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Penguins' young defensemen could push for NHL spot

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Matia Marcantuoni (left) tries to fend off Derrick Pouliot during the Penguins' development camp on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

It's finally showtime.

The Penguins acquired talented defensemen Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Harrison Ruopp on the same night largely because they believed the foursome could not only form a future foundation on the blue line, but also because it could mesh nicely with the team's stars.

Fifteen months after the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at Consol Energy Center, Penguins management can actually gauge its work.

Training camp opens Wednesday, and while many positions on the Penguins' roster are set, curiosity regarding the precociousness of the team's top defensive prospects remains. None participated in an NHL training camp because of last year's lockout.

“I know they're going to be nervous because they're kids and a lot is expected of them,” Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “Maybe, at times, they're going to look like kids. But we are excited about them.”

The time has come for the Penguins' system to develop more NHL players. Last season, general manager Ray Shero took advantage of a favorable salary cap situation by adding veterans Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen.

Such trades don't seem likely this season, not with the Penguins currently over the salary cap.

“Last year gave us an opportunity to add depth on top of depth,” Fitzgerald said. “This year, yes, it is different. The cap situation is so much different. It's our job, as an organization, to give (Penguins head coach) Dan (Bylsma) players he is comfortable with.”

Fitzgerald believes the organization's work with young players — defenseman Scott Harrington and forwards Jayson Megna and Adam Payerl are the other headliners — will pay off.

The Penguins traded five draft picks during Shero's 10-day trading binge last spring and also dealt top prospect Joe Morrow. A couple of the Penguins' other top prospects, forward Beau Bennett and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, saw significant time in Pittsburgh last year.

That this group is finally sharing the ice with the likes of centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could make a world of difference.

Pouliot, specifically, hasn't dominated in rookie scrimmages or prospects camp. But then, the puck-moving defenseman has never been surrounded by great talent.

“And that's the thing with him especially,” Fitzgerald said. “A player like Derrick should look better while playing with great players.”

Fitzgerald said “it wouldn't be a shock at all” if Pouliot or Maatta starts this season in the NHL. Dumoulin's chances of making the team might be even stronger. He was acquired in a trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina.

“He looked like an NHL player playing against rookies in the rookie tournament last week,” Fitzgerald said. “Trust me, he stood out to everyone.”

Starting Wednesday, Dumoulin and the others get their time to shine, knowing full well that an NHL player on the roster will be traded before Oct. 3 so the team becomes cap compliant.

“These kids are good,” Fitzgerald said. “I won't be shocked if one of them pushes us to make more than one move. They'll get their chance in the exhibition games to show what they've got.”

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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