PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a long list of highly touted defensemen prospects for several seasons. The time has finally come for those prospects to become integral pieces on Pittsburgh's blue line.
Defenseman Derrick Pouliot is a lock to make Pittsburgh's opening-night roster and could be a top-four defenseman. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin will make a run at a full-time job after sporadic NHL stints the past two seasons.
With the Penguins' prospects maturing, Pittsburgh's defensive future is now.
Here is a look at the Penguins' top five prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Derrick Pouliot, D
How acquired: 1st round (No. 8), 2012 NHL Draft
Last season: Penguins: 34 GP, 2-5-7; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL: 31 GP, 7-17-24
Pouliot, 21, has been considered a vital piece to Pittsburgh's future since he was drafted in 2012. A glimpse of that future was seen last season when Pouliot made his NHL debut and played well through 34 games, filling a hole left by injured defenseman Olli Maatta.
After sustaining an upper-body injury that kept him from making his Stanley Cup Playoff debut, Pouliot (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) worked with former Penguins forward Gary Roberts during the offseason to improve his conditioning. With veteran Paul Martin signing with the San Jose Sharks as a free agent, Pouliot will be expected to maintain a position among Pittsburgh's top-four defensemen.
Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16
2. Oskar Sundqvist, C
How acquired: 3rd round (No. 81), 2012 NHL Draft
Last season: Skelleftea AIK, Swedish Hockey League: 41 GP, 9-10-19
Sundqvist, 21, was one of the last players cut in Pittsburgh's 2014 training camp. He impressed with his defensive acumen, which raised the possibility of him earning the role of fourth-line center entering this season.
His NHL debut might have been pushed back when the Penguins signed forwards Eric Fehr and acquired forward Nick Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks on July 28, then signed center Matt Cullen on Aug. 6, but he could see his first NHL action this season. Fehr had surgery June 3 and was expected to need 4-6 months to recover, so he may be unavailable to start the regular season. If Fehr can't play and Sundqvist (6-3, 209) has another solid camp, or if coach Mike Johnston decides to use Fehr or Bonino at wing instead of center, the Swede could start the season centering Pittsburgh's fourth line.
Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16 (midseason)
3. Brian Dumoulin, D
How acquired: Trade with Carolina Hurricanes on June 22, 2012
Last season: Penguins: 8 GP, 1-0-1; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL: 62 GP, 4-29-33
Dumoulin, 23, has been discussed as everything from the next big piece in Pittsburgh's defensive arsenal to a potential trade chip nearing past NHL trade deadlines.
In 14 NHL games during the past two seasons, Dumoulin (6-4, 219), who was drafted in the second round (No. 51) by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2009, has performed consistently well enough to ensure he hasn't been a detriment. He needs to take one final step if he wants to see significant playing time, but he should be a front-runner to earn a position as Pittsburgh's seventh defenseman.
Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16
4. Matthew Murray, G
How acquired: 3rd round (No. 83), 2012 NHL Draft
Last season: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL: 40 GP, 25-10-1, 1.58 GAA, .941 SV%
The Penguins plan to keep Murray, the American Hockey League's 2014-15 goaltender and rookie of the year, in the minors for one more season.
"He's not coming in here and beating out Marc-Andre Fleury and taking over this team," assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald told the Penguins website in late July. "We love what we have down the line here, and it is down the line. He just turned 21. He needs to play hockey games. You can't develop if he's sitting on the bench. That's just a fact."
Murray (6-4, 178) and Fleury's likely backup, Jeff Zatkoff, shared the goaltending duties in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, when Murray had four consecutive shutouts and nearly a fifth, setting the AHL record with a 304:11 scoreless streak from Feb. 8 through March 8.
Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17
5. Daniel Sprong, RW
How acquired: 2nd round (No. 46), 2015 NHL Draft
Last season: Charlottetown, QMJHL: 68 GP, 39-49-88
Sprong, 18, will have to wait some time to break in with the Penguins. That isn't an insult; it's a compliment to Pittsburgh's stockpile of talent at forward in the NHL.
After a successful development camp in July, it was clear Sprong (6-0, 180) has speed, quick hands, a soft touch on passes and a sharp snap on his shot. He will work his way through to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as soon as he's eligible to play in the AHL (he turns 20 on March 17, 2017), and by that time, a spot for him could open.
Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18