Projecting Top-End Potential for Pittsburgh Penguins' Best Prospects
The Pittsburgh Penguins have the third-longest NHL playoff appearance streak in the league, having been to the show in each of the last seven seasons. Despite icing strong teams with Stanley Cup aspirations on a yearly basis, the Pens have still managed to gather a slew of interesting and solid prospects.
It's impossible to overstress the importance of good drafting. Pittsburgh's scouts seem to be some of the best in the NHL when it comes to finding diamonds in the rough in the later parts of the first round and on down through the draft as a whole.
For the sake of this examination, to be a prospect, we're going to use the simple parameter of less than 65 games played in the NHL. Players also can't be older than 24. Those guidelines seem to work pretty well for Hockey's Future, and we'll partially adopt them here.
All statistics and draft data appears courtesy of HockeyDB.com.
Drafted: First round, 20th overall (2010)
Experience: 35 GP at the NHL level
Top-End Potential: Top-six scoring forward
Penguins fans have been clamoring over the last few seasons to see Beau Bennett as a full-time NHLer in Pittsburgh. While it's safe to place him on this prospects list now, he'll be an established player by this time next year and could possibly be taking even more reps as a top-six forward for the squad.
Bennett is a Penguin-style player, through and through. His hockey IQ is outstanding, and his hands around the net are top-notch. Most importantly, he knows how to keep his stick down and go to the net, which is paramount when skating with talented passers like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
He doesn't slack in the neutral or defensive zones, either, though, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him slowly worked in as a permanent fixture in Pittsburgh's top-six group of forwards as the season progresses.
Drafted: First round, 30th overall (2009)
Experience: 51 games at the NHL level
Top-End Potential: Steady top-four defenseman
The Penguins and their staff have seemingly mastered the art of snagging blue-chip defensemen at the end of the first round. Simon Despres is just another in a long line of such players, and his evolution as an all-around defenseman hasn't disappointed the team's brass one bit.
Where other youngsters on the blue line make a name for themselves by rushing the puck up ice or by putting up massive numbers from the back end, Despres is much more dependable than that, and he has a tendency to make the simple and smart play.
Many onlookers were surprised when Despres didn't make the NHL roster to start the 2013-14 NHL season, but he has been outstanding in the AHL. He's adding some offense to his game (11 points in 14 games with the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins), which will make him even more valuable moving forward.
Drafted: First round, eighth overall (2012)
Experience: 0 GP at the NHL level
Top-End Potential: Top-four defenseman, power-play quarterback
If there is a gem in Pittsburgh's crown of prospects, Derrick Pouliot might be it. He was the player that the Pens selected with the pick they received in the Jordan Staal trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, and the team is very high on him.
Some folks might have Googled this guy after his rookie season and read some unfavorable reviews. At that stage in his career, he was viewed as a one-dimensional defender that was mostly only useful on the power play.
Since his draft year, he's tacked on some muscle and continued to work on rounding out the other facets of his game. Pouliot could still be an outstanding power-play QB and will likely always earn his paychecks in the NHL as a puck-moving defender, but the fact that his plus/minus jumped from plus-15 in 2011-12 to plus-35 a year later should tell you how he's coming along in his own end.
Drafted: First round, 22nd overall (2012)
Experience: 21 GP at the NHL level
Top-End Potential: Two-way, minute-munching defenseman
If pundits around the NHL were surprised when the Penguins sent Simon Despres to the AHL to start the year, then they were shocked when the team decided to keep Olli Maatta instead of returning him to the London Knights.
His high level of play coupled with an injury-riddled blue line in Pittsburgh forced the team to keep him around, though, and to this point, he hasn't done anything but reward the Pens for their faith. Whatever the Pens have asked him to do, he's done, and it appears that Maatta will be an NHL player for the foreseeable future.
Maatta doesn't have the same kind of offensive capabilities as Derrick Pouliot, but his rock-solid all-around game makes him every bit as valuable on the back end. His hockey IQ is quite high, which could eventually open the door for more goals here and there as he matures as a player.
Drafted: Second round, 44th overall (2013)
Experience: 0 GP at the NHL level
Top-End Potential: Possible No. 1 goalie
It's almost impossible to project where goaltenders will end up on their potential curve. It usually takes them several years after being drafted to end up anywhere near a starting gig in the NHL, and once they get there, even the best of the best can relapse and have a hard time holding onto it.
That said, Tristan Jarry has all the tools necessary to be a good netminder in the NHL at some juncture. He's only 18 years old, though, and is only 21 games into his first season as the No. 1 guy for the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Jarry has been outstanding to this point, however, and if he continues to learn and adapt, then he could be in the NHL within the next half-decade. Give or take a few years.