Predicting Which Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects Could Reach the NHL in 2013-14

Alison Myers@AlisonM_110Correspondent ISeptember 17, 2013

Predicting Which Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects Could Reach the NHL in 2013-14

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    It's no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins have a crowded roster heading in the 2013-14 season. With numerous players signed over the offseason or brought to training camp on tryouts, competition for fringe players and prospects to make the roster will be fierce.

    There is also the possibility that someone will have to take a shot at the NHL elsewhere, as the Pens are currently over the salary cap and might need to make a move to free up some space.

    With that said, all hope is not lost. Now that the Penguins have played two preseason games, some prospects are making a name for themselves. These players are not guaranteed anything, but their performances in training camp and the minor leagues could earn them a roster spot to open the season or even later in the year on a call-up.

    Here are six players who could take the ice at Consol Energy Center when the games matter.

     

Beau Bennett, Right Wing

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    Bennett was a 2010 draft pick who came into the Pens system with a lot of hype. He spent two seasons at the University of Denver before turning pro and showed a lot of his promise in his 2012-13 rookie year.

    He posted 28 points in 39 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL and received a call-up to Pittsburgh, where he played 26 games and had 14 points. He also played in six playoff games, including two in the Eastern Conference Finals, so his postseason experience will be important as the Pens try to get to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

    He was even invited to USA Olympic camp this year, which shows the faith that Pens and USA head coach Dan Bylsma has in his future.

    Bennett is a good playmaker with speed, and he came into camp with added muscle and a more physical game, noted Sam Kasan of the Penguins website. He also impressed his teammates, including forward James Neal, who told Kasan:

    Beau came into camp stronger, faster, more mature. It makes a big difference with that year under your belt. You know what to expect. He's fit right in from Day 1. He'll keep getting better.

    Bennett is now over the NHL rookie game limit, but his experience and commitment to improvement should help him make the Pittsburgh roster.

Zach Sill, Center

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    Sill is going into his fourth professional season but has never had an NHL shot. That could change this season, though.

    He plays a strong physical game and is never afraid to drop the gloves with an opponent. He also scored short-handed goals in his first three AHL seasons, which makes him an asset to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's penalty kill. Pittsburgh's penalty kill, while strong in recent years, dropped off in 2012-13 and was ranked 25th in the NHL with a success rate of just 79.6 percent.

    Sill's health could also be a concern. He suffered a hand injury early last season and was limited to only nine points in 57 games, contributing to his dropping offensive production after posting 30 points as a rookie.

    His games played total has also declined. Although he played 80 games when starting out, he followed up with 68 games in his sophomore year.

    The 25-year-old may be an NHL long shot, but if he continues to impress in the AHL and can play a full season, he could get a brief tryout in Pittsburgh.

Paul Thompson, Right Wing

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    Thompson was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and had a solid first two seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He followed up a 25-point rookie season in 2012 by posting 29 points this past year. He also had six power-play goals and six game-winning goals. One of those game-winners came last October to help the Baby Penguins win their first game of the season after starting 0-4.

    Like Sill, Thompson may be a long shot to see the NHL. He is 24 years old and facing competition from similar and more experienced players such as Brandon Sutter. He was also sent to the AHL in the first round of roster cuts on Tuesday morning.

    However, if he keeps improving in Wilkes-Barre, he could be a dark-horse candidate to be called up if there are any injuries.

Robert Bortuzzo, Defenseman

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    Bortuzzo is entering his fifth pro season and has only played 21 NHL games, so he is not yet at the league's 25-game rookie limit.

    In that time, he has shown promise, particularly in 2012-13. He had four points and a plus-three in 15 games with Pittsburgh while averaging about 13 minutes of ice time per game. Unfortunately, he injured his leg, which forced him back to the AHL for a period of time. He played 31 games in Wilkes-Barre and had four points.

    This will be an important season for Bortuzzo.

    He plays a physical, responsible game and has good size at 6'4", 215 pounds. He also signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh over the summer, so the Penguins are showing a lot of faith in him despite the injury. If he can be in peak form like he was when he played at least 70 games in his first pro season, he should be a lock to make the roster.

     

Simon Despres, Defenseman

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    Despres is arguably the Penguins' top defensive prospect at the moment. He has shown steady improvement in 51 NHL games in his first two seasons. He had four points and a plus-five rating in 2011-12 and added seven points and a plus-nine last season. In addition, Dan Bylsma gave him a small increase in ice time from 14 minutes a game as a rookie to 15 minutes in 2012-13.

    Although Despres is a good talent and plays a solid game, there are some question marks. For one, he has yet to play a full season when you add up his totals from Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh. He was in 62 games in his rookie year, but played 60 in 2013.

    Last week, Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Despres looked out of shape compared to some of his teammates. Even though training camp was just getting underway, that's not a good impression for a future NHL defenseman to make.

    While he will no doubt continue to get some level of responsibility on the NHL level, it seems like he may not be ready for a full season in Pittsburgh either. If there are still doubts about him to start the season, he could be sent to Wilkes-Barre to start and called up when he shows improvement. However, he's as good a bet as any to make the team.

     

Derrick Pouliot, Defenseman

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    Pouliot has one more year of junior eligibility remaining, so he could end up going back to the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. However, don't be surprised if he gets a brief look once his season is over.

    The 2012 eighth overall pick has been referred to as the Pens' power-play leader of the future by team reporter Sam Kasan. In the opening preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pouliot made good decisions with the puck and was calm on the blue line.

    However, despite his strong showing, Pouliot told Kasan he still needs some seasoning before he can be comfortable at the NHL level:

    I was a little nervous out there. Maybe I wasn't making some of the plays I'm used to making. I still have to get used to it. I thought I was working hard. It might take a little more time.

    Pens fans should keep their eye on Pouliot as he gets ready to turn pro. He has posted 30 points in each of his three seasons with the Winterhawks. In 2013, he led all defensemen in WHL playoff scoring with 20 points in 21 games and repeated that in the Memorial Cup with seven points. He also had three game-winning goals.