NHL Free Agency: Roster Vacancies, Pittsburgh Penguins' Prospects Ready for NHL

James ConleyContributor IIIMay 27, 2011

NHL Free Agency: Roster Vacancies, Pittsburgh Penguins' Prospects Ready for NHL

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    Squeezed by the cap, the Penguins will likely pull talent from within to provide depth for their NHL roster.
    Squeezed by the cap, the Penguins will likely pull talent from within to provide depth for their NHL roster.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    In the post-lockout era, the Pittsburgh Penguins have become perennial cap spenders.

    Off-seasons in Pittsburgh have become clinics in managerial craftiness, as general manager Ray Shero and company spend the summer months working to acquire depth to compliment the team's core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.

    Last July, Penguins' management broke the piggy bank to upgrade the defense. Free agents Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were brought on board to replace Sergei Gonchar and Mark Eaton.

    With more free agent forwards to pay for than cap space to pay them with, Pittsburgh brass will again look to get creative in forming their roster this summer.

    Instead of doing so through free agency, the team may be forced to find depth from within.

    The Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins led the AHL in regular season wins in 2010-11, and a number of their regulars played admirably at the NHL level when injuries made room for their call-ups through parts of January, February and March.

    If Pittsburgh is forced to part with most of its pending free agents, the team will be able to assemble depth without dredging the low-cost end of the free agent pool.

    Here's a look at five Penguins prospects who may find themselves with the big club in 2011-12.

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LW Eric Tangradi, 22

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    Tangradi is being groomed to replace Ryan Malone as the net-front presence the Penguins so desperately need.
    Tangradi is being groomed to replace Ryan Malone as the net-front presence the Penguins so desperately need.Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

    The trade that sent Ryan Whitney to Anaheim netted grinding winger Chris Kunitz and a second-round draft pick named Eric Tangradi.

    Tangradi has seen short stints with Pittsburgh over the last two seasons, getting an appearance in the final game of the 2009-10 season and 15 starts with the Penguins this year.

    In 16 career games at the NHL level, Tangradi has one goal, two assists and is a minus-4.

    The numbers don't fly off the page, and for good reason. Tangradi spent many of those 16 games as a member of the fourth line, away from the players he needs to be playing with most — namely, centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

    Tangradi hasn't developed as quickly as some might have hoped, but the Penguins haven't been starved for offensive talent the last few seasons — or wouldn't have been if injuries were a non-factor.

    To that end, it would have been interesting to see him appear in more than 15 games this year. He certainly would have, too, if Trevor Gillies hadn't inflicted his brand of caveman hockey on the rookie's skull in February.

    With the Penguins lacking scoring talent at the wings, the winger would be a welcome addition on one of the top two lines.

    He might also be a welcome addition to the power play, which has gone limp over the last two seasons. Part of the unit's woes lie in the Penguins' inability to screen goaltenders and cause confusion in front of the net.

    Tangradi lists at 6'4", 221 lbs., according to the Penguins team website. He has the build of a Ryan Malone or Tomas Holmstrom, with better hands than Malone and better skating ability than Holmstrom. The ceiling is high for the former second-round draft pick.

    As for the power play, it's worth noting that the Penguins scored only two power play goals in their final eight games of the year, including the postseason.

    Those were the final two games in which Tangradi was on the starting roster, and he was planted in front of the net for each goal, earning his ice and screening the goaltender.

    Just sayin'.

C Keven Veilleux, 21

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    Veilleux was second on the WBS Penguins with 122 PIM in 2010-11.
    Veilleux was second on the WBS Penguins with 122 PIM in 2010-11.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Keven Veilleux has only one full season under his belt at the AHL level but made considerable noise in that one year by using his size and his fists.

    The 21-year-old center towers at 6'5", 218 lbs. A former second-round draft pick, Veilleux made great strides last season in Wilkes-Barre, gathering 36 points (12-24) and a plus-17 rating in 66 regular season games.

    His 122 PIM were second on the team behind enforcer Jesse Boulerice.

    Following the 2010-11 regular season, Veilleux was voted as Wilkes-Barre's most improved player by his teammates.

    The Penguins are stacked at the center position. Their top three of Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal are among the best in the game and are each signed for a few more seasons.

    Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey also precede Veilleux on the depth chart, and free agents Max Talbot and Craig Adams would also play the center position above him, should either sign before the start of free agency.

    However, Veilleux provides nice depth within the system. God forbid further injuries to Pittsburgh's centers creep up again next season, but they might make room for his cup of coffee with the big club.

    If the salary cap is putting a squeeze on the team now, it will be in a hell of a spot when the contracts for Staal, Crosby, Malkin and Letang begin coming to a close in a few years.

    Should Staal depart via trade or free agency in a few years, Veilleux seems built to fill the role of a third or fourth-line center. His plus-17 rating attests to defensive responsibility, and his frame would grant him a decisive size advantage as a member of a grinding line.

C/LW Dustin Jeffrey, 23

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    Jeffrey is likely to land a permanent NHL job next season, whether with the Penguins or elsewhere.
    Jeffrey is likely to land a permanent NHL job next season, whether with the Penguins or elsewhere.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Dustin Jeffrey proved his mettle this season. He ran away with the WBS scoring lead after half a season, landing 45 points (17-28) and a plus-13 rating in 40 games before being called up to the NHL roster.

    In 25 games with Pittsburgh, Jeffrey earned seven goals and 12 points, as well as a plus-five rating. His game-winning overtime goal against Boston was a bit of a coming out party, as he stickhandled deftly through Boston's defense for the goal.

