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Pens will count on Bennett, Despres and Bortuzzo next season

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins forward Beau Bennett carries his sticks as players clean out their lockers Sunday, June 9, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

While the Penguins were cleaning out their locker room Sunday at Consol Energy Center, rookies Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Beau Bennett spoke together briefly.

They wouldn't have been out of line to discuss the heavy burden they carry.

With virtually no help imminent from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and numerous veterans potentially leaving via free agency, the trio of rookies will be counted on heavily next season.

“I wish I would have been able to play more than I did this season,” Despres said. “But I think the time will come.”

It most certainly will.

Coach Dan Bylsma said at his season-ending news conference that Despres is “a top-four” defenseman and that Bennett is likely to begin next season “in the top six.”

Give their pedigree — Despres was the team's first-round pick in 2009, and Bennett its top pick in 2010 — and promising performances during the 2012-13 season, there is every reason to believe they will play prominent roles next season.

The same can be said of Bortuzzo. With defensemen Douglas Murray and Mark Eaton about to become unrestricted free agents and Kris Letang's future with the team uncertain because of his impending contract request, Bortuzzo could find himself in a top-six role in a few months.

“I've been working hard to get better,” he said. “There are a lot of great defensemen here, but of course, I want to play.”

The Penguins are banking on these three coming through because little help is on the way.

Two high-ranking Penguins officials said last week that the organization believes only one player at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who was involved in last summer's trade that included Jordan Staal, will be ready to contribute at the NHL level next season.

Dumoulin, a stay-at-home defenseman, saw his stock rise during the season.

The Penguins actually are quite excited about some of their prospects at Wilkes-Barre, namely defensemen Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta, both of whom made their AHL debuts in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's season-ending series against Syracuse.

Harrington, a second-round pick in the 2011 draft, possesses a game the Penguins believe will translate quickly to the NHL. He is a defensive-minded player who reminds some in the organization of former Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi.

Maatta, Harrington's Ontario Hockey League teammate, probably won't be ready for NHL duty next season.

More pressure might fall on Bennett than any of the other young Penguins simply because the organization doesn't boast much in the way of forward prospects at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The franchise's AHL affiliate has enjoyed success in recent years largely because of its supreme blue line talent and a group of veteran forwards that generally may be better suited for the AHL level.

The best forward prospects in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season before the NHL lockout were Bennett and Eric Tangradi, who has been traded to Winnipeg.

The two Penguins officials said the possibility exists that center Adam Payerl, right wing Tom Kuhnhackl, center Jayson Megna, center Zach Sill and right wing Dominik Uher also could play in the NHL in a couple of years. None, though, figures to be ready for the 2013-14 campaign.

With forwards Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Craig Adams set to become unrestricted free agents — Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey will become restricted free agents — a need for Bennett to thrive is clear.

“I've learned a lot,” he said. “I'm ready for the opportunity.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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