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Penguins College Prospects Enjoy Successful Seasons

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Carl Sneep was a second round draft pick (32nd overall) of the Penguins in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Credit - Getty Images
As the Penguins hit the stretch run of the regular season, several of the organization’s top prospects playing at the collegiate level are getting set to begin postseason play.

Boston College defensemen Carl Sneep and Philip Samuelsson look like good bets to make a deep run through the NCAA Tournament later this month as members of the nation’s fifth-ranked team. St. Cloud State freshman forward Ben Hanowski’s team also begins play later this week as the Huskies attempt to play their way into the dance, while Providence defenseman Alex Velischek finished a strong freshman season.

Although they are sat different stages of their collegiate career, both Sneep, a senior, and Samuelsson, a freshman, have been integral components of the Boston College back line. Sneep, the 32nd pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, has rebounded from a subpar junior campaign to rank among the top blueliners in Hockey East. Samuelsson, a second-round selection (61st overall) last June, has displayed an edge and maturity well beyond his 18 years.

Prior to this weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinal series against Massachusetts, Sneep ranked sixth on the Eagles with 22 points (8G-14A) in 34 games, as his offensive skills have now began matching the physical presence the 6-foot-4 blueliner provides defensively.

“The biggest thing with Sneep is his puck skills,” Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill said. “He wasn’t always the smoothest player but he has worked hard on that. You always knew he could get up into the play because he was such a great player, but now when he has the puck, he is showing the confidence with it to make a play.”

Expectations have been huge for Sneep since he was selected in the second round in 2006. Following his first two seasons as BC his development appeared to be right on track as a potential two-way player at the NHL level. He excelled as a sophomore playing alongside Nick Petrecki, a 2007 first-round selection of the San Jose Sharks, in a shutdown role on the Eagles’ 2006 NCAA national championship squad.

Instead of his career continuing to progress forward, Sneep took a step back last season as a junior.

“Some players, when they prepare for that junior or senior season of college start to think ‘I can earn or should earn that NHL contract,’” Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Carl let things bother him and he worried. It got in the way of his development.”

“He wasn’t getting points and he wasn’t playing against other team’s top lines,” Botterill added. “I think even he would admit it was a frustrating season.”

Disappointed with how last season went, Sneep worked out extremely hard in the offseason to make the most out of his senior season. He also got words of encouragement from Fitzgerald at the Penguins’ development camp.

“He is just in great shape,” Fitzgerald said. “He is a horse of a player. He is big, strong, shoots the puck hard and skates well. When things are on your mind, you tend to not worry about the task at hand. At development camp I just talked to him about going out and having fun. Enjoy your senior year because you are never going to get that back.”

Sneep’s senior season has been outstanding. Not only has he been dominant in the defensive zone, as evidenced by his plus-9 rating in conference games, but he has also been a force on the Eagles’ power play. He ranks third on the team with five power-play goals and 11 power-play points.

“He has a bomb for a shot,” Fitzgerald said. “The Boston College power play was actually working around setting up his shot, it was so good. He can really fire the puck.”

Ben Hawoski finished his freshman season strong with five points (2G-3A) over his final eight games. Credit - Getty Images
When Sneep is not on the ice starring for Boston College, Samuelsson, son of former Penguins defenseman Ulf, usually is. Just like his dad, Philip plays a defensive-minded game predicated on making life miserable for opposing forwards.

“He is more of a defensive player so he is not going to be putting up the points,” Botterill said. “You watch him play and he is always aggressive out there. That is what we were drawn to. He has to improve upon his foot speed and his agility a little bit. It’s something he knows he has to improve on.”

“He is a competitor,” Fitzgerald said. “That is one thing that he got from him dad – that high compete level.”

Samuelsson has appeared in 34 contests as a true freshman, ranking fifth on the team with a plus-12 rating. He has also served very effectively as one of BC’s top penalty killing defensemen thanks to his abrasive style.

“He plays the game the right way,” Fitzgerald said. “He is a whack-and-hack kind of guy. He has a great stick. He goes stick on puck very well. When he defends, he engages hard on guys.”

As Samuelsson’s game progresses over the next couple of seasons both Botterill and Fitzgerald would like to see him work on his skating. They believe playing in big games with the Eagles will help in that department.

“Because he has improved a lot over the past couple of years, we think that is a facet of his game that is going to improve,” Botterill said. “The Boston College coaches enjoy working with him because he is very attentive.

“Being in a good situation at Boston College, he will play in a lot of big games with atmosphere, emotion and energy. We think that is a huge step in a player’s development, too.”

Another true freshman who will have an opportunity to play is Hanowski. The 6-foot-2 winger was the Penguins third-round selection (63rd overall) last June. Hanowski started off slowly as he made the jump from high school to college, but has seen his game consistently progress forward throughout the season.

“I think Ben had an adjustment getting used to college, but I also think we also expected that,” Botterill said. “It is a huge jump going from a Minnesota high school to college. That is a huge jump. … The coach has been using him in a lot of different situations, including on the power play, as a freshman. We are very happy with his development thus far.”

After picking up two goals and three points in his first 12 games, Hanowski has been one of the better Husky forwards with six goals and nine assists over his past 24 games, including points in five of his last eight games to finish the season.

“Ben is a long-term project,” Botterill said. “We view him as a player who can make plays and read-and-react well to some of the elite talent we have here.”

Much like Samuelsson, one of Hanowski’s keys will be improving his skating stride.

“We compared his skating to some of the other kids at our conditioning camp and thought he did pretty well,” Botterill said. “He will continue to work on that throughout college.”

Alex Velischek is the son of former NHLer Randy Velischek. Credit - Getty Images
One player who worked hard throughout his first college season was Providence blueliner Alex Velischek. While the Friars struggled as a team, Velischek was outstanding in his debut season.

“He is very similar to Hanowski in that he was coming from New Jersey high school hockey,” Botterill said. “He is playing on the power play and penalty kill on a team at Providence that hasn’t had a great record the past couple years.”

“He doesn’t play like an 18- or 19-year-old kid who just came out of high school hockey,” Fitzgerald added. “His school is my old school and his coach used to be my old coach so I am on the phone with him a lot. He will tell me where he is at.”

Velischek, son of former NHL defenseman Randy Velischek, finished his freshman season with 12 points (1G-11A) and 52 penalty minutes in 34 games. As his penalty minutes suggest, Velischek also served as a physical presence on the blue line in addition to his offensive numbers.

What impresses Botterill and Fitzgerald most about Velischek is how smooth of a skater he is. In today’s NHL, defensemen who can move their feet are a tremendous asset to an organization.

“He is a compact skater who has good speed and agility,” Botterill said. “He makes smart plays with the puck.”

“He is not big in stature but he has a good frame,” Fitzgerald said. “He has a big core and big legs. He is a good skater and is strong on his wheels.”

Fitzgerald says he can’t help but rave about Velischek’s future potential.

“He is just a guy who has natural ability,” Fitzgerald said. “He has very good hockey sense and a great skill set. He has great pedigree. He is able to talk to his dad and get pointers every day. The kid is a sponge.”

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