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Pens Prospects to Watch

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Of the 22 Penguins prospects at the 2014 rookie tournament, there are a few who could potentially be knocking on the door for NHL games this season (and a couple who have played at least one already). We touched on Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington at development camp in July, and are going to highlight five more players here.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. ADAM PAYERL

Payerl, 23, is one of just two prospects at the tournament with NHL experience (Dumoulin is the other). He played in two games with Pittsburgh last season, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes thinks that experience was important for his development.

“I think his game last year when he got called up and played in Colorado really gave him a boost of confidence,” Hynes said. “He’s really strong and you can see now, particularly in the American League, that he’s using his size and his ability to skate. It’s really an advantage for him and I think he’s knocking on the door that way too.”

At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Payerl has the build to be a power forward in the NHL. His size is his biggest asset and he can use it to create a lot of room for himself and his teammates. But he’s also been working to make sure he can make plays when he has the opportunity.

“(Over the summer I) continued to develop my skills around the net and ability to finish off plays, create offense from below the goal line,” he said. “I think doing that on a consistent basis is what’s going to get me to the next level. I just want to focus on making sure I’m doing that every game.”


2. OSKAR SUNDQVIST

While Sundqvist may not be playing professional hockey in North America, he has been in his native Sweden. He played last season with Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League, helping them win their second-straight league championship by contributing six points (4G-2A) in 13 postseason games.

What makes the 20-year-old an attractive prospect is that he’s already been playing against men on the best team in Sweden’s top league, which means he’s adjusted to the quicker decision- and play-making that comes with bigger and faster skaters.

And he’s certainly got the size to hold his own, as Sundqvist has packed on a whole lot of muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame since being drafted in the third round (81st overall) by the Penguins in 2012. He was at 172 then, and is at 209 now. And while he’s physical, fierce, competitive and plays with an edge, he can also put the puck in the net.

With Sundqvist still undecided on whether he’s going to stay in Sweden for one more year or make the transition to North America now, he's certainly going to be someone the Penguins staff will be keeping a close eye on.


3. DOMINIK UHER

Uher, 21, is the kind of player could fill a bottom-six role in the National Hockey League. He feels he’s developing into a solid defensive player who can chip in offensively as well.

“I think the biggest thing for me is to be consistent at what I’m doing and just trying to be better at it every day,” he said. “The physical play, the skating, and being helpful to my teammates with the energy style of hockey that I play. I think if I just focus on that and bring it night in and night out, that’s going to give me the best chance to make it to the NHL.”

As Hynes said, every player has to have something that separates them. For Uher, it’s his work ethic. That quality is what made the Penguins draft him, has made him improve and develop, and may be what gives him his chance in with Pittsburgh.

“He’s really developed his game from his first year until now,” Hynes said. “He’s a lot stronger on the puck. He’s developed his body and he’s a real difficult player to play against in the sense that he checks hard, he’s a real strong player in the offensive zone and over the last couple years, he’s been able to be a real strong puck possession player down there. He’s a guy you want to have playing against the other team’s best players.”

Another attractive part of Uher’s game is his ability to play shorthanded minutes. He tied for first on the team with three shorthanded goals last season, and is working with WBS assistant coach Alain Nasreddine to continue improving even further.

“The part of his game that’s really taken a step is he’s really developed his penalty kill skills,” Hynes said. “He’s now one of our top penalty killers. There’s been a pretty good track record of the guys that have come through Wilkes-Barre and been involved in that top two or three pair, whenever they’ve gotten called up or when they’ve been up to Pittsburgh, they’ve been able to step right in.”


4. TOM KUHNHACKL

In juniors, Kuhnhackl proved he could score goals. After the Penguins drafted the German native in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Draft, he went on to have a fantastic season with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League – leading the team with 39 goals in 63 regular-season games before posting 11 goals in 18 playoff games.

And while Kuhnhackl’s next two seasons after that were derailed by injuries and a suspension, the coaches know he’s capable of translating his offensive skill to the professional level. And Hynes said what’s going to get the 22-year-old to the NHL is that scoring touch.

“A lot of it with him is he’s a scoring type of offensive player,” Hynes said. “So for us, we’d like to see him stronger on the puck. He’s not necessarily going to score all the time, but when you have the ability to score, we’d like to see him be stronger offensively and more consistent in his game. He has strong work habits and he plays the systems and things well, but each player has to have their gift that gets them to the National Hockey League. For Tommy Kuhnhackl, it’s got to be that offensive skill.”

Kuhnhackl feels that he needs to work on his consistency as well.

"Last year I started off really well. I was one of the last cuts in Pittsburgh," he said. "Started off really well in Wilkes-Barre and then kind of fell into a hole. It was probably because I hadn’t had a lot of games, didn’t play a lot in the years before that because of my injuries and all that stuff. But if I play consistent like I did last year at the beginning, I think I’ll have a pretty good year and can help the team."


5. REID MCNEILL

McNeill, who was taken by Pittsburgh in the sixth round (170th overall) of the 2010 draft, had a breakout season last year. He spent the majority of his first pro season in 2011-12 with Wheeling of the ECHL, appearing in 44 games. He was then a healthy scratch throughout the first half of the 2013-14 campaign before discovering his niche and developing into a key defenseman on the roster. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman started using his size to his advantage, and finished the year with 119 penalty minutes.

“Early on, I didn’t feel like I had a role on the team and I sat out a lot at the start of the year,” McNeill said. “As the year went on, I kind of developed a more physical edge, which was something that some other guys couldn’t bring, and it was something that the team needed. Once I found that and had some confidence in that, my game really took off. Once that happened, it kind of just snowballed and confidence can do a lot of great things for your game. I’m looking to carry that into this camp and into the season as well.”

Another one of McNeill’s strengths is his personality. He’s an incredibly coachable player who, as WBS assistant coach Alain Nasreddine put it, comes to the rink every day looking to get better and is a dream to work with. In addition, McNeill is a beloved teammate who gets along with everyone, doesn’t hesitate to stick up for anyone and enjoys filling a mentor role for younger guys in the room. In juniors, Barrie acquired him from London specifically to do that for 2014 first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad.

“Barrie wanted me to play with him, so they gave up the first overall pick – which ended up being Olli Maatta – to play with Ekblad,” McNeill said. “It was a great experience.”
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