It has been brewing for several years, and now a shift in the Penguins’ organizational makeup on defense is tangible — and, by all accounts, welcome.
It doesn’t mean that Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang or veteran Paul Martin need to squirm. The new wave of young defensemen who seemingly are upwardly mobile is not likely to have a huge effect on the team’s NHL roster immediately — but there could be some impact this season.
Six defensemen taking part in the development camp last week at Consol Energy Center, ranging in age from 18 to 21, are among the Penguins’ top prospects. At least one or two have a shot at making their NHL debut in 2013-14. A few could be expected to play regularly at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. One or two could wind up back in junior hockey, but still solidly on the club’s radar.
“I think everyone is certainly progressing in the way the Penguins want everyone to play,” said Philip Samuelsson, the most experienced of the group with two seasons in the AHL on his resume.
“Everyone is having good junior seasons or good American League seasons. The [defensive] core is looking pretty promising for the future.”
Samuelsson was a second-round draft pick in 2009. Three other Penguins draft picks are among the six: Scott Harrington (second round, 2011), Derrick Pouliot (first round, 2012) and Olli Maatta (first round, 2012).
The Penguins also have high hopes for Brian Dumoulin, 21, who was acquired a year ago in a trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina and played for Wilkes-Barre last season; and Harrison Ruopp, 20, obtained a summer ago in a trade that sent defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix.
Those six can expect to be back for the Penguins’ main training camp in September.
“Hopefully, I’ll push for a spot here in Pittsburgh. I want to do everything I can to be ready for that,” said Pouliot, who expects tough competition.
“Those guys are competing for jobs, too. You’ve got to look at it in a positive way. It will push me to be better, too.”
While the NHL roster seems cluttered, salary-cap considerations could lead to a trade before the start of the regular season. It’s different in Wilkes-Barre, where spots are open after the departure of defensemen Joe Morrow, Dylan Reese, Alex Grant and Joey Mormina.
Harrington, a stay-at-home defenseman with good puck-moving skill, served as captain with London of the Ontario Hockey League. A teammate and sometime partner was Maatta, a strong skater and versatile defenseman. They helped the Knights win the OHL title and advance to the Memorial Cup tournament. Pouliot, an offensive defenseman, helped the Portland Winterhawks win the Western Hockey League championship and also advance to the Memorial Cup series.
After their playoffs, those three joined Wilkes-Barre in the AHL Eastern Conference final. Maatta played three games, Harrington two and Pouliot one.
“We wound up putting them in some pretty important games,” said Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes, running the on-ice portion of the camp. “They did a nice job.”
It gave the junior players a good indication of what they can expect in pro hockey.
“That was a great experience,” Harrington said. “The third round of the AHL playoffs, it doesn’t get much more competitive than that.”
Harrington, 20, seems like nearly a lock to at least land a spot with Wilkes-Barre. A couple of the younger players with junior eligibility remaining could get squeezed out.
“It always was a dream to play in the NHL, and I’m going to do my best to make the team, and, hopefully, I will, but it’s tough for a 19-year-old defenseman to make the team,” said Maatta, who called himself an “all-round” defenseman who can fill several roles.
“I don’t mind playing another year in London. That would be a good experience, getting better and getting stronger there.”
Hynes puts Dumoulin in the same category as the three junior players.
“The four of them are special players,” he said.
Dumoulin, who was a first-year pro coming out of Boston College, called himself “a two-way defenseman” and said he grew more comfortable and felt more consistent over the course of last season.
Ruopp, 20, is a physical, defensive defenseman who was a third-round pick by Phoenix in 2011 and has spent the past four seasons with Prince Albert of the WHL.
Samuelsson, who turns 22 next Friday, is at a point where he will either be an AHL veteran or an NHL rookie expected to learn and be steady.
“Anytime you’re going to move on, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up,” Samuelsson said of a potential NHL debut. “That’s something I’m prepared to do — come in and fight for ice time and earn everything you’re given. I think you can take anything you can learn and try and pass it on to the younger guys, be a mentor and, at the same time, be mentored by older guys.”