Pittsburgh is by far the deepest at defense, with seven of the nine blueliners being draft picks of the team. Three of them – Brian Dumoulin, Reid McNeill and Philip Samuelsson – have all seen playing time at the AHL level. They are certainly players to watch, but we’ve singled out five others for certain reasons.
SCOTT HARRINGTON, NICK D’AGOSTINO AND HARRISON RUOPP
These three are all players to watch since they are all looking to make the transition to professional hockey this upcoming season. They have no more eligibility remaining with their respective junior and college teams, so they will all either be playing with Wheeling, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or possibly even Pittsburgh this season. This tournament is an opportunity for them to showcase themselves to Pittsburgh’s staff before attending NHL training camp next week.
“It’s definitely real now,” admitted D’Agostino, who just finished his senior season at Cornell. “I’m not going back to school in August. We’re all trying to make the jump to Pittsburgh.”
Harrington played four seasons with the London Knights, where he served as team captain in 2012-13. And he knows perhaps better than any of Pittsburgh’s prospects how to win, as he has had an illustrious career so far with back-to-back Ontario Hockey League championships, Memorial Cup appearances and bronze medals at the World Junior Championships with Team Canada. In addition to that, he has physically matured since being drafted in the second round in 2011 and is now 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. He’s just a solid, steady and reliable defensive defenseman, and those are an asset on any team.
Ruopp, who played the past four seasons in a shutdown role with Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League, is a defender sort of in the mold of a Brooks Orpik. He’s a punishing defender who revels in the physical aspect of the game. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he can certainly lay some bruising hits.
Finally, D’Agostino – who served as a tri-captain for Cornell last season – is a player who can skate and has the ability to contribute on the power play. In 2011-12, six of his career-high eight goals came on the man-advantage.
"I think it’s the same for any guy at this tournament right now," he said. "We all want to come in here and it gives us a chance to play in front of our scouts, our coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre, in Pittsburgh too, and make a real good first impression. That’s what we want to come in here and do. We want to catch somebody’s eye before main camp because you have very few opportunities to perform in front of that group."
OLLI MAATTA AND DERRICK POULIOT
Pouliot and Maatta are both first-round picks of the Penguins, chosen eighth and 22nd overall, respectively, in the 2012 NHL Draft. And both players will be seeing their first real game action with the Penguins over the next few days, since the team did not attend the tournament last year and they were not able to attend NHL training camp in 2012-13 because of the lockout. They are both such elite prospects with so much potential, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to the level of competition.
“It’s the first time playing with this level of players, against them. I’m excited,” Pouliot said. “Looking forward to (today) and it’s going to be fun. I mean, this is a chance to show what we have as players and we plan on doing it.”
Maatta is an intriguing prospect for a number of reasons. Physically, he is NHL ready at 6-foot-2, 206 pounds. And his game appears to be mature enough for the NHL, too. He said the coaches told him he is a “smart player, I’m a good skater and I play an all-around game. I don’t try to do too much. I’m not a flashy player like (Kris) Letang or one of the best D-men. I just play my game, do the easy plays, and play like that.”
And he’s already accomplished so much in just two seasons with London of the Ontario Hockey League, helping the team win its second-straight league championship and Memorial Cup berth while leading the Knights D-men in scoring both seasons.
But although Maatta is mature for his 19 years of age, he realizes he has a lot of work to do in order to crack the NHL roster – especially with the amount and caliber of defensemen he’s competing with. So he’s using this tournament as a chance to get acclimated – a warmup for training camp. “It’s good to see what kind of game is it like and I get to experience more the speed and tempo that it’s going to be,” he said. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that that the tournament is taking place in his home arena. “For me, I’m confident here. It feels like home. So it’s a good thing.”
Pouliot, also 19 years old, just finished his second season with the Portland Winterhawks. He averaged more than a point per game during the regular season before leading all WHL blueliners with 20 points (4G-16A) in 21 playoff games as Portland won the league championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup. He’s an exciting prospect because he is in the mold of a player like Kris Letang, with the skating, offensive skill and ability to quarterback the power play. He still has room for growth, but looking forward to seeing how he plays the next few days.
After the Penguins drafted Tom Kuhnhackl in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Draft, he went on to show exactly why Pittsburgh selected him as he had a fantastic 2010-11 season with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League – leading the team with 39 goals in 63 games. However, Kuhnhackl’s next two seasons after that were derailed by injuries and a suspension.
