Eaton returns to Penguins' organization
WILKES-BARRE — On the ground floor of the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, on the wall between the home locker room and head coach's office, hangs a 5-by-10-foot photo collage. It features members of the 2009 Penguins' Stanley Cup team who at one time played for the Baby Pens.
Move over Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury, and make room for another picture on the poster.
Mark Eaton, a key shutdown defender for the 2009 title team, signed a 25-game tryout contract with the Baby Pens and is expected to play his first AHL game in almost eight years Friday night in Rochester, N.Y.
Under normal circumstances, the 35-year-old Eaton probably would have drawn interest from NHL teams last summer after his two-year deal with the New York Islanders expired. At the very least, he would have been invited to training camp.
The lockout changed the landscape, however, and Eaton's phone never rang. He needed a place to get into game shape and show NHL teams he was still an effective player. The Penguins offered him a spot in Wilkes-Barre, and he jumped at the chance.
“I know the system here, so it seemed like a logical fit,” Eaton said.
Looking deeper, there are a few more layers to the story.
For one thing, it indicates the Penguins realize a 48-game season is no time for prospects to be learning on the job. Joe Morrow and Brian Dumoulin are talented young defensemen, but they've played zero NHL games. Eaton has played 627.
“I think it does put an onus on experience,” Eaton said. “There are basically two sets of playoffs. Forty-eight games is almost like a playoffs, then you get to the actual playoffs.”
It also gives the Penguins flexibility to move defensive assets to shore up other areas of the roster, whether it's a small move involving a depth player like Ben Lovejoy or a big one involving a top prospect like Simon Despres.
Baby Pens coach John Hynes said he wouldn't be surprised if a deal like that went down.
“It could, particularly based on need, what Pittsburgh needs and what other teams in the National Hockey League need and Pittsburgh has,” Hynes said.
The Eaton signing was one of several moves the Penguins made in the past two days as they tinkered with the middle of their depth chart.
On Wednesday, they signed 34-year-old winger Tom Kostopoulos to an AHL tryout. The Penguins' seventh-round pick in the 1999 draft, Kostopoulos played most of his first five pro seasons with the Baby Pens and is the team's all-time leading scorer. For the past seven seasons, he's been a fourth-line grinder in the NHL with Los Angeles, Montreal, Carolina and Calgary.
“The goal would be to impress Pittsburgh and try to get there,” Kostopoulos said. “If that doesn't work out, hopefully someone else sees. In the meantime, just try to play hard and help this team win a championship.”
On Thursday, the Penguins made two minor trades. First, they sent forward Benn Ferriero to the New York Rangers for winger Chad Kolarik.
Ferriero, 25, signed with the Penguins in July after three promising seasons as a San Jose prospect but managed just four goals in 30 games with the Baby Pens. Kolarik, a 26-year-old Michigan grad, is a winger who has topped 20 goals in all three of his AHL seasons.
“Speedy player, gritty player, has some good offensive talent,” Hynes said.
The Penguins also traded defenseman Carl Sneep to Dallas for a conditional draft pick. Sneep, a 2006 second-round pick out of Boston College, tumbled down the depth chart as the Penguins' top defensive prospects began to turn pro this season.
“He's a good kid,” Hynes said. “He needed a little bit of a change and a different opportunity.”
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 email@example.com.