    More than how he scored it, the goal helped the Pens exorcise their late-game meltdown demons against the Bruins. It would have been the third such instance in four game against Boston in 2010-11.

    Because of injuries, Jeffrey was on track to be the Penguins' number one center heading into the postseason. He proved himself to be a solid scorer at the NHL level, especially for a rookie.

    He suffered a torn ACL in a game against Philadelphia and missed the last stretch of the regular season and all of the playoffs.

    The club must still be wondering what his presence might have done for Alex Kovalev, James Neal and the final three games against Tampa Bay.

    A restricted free agent, Jeffrey (and the Penguins) are now in a tight spot. His cap hit last season was just under $510,000. He is certainly in line for a raise, but the knee injury may lessen his leverage at the negotiating table.

    Jeffrey showed his potential by dominating in the minors and playing well with Pittsburgh. Other teams have to look at the young, versatile forward and like what he brings to a team.

    As a restricted free agent, however, it will take some amount of draft picks to acquire Jeffrey, and teams may not be willing to invest money and picks in a prospect coming off of major reconstructive knee surgery.

    The Penguins, too, will have to be careful about how much they are willing to offer the youngster. His knee injury casts some uncertainty on any potential deal, but there are precedents from just a season ago.

    Mark Letestu and Deryk Engelland played well out of training camp, earning themselves permanent roster spots and a pair of three-year contract extensions from Pittsburgh.

    Depending on how the team feels about his knee, they could offer him a similar deal, likely around three years and at less than a million per season on a one-way basis.

    Should he be signed and heal all the way, the Penguins will have another young, versatile forward in the lineup, the kind head coach Dan Byslma loves to be able to platoon throughout his lineup.

D Simon Despres, 19

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    Despres, shown here during a 2010 preseason game, was the Penguins first round pick (30th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
    Despres, shown here during a 2010 preseason game, was the Penguins first round pick (30th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    Widely considered the best prospect in the Penguins' system, defenseman Simon Despres has the look of a top two blueliner and has been regarded as an untouchable prospect in trade conversations over the last two years.

    Despres impressed with his performance in training camp and the preseason, leading many to hope he would earn at least the eight-game rookie tryout period that Jordan Staal earned in his first year.

    He instead spent the year with the Saint John Sea Dogs, helping them to a QMJHL Championship in his final year with the team.

    He was also awarded the Emile Bouchard Trophy as QMJHL Defenseman of the Year in 2010-11, picking up 41 points (13-28) and a plus-29 rating in 47 games.

    He added four goals and eight assists in 19 playoff games en route to the 2010-11 title.

    The 6-foot-4 defenseman would be the tallest of Pittsburgh's blueliners should he make the team, and at 19 years of age figures to fill out to more than his currently-listed 205 pounds.

    Via NHL.com, NHL Central Scouting’s Chris Bordeleau and Saint John Head Coach Jacques Beaulieu had this to say of Despres:

    "I think for a potential pro player, he's got the size and mobility," said Bordeleau. "I've seen him many games, and he never seems to make a bad play. He's never going to get 100 points, but definitely, when you want a guy to play defense, he's your guy. He does it all, he'll block shots and he moves the puck at the right time.”

    “Simon is a very good skater with and without the puck," said Beaulieu. "He has good hands for a big man and he has outstanding vision as well as hockey sense. To make it to the next level he will need to improve his upper body strength and his shot, but overall Simon is an outstanding person on and off the ice. He loves the game. He is without a doubt an NHL prospect.”

    After taking home a President's Cup victory and winning honors as league defenseman of the year, Despres should figure into the Penguins' long term plans.

    He may spend a season or two with Wilkes-Barre, especially given the current talent and contract statuses of Pittsburgh's current blueliners. Pittsburgh has zero spots to fill along it's blueline and a number of good defensive prospects ahead of Despres on the depth chart.

    In spite of no vacancies at the pro level, Despres figures to make some noise again in this September's training camp.

RW Nick Johnson, 25

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    Johnson, 25, has already spent parts of two seasons with Pittsburgh. He is an unrestricted free agent.
    Johnson, 25, has already spent parts of two seasons with Pittsburgh. He is an unrestricted free agent.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Calgary native Nick Johnson has already seen time with the Penguins over parts of two seasons. If the unrestricted free agent signs again this summer, he may find himself in a more permanent role.

    In 10 career games with Pittsburgh, Johnson has two goals, three assists, seven PIM and a minus-1 rating.

    Johnson was part of the AHL contingent that filled out the depleted Pittsburgh roster through much of the later half of the season, and was himself knocked out of action with a concussion, one of four concussions Penguins' players endured this year.

    In 61 games with Wilkes-Barre in 2010-11, Johnson notched 31 points (14-17) with 30 PIM and a plus-19 rating.

    He didn't appear in any playoff action. This is something the NHL should look at:

    Due to a rule inconsistency between the leagues, players injured at the NHL level aren't allowed to be sent down due to injury. Players not on an AHL roster after a certain date aren't able to participate in the Calder Cup tournament.

    Johnson's concussion kept him from being able to be returned in time for the playoff eligibility deadline, and he sat out the end of the season in Pittsburgh, healthy but without a roster spot.

    The Yossarian Rule also kept Eric Tangradi from returning to Wilkes-Barre, though he saw some time in the postseason.

    The Penguins are extremely thin at right wing, and stand to lose some of their current right wingers to free agency. Johnson showed potential in his time with the Pens and some chemistry alongside Evgeni Malkin.

    Depending on how the rest of the team's free agents shake out, Johnson may be retained as a full-time NHLer, one the Penguins can sign for a relative bargain.