Prospects abound, but none are elite



The world junior championships will begin tomorrow in Ottawa, and the Penguins will be well-represented by scouts and other personnel types.

But not by prospects.

In fact, not a single player whose rights they own will participate in the tournament.

Assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher believes at least two of their draftees, Canadian defenseman Alex Grant and Russian goalie Alexander Pechurski, were worthy of being selected for their national squads, but does not believe the absence of Penguins' prospects from the world juniors reflects a dearth of quality young talent in the organization.

Indeed, he characterizes the overall state of their talent outside the NHL as "deep," and said there are no major soft spots on the corporate depth chart.

"We think we have a lot of good young players at every position," he said. "We feel our overall depth is good. We're able to compete at a pretty high level in the American Hockey League with quite a few young players. We have a few good players in junior and in the U.S. college ranks, as well."

The Penguins' most pressing concern a year ago was the limited number of goaltenders in the pipeline. That no longer is an issue, Fletcher said, especially since they grabbed Pechurski and Patrick Killeen in the June entry draft.

"Where last year we were a little thin, outside of pro hockey, in terms of goaltending, this year, our depth is much better," he said, noting that Chad Johnson, who is having a strong season at the University of Alaska (once known as Alaska-Fairbanks), should not be overlooked.

Still, while Fletcher contends that "we have pretty good depth across the board," the Penguins don't have someone being groomed for every niche at the NHL level. The most striking example is the lack of an accomplished goal-scorer, the kind of player who would look good on one of Sidney Crosby's wings.

There is not an elite-level prospect anywhere in the organization, perhaps because every No. 1 draft choice from the past decade is either already in the NHL or working for another team.

Angelo Esposito, their No. 1 choice in 2007, went to Atlanta in the deal that brought Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta at the trade deadline in February, as did the Penguins' top choice in 2008.

That was just one of the deals general manager Ray Shero has struck the past two years in which he surrendered still-developing or future assets for a quick upgrade to his NHL lineup.

"In the last 18 months, we traded a lot of draft picks and a lot of assets to improve our team in the short run," Fletcher said.

"Obviously, we've been pleased with how well the NHL club has played and the players we acquired -- Hossa, Dupuis, [Georges] Laraque and [Hal] Gill were all instrumental in helping us get to the Stanley Cup final -- but we had to give up our first-round pick in 2008, as well as Angelo Esposito."

Because of such deals, the Penguins had just four choices in the June entry draft, none until the fourth round.

"It obviously isn't a lot of fun when your first pick is [No.] 120," Fletcher said.

Over the short term, that isn't necessarily a problem, but it does have the potential to become one for teams that take a live-for-the-present approach over an extended period. Consequently, the Penguins are trying to hoard draft choices to keep young talent flowing into their organization.

They already have eight for the 2009 draft, including third- and fifth-rounders acquired from Tampa Bay for the rights to Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Michal Sersen. Toronto got the Penguins' fifth-rounder in the Gill trade.

That doesn't mean Shero won't deal draft choices, if necessary -- "If you want to be a contending team, you're always going to have to look at moving draft picks for players at the [trade] deadline," Fletcher said -- but the Penguins do recognize the importance of regular infusions of young talent.

"Going forward, we're certainly going to do what we can to be competitive, year-in and year-out, but also with an eye on keeping as many picks as we can, to continue to add those high-end picks to the system," Fletcher said.

They also figure to aggressively pursue free agents with NHL potential. Last summer, they added the likes of Janne Pesonen, Chris Minard and Ben Lovejoy, all of whom have played in the NHL this season.

"We're going to have to continue to look at those avenues," Fletcher said. "And, obviously, to try to keep more draft picks going forward."




Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published December 25, 2008 5:00 AM


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