By Dave Fryer, Contributor to InsidePittsburghSports.com
The closing day of the 2011 Pittsburgh Penguins Prospect Development Camp featured an intra-squad scrimmage. This is traditionally the way the camp ends, giving the players a reward for their week’s worth of effort and providing the staff with an opportunity to see the players in more pure action, particularly evaluating how well their prospects have learned and applied their latest instructions.
Other than the fresh faces to the organization, the only major change to this layout is that this year’s events were all held at Consol Energy Center, instead of the practice facility at the Iceoplex at Southpointe.
Understandably, the organization was expecting a slightly bigger crowd than the Iceoplex had previously drawn, but their expectations of about 500 people proved to be far off when over 3,000 Penguins fans arrived for the event.
Those fans witnessed two, 25-minute games and were treated to quite a show by forward Keven Veilleux. Veilleux notched 2 goals on the day – nearly completing the hat trick several times – and won the post-scrimmage shootout.
He was the biggest player of all the prospects on the ice, performed the most-consistently shift-to-shift, and showcased his scoring touch by netting goals in 4 of his 5 shootout attempts.
He lacks the foot speed to impress anyone with quickness, but Veilleux has developed his game in a way to overcome that deficit, playing a powerful, north-south style of hockey that is simple and effective. His road with the Penguins organization has been bumpy, but his move from center to right wing – coupled with a long stretch of good health – has brought his level of play and his overall consistency to the level many believed he could when he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007.
The next-most-impressive player on the ice was this year’s 1st-round draft pick: defenseman Joe Morrow. The first word we heard about Morrow at the draft was “skating,” and he showed why throughout the scrimmage.
His smooth stride and deceptive speed remind the current Penguins fans of Kristopher Letang, and older Penguins fans may see some legitimate resemblance to the great Paul Coffey. Morrow is strong in all phases of the game and seems physically mature beyond his 18-year-old frame.
In contrast, the team’s previous 1st-round pick provided mixed reviews, at best. There’s no question that Beau Bennett possess a strong arsenal of offensive skills. He sees the ice better than any of the other prospects and deftly distributes the puck accordingly.
But his game is severely limited to the perimeter of the rink, and his game on the defensive half of the red line leaves much to be desired. In one-on-one situations, Bennett was completely eliminated from making a play by the likes of Morrow and Simon Despres. It is not unreasonable to think that Bennett will need a breakthrough in his game if he ever expects to have a true impact at the NHL level.
Many eyes were on Simon Despres throughout the day due to his status and expectations within the organization. Despres appears physically ready to transition to the higher levels of pro hockey, showing improved skating and consistent work in defending his net.
There has been a lot of talk of Depres spending time in Wilkes-Barre this year in preparation for his eventual move to Pittsburgh, and that analysis seems quite accurate after his steady performance today.
Perhaps rivaling Despres in terms of attention and expectation was forward Eric Tangradi. The powerful winger was the most-impactful player on the ice across the opening 15 minutes of the scrimmage.
The puck tends to find his stick in the offensive zone, and he usually makes things happen when he has that puck. But Tangradi became much less of a factor as the scrimmage wore on; in part because he seemed a bit disinterested in playing anything other than “scrimmage hockey,” and in part because he did not adapt well when the teams switched to 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 play.
It is no secret that this is a make-or-break season for Tangradi, and the jury is still out on which way that will go for him. But it was not going to be in the prospects camp that such a decision would even be considered – he will need to show his full value when the NHL camp opens in September.
The surprise of the day came from forward Jared Gomes. Gomes played out his eligibility in the OHL before playing Canadian college hockey last season. A player from CIS would not be expected to make much of an impact at an NHL rookie camp, but Gomes made a solid impression and brandied a game that would fit quite nicely into the Penguins’ style of play.
He was strong in the corners and low in the offensive zone, then showed his playmaking abilities in the second scrimmage by making some excellent moves at the attacking blueline before finding a streaking Paul Thompson on the far side of the ice. Gomes may never get a sniff of NHL action, but the secondary fruits of running a prospect came can be shown if the team signs him to a minor-league deal.
