Welcome to the beginning of Summer 2015's annual countdown of the top 25 Pittsburgh Penguins players under 25. Anyone in the organization, from unsigned collegiate draft picks down to NHL stars are eligible to be ranked, so long as they meet the age requirement. With hockey being a young man's game, it's always interesting to rank and keep track of the future. Last summer's ranking is in parenthesis.
#25 (#25) Matia Marcantuoni, C/RW, 21 years old, Wilkes-Barre Scranton (AHL)
The speedy Marcantuoni retains his 25th position in the rankings this summer, after a fairly unimpressive rookie season. With many rookie AHL forwards, Marcantuoni got off to a slow start (0 goals in his first 19 AHL games) and was eventually bounced back and forth from Wheeling of the ECHL to find some playing time. He played better in the AHL as the season went along, and often times one of the biggest jumps in development happens from first to the second season of professional hockey. 2015-16 will probably be a make or break year for Marcantuoni, who still is a very young player. If this player has any sort of longshot NHL potential, he definitely needs to make a big impression and carve out a serious niche in WB/S this season.
#24 (NR) Blaine Byron, C/LW, 20 years old, University of Maine (rising Junior)
Byron, a 6th round pick in 2013, had a great sophomore season at Maine, taking steps forward in goals (from 8 to 12), assists (from 8 to 15) and points (16 up to 27). Unlike a lot of players in the system, he's a skill forward with really good hands. For that reason, he stands out, and as the Trib's Jonathan Bombulie noted after 2015 prospect camp last month: "[Byron] looks bigger than the 6-0, 172 he’s listed at. He’s a clever stick-handler and he protects the puck well in traffic." Byron will return to Maine this fall for his junior season, and with another step-forward season he should be a candidate to turn pro for 2016-17.
#23 (#22) Reid McNeill, Defenseman, 23 years old Wilkes-Barre (AHL)
In his third season as a pro, McNeill played 55 games in the AHL scoring 2 goals and adding 5 assists. Modest offensive numbers are to be expected for this 6'3, 210 pound defensive defenseman that's something of a dying breed in pro hockey. McNeill set a career high with 120 penalty minutes, including 7 fighting majors. McNeil is a good hard-nosed, AHL level defenseman, but beyond that does he offer anything more? The Penguins used 13 NHL defensemen last season and McNeill never really seemed to be on the radar for a call-up. With the team adding Tim Erixon, Adam Clendening, David Warofsky and Steve Oleksey this summer, the WB/S blueline will be crowded. There's always a place for a big, angry defenseman, but McNeill is risked at getting lost in the shuffle yet again.
#22 (#11) Anton Zlobin, Left Winger, 22 years old, Wilkes-Barre (AHL)
Zlobin takes a big dive in the rankings after only playing 6 games in the AHL before his season ended due to a major shoulder surgery. Really tough break for a player to lose out on much of his Age 21 and 22 development, and the timing seemed especially cruel for Zlobin who played very well in the 2014 playoffs (10 points in 15 games) and was generating buzz for his future. Bombulie had the following note from last month's camp: "He looked rusty and a bit unsure of himself coming off shoulder surgery, but there’s something there, a maturity and confidence about his game. He’s been hurt a lot, but I don’t think he should be written off just yet."
We haven't written him off completely yet either, but this is the last year of his entry level contract and is a very critical year for Zlobin to get his professional career back on track in the Pittsburgh organization.
#21 (#21) Tom Kuhnhackl, Right Winger, 23 years old, Wilkes-Barre (AHL)
Quite the career track for the former Penguins 4th round 2010 draft pick. Kuhnhackl had his best season to date in 2014-15, setting career highs in the AHL for games played (72) goals (12), assists (18) and points (30). More impressively was how he did it- reinventing himself from his past as mainly a scoring winger, to turn into an grinder/energy player on what became a very effective 3rd line in WB/S with Dominik Uher and Carter Rowney. Kuhnhackl's season was enough to earn him another contract for this season. He could be a dark horse injury call-up to the NHL this season, should he get off to a good start down in the minors, now that he's showing that he can excel in a lower line role and play more of a two-way game.
#20 (#18) Dominik Uher, Left Winger, 22 years old, Wilkes-Barre (AHL)
Ironically, Uher had a fine 2014-15 campaign, but ended up dropping in this summer's Top 25. Uher made his NHL debut (scoreless in 2 games) during a particularly injury/mumps plagued portion of the season. Uher also improved his AHL stats going from 7 to 13 goals and 23 to 26 points down in WB/S. Uher is a good, hard-working, honest type of winger. He's far from a game-breaker, but he can eat some minutes and is good along the walls and at winning pucks. He started his pro career at a very young age (this is the beiginning of his 3rd season), and should be under consideration for an NHL call-up during the season if Pittsburgh needs a prototypical hard-working, physical 4th line winger.
Can Uher produce more points in the AHL? His ceiling seems about reached as a grinder who probably isn't good or consistent enough for full-time NHL play. But, as we said, he's still a very young player and may have some more development in him. Proving he can produce more in the AHL could open some eyes and earn him another shot at the NHL.