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Injuries could force Penguins to use plenty of defensemen

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 8:09 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Niskanen defends the Devils' Andrel Loktionov on Thurday, Oct. 3, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Tanner Glass defends on the Bruins' Jarome Iginla in the first period Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

The number is 11.

That is how many defensemen Tom Fitzgerald figures could play a game for the Penguins this season.

That number was already at eight for the Penguins in a game against Boston on Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center.

“Over the course of 82 games in this league, come on, you're going to need at least 11 guys who are capable of giving you a game,” said Fitzgerald, the Penguins' assistant to the general manager. “That's why we tell our guys (at AHL affiliate) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to be in a position to earn a call-up. We know we're probably going to need them, but we have enough competition down there where we feel like those guys have to earn a call-up.”

Pierre McGuire, a lead analyst for NBC Sports, said the Penguins are positioned as well as any club to handle defensive injuries.

October tested that opinion.

Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, missed the first nine games because of a right-knee injury. He was four periods into a return when Rob Scuderi — signed in the offseason to form a defense pairing with Letang — was lost to a broken left ankle.

Scuderi had surgery Wednesday and is out indefinitely.

Letang is playing with Matt Niskanen, who upon Scuderi's signing figured he was destined for a trade elsewhere because of the Penguins' salary-cap crunch.

General manager Ray Shero never seriously entertained the notion of moving Niskanen during the offseason. That was partly because assistant general manager Jason Botterill assured Shero there was a way to become cap compliant without making a move.

Also, Shero has long held the view that a playoff contender cannot sacrifice devensive depth unless the return is overwhelming.

Niskanen is a third-pairing defenseman when the Penguins are at full health, but he has played nine games on a top pairing because of the injuries to Letang and Scuderi.

So far, the Penguins have been able to win, and they have done that without turning to prospects in the AHL.

Another injury might not lead to a prospect promotion, either.

Brendan Mikkelson, 26 and an alternate captain with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, is a veteran of 131 NHL games. He signed with the Penguins in the offseason in part to provide a veteran presence for the AHL youngsters and also because Botterill liked his NHL resume.

Aside from Mikkelson, the AHL defensemen who would be called upon if needed are all top prospects.

Brian Dumoulin, acquired as part of the Jordan Staal trade with Carolina in 2012, tops a list that includes former high draft picks Scott Harrington (51st overall, 2011), Philip Samuelsson (61st overall, 2009) and Simon Despres (30th overall, 2009).

Dumoulin's strong performance during the 2013 Calder Cup playoffs led to Fitzgerald describing him as “an NHL player going against AHL players.” A training-camp injury temporarily stalled his progress, but Fitzgerald said Dumoulin is back on track after the opening weeks of the AHL season.

Brooks Orpik, the longest-tenured Penguins player, said training camp made “it impossible not to be aware of all the younger guys.”

More than likely, Orpik knows, a few of those younger guys will play for the Penguins at some point soon.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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