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Penguins' youngsters Samuelsson, Despres show lots of promise

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 10:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Philip Samuelsson checks the Maple Leafs' