There were no Marc-Andre Fluery’s, Sidney Crosby’s or Evgeni Malkin’s taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 NHL entry draft, but that’s a small price to pay for being crowned top dog of the hockey world. The offseason has been far from boring though, as the team became even better thanks to keen drafting and patience.
The Stanley Cup Champions took a page out of the Super Bowl Champions playbook with the final pick of the first round. Instead of selecting the best overall player remaining, Pittsburgh exercised a defense-first mentality by acquiring burly blueliner Simon Despres.
Standing 6-4 and weighing 215 lbs., Despres has the size and power to move opposing forwards from in front of the net, but he is far from your standard power defenseman. Touted as a hybrid player, the seventeen-year-old French Canadian has the ability to drop down and block a shot or smoothly lead the offensive rush up ice. Playing for the QMJHL’s St. John Sea Dogs, Despres doubled his first year points in his second season with the team and was the number one overall player selected in the 2007 QMJHL draft. Many surmise that Despres can become a Niklas Lidstrom type of player who thrives when it comes to puck control and vision and will always look for the smart play. As a +34 over his two seasons at St. Johns, Despres stood out on a team that was largely on the decline. There are, however, questions about his game.
The knocks on the towering defensemen are that his shot is not NHL caliber yet and his positioning needs serious work in order to reach his full potential. Specifically Despres runs into trouble when it comes to physical play on the defensive side of the puck. The next step for the Penguins first round draft pick is to work on his checking, which may be the main reason why he fell from a projected mid-round first round selection to the 30th overall pick. If Despres is able to improve his shot and physical play to match his puck handling and one-on-one defensive skills, Pittsburgh will soon boast a defensive lineup that will rival the best in the NHL.
The bottom line is that the Penguins drafted a project that has all the skills to become a solid second or third defensemen. With Kris Letang, Alex Gologoski, Ben Lovejoy, and Brooks Orpik all seemingly secured for the future, all Despres will be asked to do is stand his ground on defense and move the puck up ice quickly–both of which play into his strengths. The young first-rounder will probably never be a superstar, but he won’t need to be if the pieces fall into place like Pittsburgh expects. Despres is the perfect fit for the NHL’s best team.
Round two brought much of the same to Pittsburgh when they drafted lanky defensemen Philip Samuelsson of the United States. The son of former Penguin Ulf Samuelsson stands 6′ 3″ and uses every bit of his mass to clear defenders out from his goaltender. If there is one thing that the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins stressed in the draft, it was variety. Samuelsson excels in the areas that Despres lacks in. He brings a heavy shot from the blueline and plays a nearly flawless positional game. The American’s hands, however, need much work, and his offensive game is in question.
The 17-year-old is a defense-first player who comes out of the pile with the puck more often than not. Although not as limited as Rob Scuderi, Samuelsson’s defensive game is very comparable to the ex-Penguin. He still has much work to do, though, before he will ever put on an NHL uniform. Penguins fans should be aware that Samuelsson will be a solid defensemen in the league. Whether he’s wearing a Penguins jersey by the time he gets here is the question.
Good news for Pittsburgh centers came in the third round of the NHL entry draft as the Penguins finally acquired a winger who is a pure goal scorer. There is also some bad news that comes with the selection of Ben Hanowski at pick 63 though. The 18-year-old St. Cloud State commit holds the high-school record for most career points, but he only because of the weak competition he was playing against. While the Minnesota native has stood out in many tournaments and camps against elite players, the knock on Hanowski is that scouts do not know how he will hold up through an entire season of competitive hockey. Pittsburgh does deserve credit for the high risk, high reward selection in Hanowski who was rated as the 35th best prospect in the draft. Of course it’s too early to tell whether the recent high-school graduate is destined for stardom or mediocrity. One thing is certain–Hanowski will need at least three years of hockey at the collegiate level before he is ready to accompany one of the Penguins three super-star centers on an NHL line.
Information on Penguins fourth round draft pick Nick Petersen is scarce, but the wingers point total for the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL jumped from 29 in his rookie year to 90 in his sophomore season. Most scouts say his skating needs work, but his scoring touch is as good as they come. He practically carried the Cataractes through the QMJHL playoffs and became the hype of the post-season by accumulating 22 points in 21 games. It may be a while until Petersen finds a roster spot in The Show but he has demonstrated that he is a quick learner and brings his best hockey in crunch time. Keep an eye on this kid as he could become a prominent player for the Baby Penguins and a suitable role player for Pittsburgh in the future.
The Penguins selected defenseman Alex Velischek with the second round pick they acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Velischek is known as a smooth, do-it-all defenseman who plays with a ‘team first’ mentality. Although measuring at just six feet tall, Velischek uses a long stick to his advantage and is considered an extremely strong skater. The high-school graduate is also a proven winner as he captained Delbarten to two straight New Jersey state championships. The only thing visibly hurting Velischek at this point in time is his size, but it is too early to make an accurate prediction on the future of this young draft pick.
With the 151st overall pick Pittsburgh selected Andy Bathgate of the OHL–grandson of New York Rangers Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate. The center from Belleville Bulls has had recent injury problems and been a non-factor for most of his minor-league career due to his lack of adjustment to physical play. If Bathgate can find a way to skate through the contact and develop his offensive skill into a consistent point flow, then he may have a shot at getting into the NHL. Realistically Bathgate is looking like a career minor league player. Don’t expect to see him in a Penguins uniform.
Viktor Ekbom was the final selection made by the Penguins in the 2009 draft. Ekbom is a typical defensive defenseman who protects the net like it is his baby. He will add depth to any roster he is a part of, but he’s not the type of player who is going to win or lose a game for you. With NHL size, there is always a chance for Ekbom to make it in the Pros, but the facts are that many sixth and seventh round draft picks never see the ice for their parent teams.