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Lockout keeps Baby Pens 'D' from maturing

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review The Penguins' Simon Despres gets around Anton Zlobin during a scrimmage Saturday, July 14, 2012, at Consol Energy Center.

One to watch

Simon Despres

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) Defenseman


217 pounds

How acquired: First-round pick, 30th overall, in 2009

How he's doing: Despres' numbers — two assists and an even plus-minus rating in 15 games — are a bit misleading. For one thing, he's been used in a shutdown role to help prepare him for NHL duty, playing more on the penalty kill than the power play, for instance. For another thing, one Western Conference scout who has seen him frequently said Despres is much better in the NHL than the AHL. In the minors, he makes mistakes because he has more time and space and tries to do too much. In the NHL, he is forced to act more quickly and as a result, plays a simpler, more effective game. The scout said he expects Despres will be the best of the Penguins' defensive prospects.

Why he might make it to the NHL: He's a minutes-eater with great size and smooth puck skills.

Why he might not: He gets a little fancy at times.

Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 7:24 p.m.

The NHL lockout has had an adverse effect on many people in the hockey world, and somewhere in the middle of that list — way below the vendors and business owners who have seen their livelihoods threatened — are the defensemen on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins roster.

The lockout has forced as many as three defensemen who would have started the season in the NHL — Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres, perhaps — to the AHL.

That has led to a serious ice-time crunch.

Even top prospects such as Brian Dumoulin and Joe Morrow are not immune. Dumoulin, a key piece of the Jordan Staal trade, was a healthy scratch once. Morrow, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft, has watched three games from the press box.

The crunch is felt even harder among less-heralded prospects.

Alex Grant, a 2007 fourth-round pick who led Baby Pens defensemen in scoring last season, has been scratched 11 times. Philip Samuelsson, a 2009 second-rounder, has missed seven games.

It gets worse. Carl Sneep hasn't had the most distinguished two-year pro career, but he has an NHL body at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and he played a game for the Penguins last season as an injury fill-in. Reid McNeill is a 6-6 rookie with the kind of frame general managers dream of. They're both playing for the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers.

“It's been tough,” Dumoulin said. “You gotta bring your ‘A' game, whether it's in practice or in games, to make sure you stay in the lineup.”

The team is increasing the individual instruction young defensemen are receiving in practice.

Last week, Penguins assistant Todd Reirden spent a half-hour working with Dumoulin to improve his wall play.

Sessions like that would occur in a non-lockout season, too, but with Reirden, Dan Bylsma, Tony Granato, Tom Fitzgerald, Bill Guerin and others making frequent trips to Wilkes-Barre, there are more hands on deck.

“We've put an emphasis on trying to acquire a number of NHL-caliber defensemen that need to play and need to be in situations where they can develop,” Reirden said.

Jonathan Bombulie has covered the Baby Pens for the Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached via email at

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