Q: In your opinion, who are the team's top five prospects right now?
Rusty Ryan, South Side
MOLINARI: There are several ways to interpret the term "prospect" -- to some, it might mean the players who are closest to stepping in to the NHL, while others could construe it as the players who have the best long-term potential -- and which definition is applied is going to influence the makeup of the group.
We'll go with the latter and limit the list below will be limited to players who haven't turned pro yet, which means guys like Luca Caputi, Ben Lovejoy, Dustin Jeffrey and John Curry from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate aren't eligible for inclusion.
It also has to be noted that, when dealing with players in college or junior hockey, the assessments offered are based on little, if any, first-hand observation. The rankings, such as they are, stem mostly from insights offered by members of the front office, scouts and others who evaluate talent for a living.
With all of those caveats in place, the list features:
1. Eric Tangradi. He's the winger who was acquired in the Chris Kunitz-Ryan Whitney trade with Anaheim, and many believe he could develop into an excellent power forward in the NHL. He was one of the most productive players in the Ontario Hockey League during the regular season and is again now that the playoffs are underway, but it can't be overlooked that he's playing primarily against players who are younger than himself. Training camp should provide a more accurate read on his pro potential.
2. Alex Grant is a defenseman who skates well and has good offensive skills, but is going to have to hone his defensive work before he challenges for a job in the NHL.
3. Keven Veilleux, a center with excellent size (6 foot 5, 202 pounds) and pretty good puck skills, has had a serious shoulder injury and who will have to improve his quickness and consistency.
4. Brian Strait is a defensive defenseman with NCAA champion Boston University. The Penguins have made no secret of their desire to have him turn pro and start down the developmental path that will lead him to the NHL.
5. Casey Pierro-Zabotel is a center who won the Western Hockey League's regular-season scoring championship with 115 points in 72 games. His offensive game is pretty complete, but he still has to get better in his own end and improve his foot speed.
Q: With the addition of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, do you think the Pens are better off now that they didn't re-sign Marian Hossa?
Steve, Yardley, Pa.
MOLINARI: That's an interesting, although obviously hypothetical, way to look at the additions of Kunitz and Guerin, whose arrivals have given Sidney Crosby linemates whose styles mesh well with his own and who have allowed interim coach Dan Bylsma to restore balance to his forward lines by moving guys like Pascal Dupuis into the blue-collar roles for which they are best-suited.
But from a purely on-ice perspective -- without taking into consideration such things as salary-cap implications -- the thinking here is that keeping Hossa probably would have been the more attractive option. Kunitz has been everything the Penguins hoped -- a reliable, responsible winger who is capable of scoring 25-plus goals for a lot of seasons to come -- and Guerin still has a lethal scoring touch, but Hossa is one of the premier wingers in the game. One who, unlike some others in that class, works as hard defensively as he does trying to score goals. Once he and Crosby got comfortable with each other last spring, they were downright scary at times.
If the Penguins are to accomplish anything in this year's playoffs, it's almost a given that Kunitz and Guerin will have to be major contributors. Considering that both have won Stanley Cups, that isn't unreasonable to expect. At the same time, Detroit's chances of defending its championship will be enhanced if Hossa's groin injury doesn't impede him significantly, or prevent him from playing entirely.
The Red Wings have no shortage of quality forwards, but an elite talent like Hossa would stand out on any team. Including the Penguins.