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For Pens prospects, crowded blue line

| Friday, July 13, 2012, 11:40 p.m.
The Penguins' Scott Harrington during development camp at Consol Energy Center July 13, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Penguins prospect Scott Harrington noticed an immediate difference from last year's camp.

“There are definitely a lot more defensemen,” he said, “and good defensemen at that.”

A second-round pick in 2011, Harrington has joined a dozen other young defensemen this week at Consol Energy Center for the Penguins prospect development camp. It's his second time at the weeklong workouts that end today with a 3 p.m. scrimmage that's free to the public.

A year ago, there were nine blueliners. And of them, few were high draft picks. But this time there are four first-round picks and three seconds.

The ice around Harrington seemed more crowded.

“Regardless of the competition, it's important to have a good camp,” he said. “But with the talent level so high this year, it's even more important that you leave a good impression on the coaching staff.”

At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, the 19-year-old from Kingston, Ontario, has grown and matured since last summer, when he first grabbed coaches' attention. A first-team all-star for OHL champion London, Harrington has been chosen for the Canada-Russia Challenge next month in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Our scouts and our management have done a great job of building a lot of blue-chip prospects for us to work with,” assistant coach Todd Reirden said.

The Penguins intentionally have stockpiled young defensemen. They chose 11 in the past four drafts and traded for two others. With them now sharing the ice, the positional depth becomes obvious.

“It's incredible, actually,” said Joe Morrow, the Penguins' first-round pick in 2011. “Everybody's pretty evenly matched. I try to do my best to stand out, but it's harder than I expected.”

The Penguins used this year's first-round picks on defensemen: Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta. Also at camp is 2009 first-rounder Simon Despres, a favorite to begin this season on the NHL roster. But just as talented are the second-rounders.

“It's pretty deep, but I don't think it scares anyone,” said Pouliot, chosen eighth overall in June's draft. “It's good competition and makes you fight that much harder for a spot on the team.”

Their development is crucial, and the Penguins had almost as many coaches as players taking part in Friday's defensive practice.

“I've watched all of them play on video,” Reirden said. “Now I get to see them and mold them into Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen. Certainly there's a lot to mold there.”

Pouliot, 18, and Maatta, 17, certainly fit the team's style and system. Reirden praised the composure of both and describe their mobility as “high-end.”

“We wanted to make sure we put an emphasis on defensemen that are mobile (and) can defend,” Reirden said, “and can take the place of some of our older defensemen as we move forward here.

“We've got an outstanding group of forwards in place. We've got to make sure they get the puck.”

But not all can be future Penguins. Some will never reach expectations. Others will be traded. That has prospects wondering who goes where.

“Hockey's a business, and trades are a huge part of hockey,” Morrow said. “We do have a lot of defensemen, and something's bound to happen sooner or later, whether it be me or anybody in this room. You never know if you're safe or not, but you try to come out here, do your best and solidify a spot in the organization.

“That's what I'm trying to do, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here.”

Note: The Penguins signed forward Benn Ferriero to a one-year, two-way contract worth $700,000 at the NHL level. Ferriero, 25, has spent parts of the last three seasons with for the San Jose Sharks.

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at charlan@tribweb.com.

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