On the Penguins: Neal fills large void

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The Penguins don't have many potential game-changers in their developmental pipeline.

While that might seem like an indictment of their drafting in recent seasons, it really isn't. More like a fairly predictable side effect of owning late choices due to their consistent success in recent seasons, and to having first-round choices like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal step directly into the NHL.

Nonetheless, they are well-stocked with young defensemen like Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait, among others, who look like they're headed for steady work -- and, in a few cases, possibly stardom -- at this level.

There's a fairly promising group of young goalies, too, headlined by Brad Thiessen. John Curry is having a nice bounce-back season in Wilkes-Barre. And Patrick Killeen has shown some promise with Wheeling in the ECHL.

But there are still no big-time, goal-scoring wingers on the cusp of breaking into the NHL, which is why acquiring one like James Neal was so important. At 23, Neal could be here for years, which is how long it might take for some of the Penguins' goal-scoring prospects to reach the league.

Assistant general manager Jason Botterill, though, cautioned against underrating the long-term outlook for some of their wingers who have yet to turn pro.

"If you're taking a snapshot of right now, maybe [there aren't many]," he said. "But you're looking at a scenario for the future where Beau Bennett definitely has qualities for being a top-end player.

"Ben Hanowksi has the capability of being a good scorer. [Thomas] Kuehnhackl has proven he's going to be a top player in the Ontario Hockey League.

"Would you always like more? Without a doubt. But I do believe we have some players who are going to be more high-end."

East spelled with 'O'

Neal, acquired from Dallas two weeks ago, doesn't just have to get acclimated to new teammates and coach Dan Bylsma's system.

He's having to adjust to playing in the Eastern Conference after having spent his first two-plus seasons in the West.

Not that he's particular concerned about making the transition. Fact is, he believes the change will work to his benefit.

"The style here is a real north-south game, a lot of offense," Neal said. "It fits right into the way I like to play, and the way I can play."

A visit from Mr. Miller

Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller isn't having the kind of season he did in 2009-10, when he won the Vezina Trophy and nearly led the United States to a gold medal at the Olympics in Vancouver.

That's understandable, since few goalies reach the level of excellence he did even once, let alone with regularity.

Even so, Miller has done some outstanding work the past few weeks, and certainly is capable of stealing a couple of points from the Penguins when the Sabres visit Consol Energy Center Tuesday.

At the very least, he's a guy fans will want to pay attention to. Miller's Penguins counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, might be tempted to, as well, but realizes it's not in his interest to do so.

"He's a very good goalie and he's someone that I like to watch, just to see what he does, but [during] the game, I'm not the one who has to worry about him," Fleury said.

"I focus on the ones who might score on me. I have to worry about them, and let other guys worry about Ryan."

The Week Ahead

Tuesday: Buffalo ... There aren't many easy games at this time of year, and none against teams like the Sabres who are battling desperately to stretch their season past mid-April.

Saturday: Montreal ... Remember who upset the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs last spring? Beating the Canadiens in this game would reduce the chances of them getting a chance to stage a sequel a couple of months from now.

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published March 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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