He spent one more year with Windsor before turning pro for the ’11-12 campaign, but his season ended on Dec. 2 with an upper-body injury – causing him to see action in only 13 games with WBS and Wheeling. Kuhnhackl comes to this rookie tournament ready to put all the frustrations of the last few years behind him and prove again why the Penguins chose him to be a part of this organization. The 21-year-old Germany native has a tall, athletic build (6-foot-2, 172 pounds) and possesses offensive instincts – he’s displayed a scoring touch and likes to shoot the puck. He’s somebody the Penguins staff can see competing for a spot in Pittsburgh in the future.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity because I didn’t play last year because of my surgery and all that stuff,” Kuhnhackl said of his approach to this tournament. “It’s great for me to just get back to playing a couple games before NHL camp starts. … I just want to go out there, have fun and play hockey. (The coaches and staff) haven’t said anything yet, I haven’t talked to them. I think that they don’t want to put any pressure on me right now because I didn’t play the last couple years. I think they just want me to go out there, play my game, score a couple goals and we win this tournament.”
“We're looking for big things from Tommy. He's got a big frame. He's a big kid. He's a good athlete. He shoots the puck a ton. We're looking for big things. We need him to make the next step.”
– Bill Guerin
Why should Penguins fans know Adam Payerl? Well, WBS head coach John Hynes said earlier this summer that Payerl could compete for a spot on Pittsburgh’s NHL roster “right now.” And Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald also singled him out as someone who could potentially contribute as a bottom-six forward in the near future, especially with the departure of lineup regulars like Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
Why do the Penguins like him?
“He's big, can skate and can shoot the puck. He bangs, crashes. He's a guy you believe could fill a role on the bottom of the lineup,” Fitzgerald said.
Payerl definitely has an NHL-ready build at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds. He sees himself as a power forward that “will bring a physical element every night, but I think I contribute in all aspects of the game. I think I can fill any role that needs to be.” He has one season of professional hockey under his belt, playing 44 games with WBS and 4 games with Wheeling last year.
He sees this tournament as “an opportunity to make an impression, for sure. I mean, it’s the first real skate since last season, so I think the coaches are expecting a lot of things from myself and a lot of players, obviously.” Especially going into the main training camp next week, where the coaches will be expecting a lot from him there as well.
After signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent the summer of 2012 following his freshman year with Nebraska, Megna had what WBS coach John Hynes called an “exceptional” AHL training camp. He played 56 games with WBS in an injury-shorted season, and like Adam Payerl, he’s another guy that the coaches have mentioned as someone who could potentially contribute in Pittsburgh.
Megna has a decent-sized frame at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, but it’s his speed that makes him such an attractive prospect.
“He’s another one of those guys who made big strides last year,” said player development coach Bill Guerin. “I wouldn't put him as a big numbers guy, but definitely effective. With his speed, he'll give people fits.”
Dominik Uher embraces his role with this organization – to grind opponents down as a bottom-six forward with an energetic, physical presence. “I really want to bring the energy on the ice. I want to bring a physical presence and I want to be responsible with the puck, make good decisions and just focus on that,” he said. Uher is just 20 years old, but played a full professional season in 2012-13 – appearing in 54 games with WBS and 4 with Wheeling. So he may be young, but he is a professional, and the Penguins staff likes what they have seen so far.
“Dom Uher is another guy (that could make an impact). He’s a very young pro. He was one day from being back in junior hockey last year, so his year this year was almost as his rookie year to help him come through the pro side of it. And he’s got one year under his belt.”
– Tom Fitzgerald
Hartzell has seen and shared the ice with everyone in the Penguins organization from the prospects to the NHL players, but has yet to play in real game action with the club. After signing his first contract, a one-year deal, back in April after his season with Quinnipiac ended, Hartzell was eligible to play in regular-season games but not the playoffs since he was signed after the trade deadline. He did not end up seeing any game action with the Penguins. This tournament is certainly an opportunity for him to prove that he is capable of stepping in and winning games for the team.
The Penguins traded up to get Jarry in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft. He is an exciting goaltending prospect, as he posted the lowest goals-against average (1.61) and highest save percentage (.936) in the Western Hockey League (WHL) while suiting up for the Edmonton Oil Kings last season – and assistant director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton said of Jarry,“We see a potential starting goalie. He’s got the technical foundation and the size we think to be a starter. So when he was still available, we asked Ray to make the trade to move up to get him.” He is one of the newest members of this organization and is the only member of the 2013 draft class to be at this tournament, so it will be interesting to see how he performs in one of his first opportunities with the Penguins.