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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Diving Into the Forward Prospect Pool by @ExcitedBobErrey

A combination of the losses from free agency during the last offseason, the lowering of the salary cap preventing Ray Shero from filling out his bottom 6, and injuries to the players that were signed has led to a lot of young, unfamiliar faces finding a spot on the Penguins at forward at times this season. Injuries to Beau Bennett, James Neal, Chuck Kobasew, Matt D'Agostini, and Tanner Glass have opened the door for Wilkes-Barre players to see game action and make an impression. At the same time, it gives a look into how the Penguins have fared at developing the forward position. There are veteran AHL players like Chris Conner and Andrew Ebbett that have been able to work their way into the lineup, but there are also Shero NCAA and CHL undrafted signings like Jayson Megna, Zach Sill, and Brian Gibbons. What we haven't seen among the forward call ups is a Shero draft pick.

There also hasn't been anybody remotely resembling a high-end offensive prospect called up this season. In fact, there haven't been very many since Ray Shero took over. After picking Jordan Staal #2 overall in 2006, the only offensive player who fit the bill as a top forward prospect is Beau Bennett, and while he has flashed elite skills during his short stay in Pittsburgh he still has his work cut out for him to realize his potential. The rest of the forwards taken in the Shero drafts have been players with upside that never put it together or, for the more recent drafts, the jury is still out on. Ray Shero has presided over 8 drafts in Pittsburgh since becoming the GM, but outside of Staal's 507 games played, the rest of his draft picks have combined for 166 games played at forward in the National Hockey League: 100 by Dustin Jeffrey, 35 by Luca Caputi, 26 by Beau Bennett, and 5 by Ben Hanowski.

This isn't meant as a knock on Shero, who has invested his high draft picks in mobile defensemen with good puck skills and has done an excellent job doing so, but eventually the roster depth needs to be developed throughout the lineup, not just the blue line. While young defensemen with offensive talent are always going to be a valuable commodity, they aren't always going to bring back a James Neal in a trade. They won't always net a Chris Kunitz and a good prospect, even if the potential there was never realized. Eventually the talented young forward needs to be brought up through the system, even if that means passing on a highly rated two-way defenseman. Eventually the team needs to take a Brandon Saad or a Filip Forsberg with a high pick when they're in a position to do so and be able to plug the holes from within, instead of relying on the revolving door of fringe NHLers that has seen Mike Comrie, Matt D'Agostini, and Chuck Kobasew get minimum wage deals and Zach Boychuk and Cal O'Reilly get waiver wire tryouts. These players haven't just been roster filler either; Comrie, Boychuk, and O'Reilly all got playing time in the top 6, and D'Agostini and Kobasew were brought in to be 3rd line players with the potential to play with Crosby or Malkin if injury necessitated it.

There will always be holes in the lineup in a league with a salary cap, but the truly great teams are the ones who can plug the holes through their organizational depth with players on cheap entry level contracts, not by continuously rolling the dice on cheap, low risk and low reward type players. This is even more important when so few players dominate the cap dollars like they do in Pittsburgh. There's a very big gap in the top 6 and bottom 6 for the Penguins, and it doesn't take much more than a look at the salaries to see that. 6 forwards have an AAV of $3 million or higher (Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz, Dupuis, and Jokinen), while all but Jokinen are above $3.7 million. Brandon Sutter has an AAV of $2.067 million, but after that every other forward on the roster makes $1.1 million or fewer, with everyone besides Tanner Glass under $1 million. That's an incredibly top heavy team, and one that doesn't have much benefit of entry level contracts or cheap second deals either. Those first 6 players account for cap hits totaling $32.875 million this season, and even accounting for Carolina picking up the tab for $900k of Jokinen's contract that still leaves those 6 players at half of the team's $64.3 million salary cap.

The Chuck Kobasews and Matt D'Agostinis of the world aren't going to plug the holes in the bottom 6. Neither are AHL vets like Chris Conner and Andrew Ebbett. Jayson Megna has played well in spots in his limited action with Pittsburgh so far this year, including some time on the 2nd line, but he turns 24 in February and it's safe to wonder whether he can ever turn into anything more than a 3rd line player, although him carving on a niche on the 3rd line would be something this team could greatly use. Brian Gibbons and Zach Sill are already 25 and unlikely to prove to be answers to the team's bottom 6 questions going forward. The prospect pool further down the road doesn't offer a lot of promise at the forward position either.

The above table is the Pittsburgh organizational depth as broken down by Hockey's Future. On the defensive side there are some strong prospects that offer hope about the next generation of Penguins blue liners, but there's nowhere near as much optimism at forward. Hockey's Future breaks down their prospects on a 1-10 scale based on their realistic potential if everything goes well while also assigning A-F grades for how likely the prospect is to reach that potential. For forwards, a 7.0 rating means a 2nd line potential, while a 6.0 corresponds to a potential 3rd liner. The C rating is listed as "may reach potential, could drop 2 ratings" while a D rating is "unlikely to reach potential, could drop 3 ratings". That's not promising for a group mostly rated at best as unlikely to develop into a 2nd line player while also being likely to max out as average-above average AHL players.

Grading prospects is an inexact science, as elite prospects can bust and lightly regarded prospects can turn into stars, but it's concerning that outside of the top 6 the forward position could be left looking so poor both now and down the road. It's no coincidence that this team was at its best when it could follow up the Crosby and Malkin lines with the best 3rd line in hockey, and it's imperative that Ray Shero work to build that 3rd line back into a unit that can win hockey games. It's unlikely to happen overnight, but it can start at the next NHL draft. With the organizational depth on defense in both the NHL and beyond, along with the lack of depth in the bottom 6 and elsewhere in the organization, it might be time to switch gears with the draft philosophy and start targeting offensive talent with the high draft picks. If Shero picks a forward in the 1st round in the 2014 draft and lets him develop with 2 years of junior hockey and a year in the AHL before cracking the NHL lineup, then that player will be joining a Pens team after Pascal Dupuis' contract expires and in the last year of Chris Kunitz's deal. While there should be more cap dollars available to plug holes in free agency, free agency has proved to be a very inefficient way to use that money as teams continue to re-sign their best free agents and more marginal players are given the chance to cash in. Entry level contracts give 3 years of completely controlled salary and a minimum of 7 years of control through restricted free agency. Comparing the two options, and it's a no-brainer as to which would benefit the team the most. It's time to start building the forward pool for the future instead of just relying on patching the holes in the lineup today.

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