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Kovacevic: These Penguins an inside job

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
USA Today Sports
Penguins center Brandon Sutter (16) celebrates scoring the game-winning goal against the New York Rangers during a shoot out at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK — It's rather unfortunate that, even after all the Penguins' successes over the past decade, the broadly accepted explanation for how they've been built goes something like this:

1. Stink for a couple seasons.

2. Luck into a lottery, and land a couple of otherworldly talents.

3. Fill in the blanks with big-splash deadline trades.

There's no way to accurately count how many times that formula, in some creative form or other, gets cited by hockey pundits and fans across North America, no matter how inaccurate it might be.

Oh, it's not that those three steps didn't happen. But if it really were that simple, someone please offer up how the Edmonton Oilers have been collecting first overall draft picks like Pez dispensers only to have the same rotten stuff spit out every winter.

Better yet, explain how these Band-Aid Baby Penguins have won five in a row after facing down the Rangers, 4-3, by shootout Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, this despite nine emergency recalls from Wilkes-Barre and the greenest of blue lines taking the place of all of the top four defensemen.

“I'll tell you how: There's talent here, and it's all through the organization,” Pascal Dupuis was telling me. “Don't forget, too, that there's been some good talent traded away so that we could give ourselves the best chance to win in the playoffs.”

Fair point. The Penguins' top three wingers — Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and James Neal — were acquired by Ray Shero for players drafted in the top two rounds. He's slick at that sort of thing.

But what we're seeing now is different and encouraging in a new way: Real, live draft picks are making their way to Pittsburgh and performing. The corps again on this night included 2012 first-rounder Olli Maatta, 2009 first-rounder Simon Despres, 2007 third-rounder Robert Bortuzzo and 2009 second-rounder Philip Samuelsson. Power play, penalty kill, you name it.

“It just tells you what a good job our organization has done, from the drafting to the rookie camps to training camps,” Maatta said. “I don't think any of this is some big surprise, to be honest.”

That's very much to the credit of Shero, head scout Jay Heinbuck and player development man Tom Fitzgerald.

I won't lie. I've been tough on Heinbuck and the seven drafts he has overseen under Shero, in large part because it's indefensible to go that long and not produce a single forward of demonstrable worth. Even Beau Bennett, the first-rounder in 2010 and the only one with a viewable shot, has yet to break out.

But there's also a bigger picture at work: Of the 50 picks by Shero and Heinbuck, an incredible 20 have been defensemen. And of those 20, eight have played in the NHL, six of them with the Penguins. Two more, 2012 first-rounder Derrick Pouliot and 2011 second-rounder Scott Harrington, are locks to make it, too.

That'll be half of all the players taken at one position making it, an astonishing rate regardless of how high they were taken.

“First thing I noticed when I came over was all the talent on D,” Brian Dumoulin said. He's a newbie, too, but he was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in the Jordan Staal trade. “I think that's good to have, top to bottom, because it's pushed all of us. We know we have to fight for playing time.”

That's been part of Shero's goal.

“We love to have that competition, that battle for jobs, that battle to stay in Pittsburgh once they get here,” the GM was saying. “And if you're going to have that competition on defense, so much the better. That's where we always want to be strongest organizationally.”

And that, in turn, has been Fitzgerald's charge.

“We realize we've got a lot of defensemen, and our job is to make sure they're on the same page, doing what we do at all levels system-wise,” Fitzgerald said. “We're about taking care of our own end.”

Special credit is due in two cases, especially.

Maatta has become … well, you don't need me to tell you, right?

Here's what Sidney Crosby told me about Maatta: “The kid's good. I mean, really good.”

Yeah, that. The “kid” logged 28 minutes against the Rangers.

How accurate are those Finnish birth certificates?

Despres hasn't been at Maatta's level, but he's been a defensive dynamo compared to previous stints. He finally looks like a keeper. And that, too, is to the credit of the Penguins' staff.

Having failed to get through a message that defense comes first for anyone not named Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in this organization, Fitzgerald, assistant coach Todd Reirden and Wilkes-Barre assistant coach Alain Nasreddine fashioned an unusual plan that prohibited him from participating in the offense.

As in, not at all.

“Simple Simon is what I called him,” Shero recalled with a laugh. “Make the simple play.”

“No power play, nothing,” Despres said. “I've always been a player who feeds off my offense, and they wanted to change that. So they just stopped me and made me become a more responsible player.”

Responsible and even a bit rugged, if you happened to catch that late freakout during a scrum near the New York net. Good for him. About time.

Bortuzzo always has been that type, not to mention something of a hate magnet for opponents. Which is why it was maddening to see Dan Bylsma bury him for 11 of 12 games recently. Behind an ineffective Deryk Engelland, no less.

Maybe some of what we've seen from these baby blue liners will change more than the public's perception.

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