Forward Josh Archibald is another unheralded player who made a great impression today with his skills. Like Tangradi, who coincidentally was Archibald’s roommate this week, he faded a bit as the scrimmage progressed.
But at 18-years of age and weighing in at only 161 pounds, that was far more expected out of him after a rugged week at his first pro camp. Archibald was a 6th-round pick at last month’s entry draft and may prove to be a late-round gem.
Philip Samuelsson is making the transition to pro hockey this year but seems to have a steeper hill to climb than he may have expected. He certainly has the tools to develop into a reliable defenseman as early as this season in Wilkes-Barre, but for a team stocked with young defensemen, Samuelsson may need to start as low as Wheeling to get his game moving in the right direction.
Nick Petersen was another bright spot on the wing. Petersen moved from Wheeling to Wilkes-Barre last season and performed very well in the AHL. The 22-year-old showed a strong presence offensively in both his passing and his shooting, and he and Tangradi played exceptionally well together. He looked very comfortable in the system and may earn some NHL consideration down the road.
Defenseman Scott Harrington had a good scrimmage overall, despite a very bad turnover that led directly to a goal by Veilleux.
He has solid offensive skills and is adept at joining the rush, as evidenced by scoring the first goal of the scrimmage. Harrington was a 1st-round draft pick in the OHL when he was only a sophomore in high school, and then was chosen by the Penguins in the 2nd-round of this past year’s NHL draft.
So the upside is clearly there, and he surely has a legitimate chance to play in the NHL some day after validating those talents on the ice at this camp.
The local products certainly held their own throughout the day. Goaltender Rob Madore was very strong early and did not allow a goal until the play opened up when the switch as made to 4-on-4 play. He was solid in his angles and possessed the quickness to make many good saves.
The knock on him is his size, but he showed he could have a successful minor league career after he graduates from the University of Vermont next spring.
Andrew Blazek was expected to be out of his element, but he held his own quite well by using the relentless style of play characteristic of his native Robert Morris University team.
The other goalie in the game was Patrick Killeen, who is coming off his first season of professional hockey. Killeen employs a style that has him down a bit too early and too often, but he battles to make saves and has a tremendous knack for finding loose pucks around his crease.
Killeen had a cup of coffee with the AHL club last season and will have a difficult time advancing any farther than that with the names ahead of him in the organizational depth chart. But after many years of instability at this position down the ranks, the Penguins have now locked down a quality stable of netminders.
With the depth of defensemen and goaltenders seeming to be very strong, the focus then shifts to the forwards. Paul Thompson should be a steady contributor on the wing for Wilkes-Barre, and Brian Gibbons and Zack Sill will give the Baby Penguins a pair of very good two-way centers.
Tom Kuhnhackl is not yet ready for pro hockey, as evidenced by his inconsistent play today, but he also exhibited the promise that has garnered him a good bit of attention.
Dominik Uher was rather quiet in his performance today, but this year’s 5th-rounder from the Czech Republic also seems to have a lot of potential.
Defensemen Alex Grant and Joe Rogalski, as well as goaltender Maxime Legace, did not participate in the scrimmage.
The White squad, led by Tangradi, Petersen, Despres, and Morrow, won the first 25-minute scrimmage, 4-2. Despite the efforts of Veilleux for the Black team, White also came out on top of the second scrimmage, 4-3.
Goal scorers in the scrimmage were Veilleux (2), Scott Wilson (2), Harrington, Thompson, Gibbons, Jessey Astles, Bryan Rust, Bennett, Petersen, Uher, and Gomes.
Veilleux scored on each of his first 3 shootout attempts, advancing to the finals with defenseman Sean Whitney. Neither player converted on their first attempts in the finals to keep both players alive, but in the 5th round, Veilleux scored on Killeen before Whitney was stopped by Madore.
The team finished its camp schedule with a team dinner at Buca DiBeppo, followed by exit interviews with each player. The players depart for their separate ways on Sunday morning, with a few players returning to Pittsburgh again in September for the NHL training camp.