Which Pittsburgh Penguins Prospects Will Have Enhanced Roles in 2014-15?
You may have loved Ray Shero, or you may have hated him. The Pittsburgh Penguins weighed the pros and cons of keeping the general manager and eventually decided to release him from his duties. While the man always seemed to have something up his sleeve at the trade deadline and was arguably the best when it came to building a quality team around monster cap hits, one aspect of his reign always left fans wanting more.
Shero struggled to draft and develop talent for the Penguins, and after watching the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup with Tyler Toffoli (22 years old) and Tanner Pearson (21) playing big-time roles, it's become clear what Pittsburgh has been missing over the last few campaigns.
Contributions from depth players has been an issue—one that Shero constantly tried to correct by adding forwards like Jarome Iginla, Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc. Those plug-and-plays never resulted in much success, so now it's time for the Penguins to start leaning on their own young talent.
There's some work to be done at the 2014 draft, but there are already a handful of young players that will be able to step in and help the Penguins improve in 2014-15.
For the purposes of this slideshow, we're using the term "prospect" pretty loosely. The goal is simply to identify which young players will have larger roles this season than they did last year. The goal is not to figure out which player the phrase "prospect" doesn't apply to.
Brian Gibbons: Center
Speed kills in today's NHL, and Brian Gibbons has plenty of it to burn. He's one of the quickest skaters in the Penguins organization, and he's got a wicked shot to boot. Oddly, the 26-year-old pivot didn't make national headlines until Pittsburgh was eliminated from the postseason this year.
Gibbons was demoted to the AHL to aid the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins on their playoff run, and he scored a Peter Forsberg-esque goal by ragging the puck through the neutral zone before splitting a pair of players en route to one of the prettiest goals you'll see.
He won't be counted on to make plays like that next season in the Steel City, but he appears to be the fourth-line center that the Penguins have been looking for over the last few seasons. Gibbons fits in well because he has the talent and the IQ to slot in as a top-six guy from time to time, but he also has the hustle needed to be a defensive center.
Out of all the young players that will be given enhanced roles in Pittsburgh next season, Gibbons might be the guy that can have the biggest impact.
Derrick Pouliot: Defense
Coming in hot off of being named the best defenseman in the CHL last season, Derrick Pouliot has come a long way since the Penguins made him the No. 8 selection at the 2012 entry draft. The knocks on the Saskatchewan native have always centered in on his defensive game, but the undersized Pouliot has improved greatly over the last two campaigns.
While plus-minus is largely a flawed stat, it's still positive to see the number jump up through four consecutive seasons at the junior level. Last year, Pouliot finished with 70 points, 74 PIMs and a plus-40 rating.
With Matt Niskanen likely to test the waters of free agency barring a massive salary-cap shakeup and Brooks Orpik on the way out, the Penguins need to come up with a defenseman or two to round out their top six.
Look for Pouliot to split time between the AHL and the NHL next season, possibly grabbing some power-play time at both levels during his season.
Beau Bennett: Right Wing
Injuries have prevented Beau Bennett from claiming his spot as a top-six forward for the Penguins. He was limited to just 21 last season, and he wasn't able to adjust to the rigors of the postseason in time to make an impact.
If he can avoid the injury bug—and at this juncture, that's a big if—in 2014-15, Pittsburgh could finally have a young forward worth celebrating. Bennett's known for his excellent release, and he has a knack for finding open spaces of ice.
On a line with All-World centers like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, this is the kind of shooting winger that can really do some damage. Fifteen to 20 goals from Bennett would be a huge boon for the Penguins, and he has the skill set to do it.
It's just a matter of staying out on the ice, maintaining a rhythm and avoiding any more bad breaks.
Brian Dumoulin: Defense
The WBS Penguins had a terrific run to the Eastern Conference Final this season, only to be eliminated by the St. John's IceCaps in a dramatic seven-game series. One of the driving factors behind two victorious playoff rounds was defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
He trailed only fringe NHL forward Chuck Kobasew in postseason scoring for the Baby Pens and posted 12 points in 17 games. That was an encore to a 21-point regular season, and at 22 years old, Dumoulin appears ready to take on a more advanced role at this stage in his career.
Like Pouliot, Dumoulin stands to benefit from the exodus of Orpik and Niskanen. There might not be room on the blue line for both young players, so this could be one of the more interesting storylines to keep an eye on once training camp kicks off in a few months.