 record, 3.59 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in 27 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He has a good combination of size and athleticism. He plays big and he's technically sound, which is what you want. He's leaned on heavily. I think he averaged 36, 37 shots a game, so he's seen a lot of rubber and seems to play his best when the pressure is on. He had a real good first month-and-a-half, two months of the season, and then his game slipped a bit. His game mirrors his team's game. He's really learning how to be a No. 1 goaltender, because he wasn't the No. 1 goaltender last year. He's understanding what it takes, day to day, to be a No. 1 goalie. One thing [goalie development coach] Mike Bales talked to me about Matt was that he's got a strong work ethic and a drive to succeed, to improve. He's a big boy, and that's a nice combination. We're real happy with where he's at. ... His puckhandling could -- will -- improve. It needed to improve, and it has."

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