With just about a month to go before the start of training camp, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans have begun to look forward to next season in the hopes of putting the disappointing end to last season behind them.
Having been swept in the Eastern Conference Final by the Boston Bruins and having been forced by salary constraints to say goodbye to Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow and Tyler Kennedy, the Pens will have to look within the organization to fill needs both this year and beyond.
The big news this offseason has been the re-signing of current stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to max-term contracts but the development of the Pens' future stars and the role each may fill on the roster has been overlooked.
With that in mind, let's look at the most exciting element in each of the Pens' top prospects' games.
In a system loaded with offensive defensemen, Olli Maatta may possess the most dynamic skill set and could have the biggest upside of all of them.
According to Hockey's Future:
"The foundation of Maatta's game is built around consistent, non-flashy play that should make him a solid contributor in the NHL for years to come. Though not initially known for his offensive output, Maatta possesses excellent vision, hockey IQ, and puck-distribution ability, leading many to believe he has some untapped offensive potential."
Having invested a lot of high draft picks on offensive defensemen the past few years, the Pens will need complimentary defensemen who are solid in every area.
Maatta has the ability to be that kind of player.
As fellow Swede Nicklas Lidstrom proved during his illustrious NHL career, a great defenseman doesn't have to have the biggest shot or be the fastest skater. He just needs to be a complete player and have the confidence of the coaching staff that he can handle any situation.
With patience and the right coaching, Maatta has the potential to be that jack-of-all-trades type of defenseman that teams covet. With five of the six starting defensemen spots filled through next year, the Pens have the luxury of taking their time and will be sure to not rush Maatta to the NHL until he is ready to be that type of player.
Acquired in the Jordan Staal trade last year, Brian Dumoulin is perhaps the most NHL-ready prospect in the system.
Describing his ability, Hockey's Future views him as:
"an adept puck-mover with a hard point shot. Conducting himself with great confidence on and off the ice, Dumoulin possesses numerous traits which suggest he could develop into a reliable top-four defenseman in the NHL."
With offensive defenseman Kris Letang signed long-term and Simon Despres challenging to be a top-four defensemen next season, the Pens have plenty of offensive flash on their blue line and will be looking for steady and reliable defensemen to complement that flash.
The Pens have focused on drafting smaller and more offensively minded defensemen in recent drafts, so Dumoulin will be counted on to provide stability and perhaps eventually replace veterans such as Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi who are both entering their mid 30s.
At 5'11" and weighing 195 pounds, Derrick Pouliot's size may limit his ability to play physically, but there is no limit to his offensive talents.
According to Hockey's Future:
"Pouliot is an exceptionally mobile offensive defenseman with elite vision and puck-distribution. He has a blistering shot from the point, can transition the puck with his head up, and can play a lot of minutes in all situations."
Because of his size, skating ability and feisty nature, Pouliot has often been compared to Kris Letang, and the Pens hope that his offensive production will invoke more comparisons as well.
With Paul Martin, a left-handed offensive defenseman, entering the fourth year of a five-year deal, the Pens are hoping that Pouliot will be NHL-ready by the time that Martin's role becomes available.
Having traded Joe Morrow to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Brenden Morrow, the Pens will rely on Pouliot to become a left-handed complement to Letang for years to come and give the Pens one of the most offensively skilled blue lines in the NHL.
Utilizing a puck-possession system that employs stretch passes, the Pens rely on speed, and Jayson Megna has plenty of that.
According to Hockey's Future:
"Megna has the size, speed, and skill to develop into a potential middle of the lineup player but first must carve out a role as a professional."
After trading away Tyler Kennedy and with Craig Adams getting closer to retirement, the Pens will need to replenish their team speed. After another year in the minors, Megna may be ready for the NHL.
With the reduction in the salary cap, NHL teams—especially ones that have as many stars with long-term contracts as the Pens do—are not going to be able to afford multi-million dollar contracts on third- and fourth-line players.
As good as the Pens have been in drafting and developing superstar players, they have not been as successful in developing role players, and Megna gives them the best chance to remedy that situation.
Given the recent turmoil surrounding the Penguins' goaltending situation, it only made sense that the team would look to acquire a top-notch prospect, and that's exactly what they have in Eric Hartzell.
Signed by the Pens last spring, Hockey's Future describes Hartzell as:
"A technically sound goaltender with a terrific glove. His large frame allows him to effectively economize his movements. He is outstanding in his play down low and he covers his angles quite well. His reads and ability to track plays are also very good."
Having led Quinnipiac to the the NCAA's Frozen Four and earning a nomination for the Hobey Baker Trophy as the nation's top collegiate hockey player, Hartzell's college resume is impressive.
While not flashy, he is steady and relies on his size and sound positioning to make saves, which stands in stark contrast to Pens starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is known to lose his angle and over-commit. It has resulted in soft goals, especially in the playoffs.
With Tomas Vokoun signed for one more season, the Pens will have the luxury of allowing Hartzell to get his feet wet in the minors with the hope that he can challenge for a spot in Pittsburgh next season, where he may serve as a good compliment to Fleury.