Ranking the young Penguins, from 1-10

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The Penguins have numerous young players on their organizational depth chart who management believes will be able to contribute in the NHL at some point.

The front office just didn't expect to have to ask so many of them to do it so early in their careers.

The hard truth, however, is that no fewer than four of their 10 best prospects -- winger Eric Tangradi and defensemen Simon Despres, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo -- have been pressed into service with the major-league team this season, generally because of injuries.

The encouraging thing for general manager Ray Shero and his staff has to be that none of those guys looked out of place at this level.

Found inside are the 10 Penguins prospects with the greatest potential to contribute in the NHL in the future. The list is limited to players on an entry-level contract or who have yet to sign a pro deal, which eliminates players such as forward Dustin Jeffrey and goalie Brad Thiessen from consideration.

Assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as GM of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, and assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald offered their observations on the strengths and weaknesses of those prospects.

1. Joe Morrow

Age: 19.

How acquired: First round, 2011 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6 feet.

Weight: 199.

Team: Portland (Western Hockey League).

Stats: Nine goals, 20 assists in 28 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He skates really well. He shoots the puck extremely well. I think we were all extremely happy [during training camp] to see him earn another exhibition game, and then another exhibition game. The next thing you know, training camp ends, and he actually ... made us think about what to do with him, because of how well he played and his upside. He's a puck-moving guy who skates extremely well, and at times in junior, it's almost like he's too fast. I don't think you can ever worry about someone being too fast. We're really happy with his progress."

2. Beau Bennett

Age: 20.

How acquired: First round, 2010 entry draft.

Position: Right wing.

Height: 6-1.

Weight: 173.

Team: Denver University.

Stats: Four goals, nine assists in 10 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: Beau is a high-hockey sense, high-skill player. He's fun to watch. Beau's area [that needs improvement] is his strength, like all these kids. When he plays with pace, when he's going, he's a damned good player. You can see the way he thinks the game, gets to areas and he's got a really quick release. Playing with a puck-mover would really benefit Beau's game because of his release and how he thinks the game and how he gets open. He utilizes all four players on the ice very well, which is hard to defend."

3. Simon Despres

Age: 20.

How acquired: First round, 2009 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6-4.

Weight: 205.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL).

Stats: Three goals, four assists in 22 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He skates really well, he's a big body and he's only 20. He's such a young pro, and he's really progressed nicely. He takes on top-four minutes down in Wilkes-Barre. He's earned this call-up [to the NHL]. Where this goes, who knows, but he knows what his game is and he understands what his foundations are. The biggest difference I've seen in Simon is his physical play. Because he's a good skater and has real good agility, he's quick and physical on guys down low. He's progressing nicely. He's developing right where we think he should be."

4. Scott Harrington

Age: 18.

How acquired: Second round, 2011 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6-1.

Weight: 200.

Team: London (Ontario Hockey League).

Stats: Two goals, 14 assists in 26 games.

Botterill's assessment: "His situation is very similar to Simon Despres'. Last year, we loved that Simon Despres had played in big games. We see the benefit to Scott here [after doing likewise with London]. He's a player who really impressed us at development camp with his professionalism, wanting to learn from our coaches, wanting to become a better player. He's put that to use. He's never going to be a flashy, end-to-end guy, but plays the system extremely well and has proven to be a very good shutdown defenseman in the [OHL] this year."

5. Eric Tangradi

Age: 22.

How acquired: Trade with Anaheim, 2008.

Position: Left wing.

Height: 6-4.

Weight: 221.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: 10 goals, 10 assists in 24 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "He's only in his third year pro, which maybe we sometimes forget. The foundation keys he lives by are things he's really applying to his game, and he's getting rewarded offensively [in Wilkes-Barre]. Being a net-front presence, play [along the boards], being accountable when he has the puck, and it's put into areas where he can get it back, or a linemate can get it back. ... He's going to be that big-body, net-front presence, clearing the [boards], puck-protecting kind of guy who gets to the net and bangs in rebounds."

6. Tom Kuhnhackl

Age: 19.

How acquired: Fourth round, 2010 entry draft.

Position: Right wing.

Height: 6-2.

Weight: 172.

Team: Niagara (Ontario Hockey League).

Stats: No goals, one assist in two games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "His upside is very good. He can really shoot the puck. He has good hockey sense. He can play either wing. Big, big kid who has a lot of growing to do. Unfortunately, he's injured right now. He's rehabbing and getting ready for his return [from a suspension] in early January. He's a big kid who can shoot the puck. He can put the puck in the net. He's got good hands, and he thinks the game well."

7. Brian Strait

Age: 23.

How acquired: Third round, 2006 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6-1.

Weight: 200.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: One goal, three assists in six games.

Botterill's assessment: "The thing we've liked in Brian's development, as with all these young defensemen we have coming through our system, is that they may not be big-time point-producers, but they do a good job of moving their feet and getting up with the rush to support the play. By doing that, it creates offense for us. You've seen that up in the National Hockey League with a guy like Ben Lovejoy. He's never going to be considered an offensive defenseman, but he gets up with the play. Or Deryk Engelland. [Strait] gets up with the play, and it creates chances for our team."

8. Robert Bortuzzo

Age: 22.

How acquired: Third round, 2007 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6-3.

Weight: 196.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: One goal, two assists in 11 games.

Botterill's assessment: "The biggest thing with Robert is the progress that he's made. He made the transition [from junior]. He worked hard to earn a spot in Wilkes-Barre his first year, just to try to get in the lineup. The second year, he became a player who could play against top-end players in the American Hockey League. The third year, he put himself in a position where he's getting NHL games. You talk about how we would like to have guy develop within our organization, he's a great example."

9. Nicholas D'Agostino

Age: 21.

How acquired: Seventh round, 2009 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6-1.

Weight: 177.

Team: Cornell University.

Stats: Seven goals, six assists in 11 games.

Botterill's assessment: "What's nice to see out of his game this year is that he's producing quite a few more points, but it's not as if it's really changed his game. It's not as if he's being a risky player, just trying to do everything offensively. He's still playing a simple game, moving the puck up to his forwards then joining the rush. He's displaying a little more poise with the puck on the [power play]. It's nice for him to be rewarded with those points without changing his game and still being a strong defensive player."

10. Philip Samuelsson

Age: 20.

How acquired: Second round, 2009 entry draft.

Position: Defense.

Height: 6-3.

Weight: 198.

Team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Stats: One goal, six assists in 27 games.

Fitzgerald's assessment: "His quickness [must get better], but he's come a long way in that department and is only going to continue to improve. He makes up for that with his hockey sense and his ability to move the puck. Even in areas and times of duress, he moves the puck really well. His skating is the one thing that needs to improve. How far is he away from the NHL]? He's definitely a guy who has to continue to play, and play heavy minutes, and really round out his game before he's able to give us games [in the NHL]. Then again, if we have a bunch more injuries, you never know."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.


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