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Penguins Top Prospects Excelling During Canadian League Playoffs

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Nick Petersen (above) and Simon Despres lead a Saint John squad expected to compete for a Memorial Cup championship. Credit - Getty Images
It’s hard not to get caught up in the Penguins’ regular-season success as the postseason draws near. The team sits atop the Atlantic Division with a one-point lead over the New Jersey Devils as they close in on their second division crown in the past three seasons. Such a lofty standing among the top teams in the Eastern Conference has fans dreaming of back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

While the team’s immediate fortunes appear as bright as ever with superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury leading the way, fans should be ecstatic to hear the future looks just as good. That is because five of the team’s top prospects in the Canadian Hockey League are helping their junior teams have success during the pending playoff season.

Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill believes having prospects learn how to win as they come up through the ranks is as equally important as personal statistics.

“What are we trying to develop here in Pittsburgh?” Botterill asked. “We are trying to develop not only players to play in the NHL, but players who have that winning mentality and have had success at lower levels.”

Among those still alive in the postseason are forward Nick Petersen and defenseman Simon Despres of the Saint John Seas Dogs (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), Kingston Frontenacs forward Nathan Moon, Brampton Battalion goaltender Patrick Killeen and Tri-City Americans netminder Alexander Pechurski. Belleville center Andy Bathgate is the lone CHL prospect whole team failed to qualify for the playoffs.

Despres and Petersen’s Saint John squad is the favorite to take home the Memorial Cup, which pits the champions of the Ontario, Western and Quebec Major Junior leagues, along with the host city, in a four-team tournament to determine the top team in the CHL.

Saint John ran through the Quebec league in 2009-10 thanks to the contributions of Petersen and Despres, who were each among the top players on the team. The Sea Dogs currently hold a 3-1 series lead on Prince Edward Island in the quarterfinal round. Saint John can close out the series with a victory Friday night.

Despres, Pittsburgh first-round draft pick (30th overall) in last June’s NHL Entry Draft, has been the bell cow on the back line for the Sea Dogs. The 19-year-old began his outstanding campaign by making quite an impression during training camp.

Despres was only expected to stay with the Penguins for a couple of days, but the poise and maturity he showed both in scrimmages and during a pair of exhibition contests forced management to keep him longer than expected.

“I think what we are excited about the way he played in training camp,” Botterill said. “I thought he had an excellent training camp here.”

“I kept hearing from his junior team during camp,” Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “They would ask ‘When is he coming back?’ I would say ‘he might be back Saturday.’ Then, he would play well in the exhibition game so he earned himself another game. He had a nice camp for himself. He really caught everybody’s eye that he really could be something special.”

Despres performed well enough to receive an NHL contract from the Penguins in October. He didn’t allow success to get inside his head, as he went out and posted career highs across the board with nine goals, 38 assists, 47 points and a plus-26 rating in 63 game. The Sea Dogs have been using him in all situations, including the top power-play unit, where he has been able to showcase his offensive skills.

“He moves well for a big kid, he sees the ice pretty well,” Fitzgerald says. “He is a puck-moving defenseman. His coaches and teammates expect him to provide offense. From a development standpoint, that is what is expected naturally from him.”

Despres has picked up three assists and is a plus-4 through four postseason games.

Twenty-year-old Petersen, a fourth-round pick by the Penguins last June, has been one of the top snipers up front for the Sea Dogs. The junior has followed up last season’s breakout campaign with a 79-point season (39G-40A) which ranked him 11th in the QMJHL scoring race.

“Nick had a great year last season in the Quebec league,” Botterill said. “In previous years he was just a marginal player. He has continued to show great development this season.”

Besides posting gaudy point totals, Petersen has displayed both consistency and a knack to work hard all over the ice.

“He does a lot of good things,” Fitzgerald says. “If I am a scout from another team, I leave the rink thinking if we ever do a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, let’s ask for Peterson because of what he is doing at the junior level. His coaches have nothing but great things to say.

“His work ethic and consistency levels have been outstanding. He is putting together a nice year for them. He is a big reason why that team is doing so well.”

Because Petersen’s junior eligibility expires when Saint John’s season comes to a close, Fitzgerald says it’s important the Penguins try to bring him in to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to get a feel for the pro level before next year.

“When their season ends you try to work out a deal with him,” Fitzgerald said. “We see him as an asset. He is a guy who has some pro experience from coming to camp and going to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s camp.”

Nathan Moon leads the Kingston Frontenacs with two goals and an assist in three playoff contests. Credit - Getty Images
In Ontario League playoff action, two Penguins’ prospects are going head-to-head as Brampton tries to finish off Kingston in four games when their series resumes Thursday night. Kingston’s Moon has been the Frontenacs top offensive performer in the series with two goals and three points, while Brampton netminder Killeen has stopped 77 of the 85 shots he has faced.

Moon, the Penguins’ fourth-round draft pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, also paced Kingston in the regular season with 27 goals and 69 points in 65 games.

“He is a very good player,” Fitzgerald said. “He is very skilled. He plays well in tight places – he can stickhandle in a phone booth. He sees the ice well and he uses the players around him very well. He is not selfish.”

Botterill says that Moon, who is coached by former NHL star Doug Gilmour, is especially good down around the net.

“He does a great job down around the net,” Botterill said. “He might not be the biggest or tallest guy but he has a little grit to his game for sure. He can really make plays down there.”

Because of the Penguins’ strength down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal, Moon saw time on the wing this season, and impressed Botterill with the way he handled the position change.

“I think his natural position has always been center but I did watch him play the wing earlier this season,” Botterill said. “That is something that we have asked from a lot of our prospects to have position flexibility. It allows you a better chance to be called up to the National Hockey League.”

Alexander Pechurski stopped 12 shots during his NHL debut on Jan. 16 in Vancouver. Credit - Getty Images
Killeen has spent the season as Brampton’s go-to goaltender, posting a 23-25-13 record. His 2.42 goals-against average ranked third in the OHL while his five shutouts tied for the league lead.

His best stretch came between Feb. 22-28, when he picked up OHL Player of the Week honors after finishing the week 3-0 with a .972 save percentage and two shutouts.

Pechurski, who has stopped 23 of the 25 shots he has faced in the postseason for Tri-City in their playoff series against the Chilliwack Bruins, probably needs little introduction to Penguins fans.

He is most remembered for playing 36 minutes against the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 16 – just weeks after migrating to North America from his home in Magnitogorsk, Russia. The 19-year-old was named the third star that night after stopping 12 of 13 shots.

Pechurski has fared well in the Western League as well. He finished the regular season with a 13-10-1 record, 2.61 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.

Botterill said that team is very pleased with how Pechurski has played, especially when you consider he has had to adjust to a whole new culture, language and style of play.

“We know it’s tough for him being a young kid who doesn’t speak the language very well,” Botterill said. “However, he is in a good situation where he can play a lot of games and is getting acclimated to the North American game. We are excited that he came over here and is playing games.”

Note: Penguins prospect Ben Hanowski will be participating in the upcoming NCAA Tournament as his No. 2 seeded St. Cloud State squad will take on No. 3 seed Northern Michigan at 8 p.m. on March 26. If St. Cloud State wins that game they will take on either Wisconsin or Vermont in the West Regional on March 27. That game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN at 8 p.m.

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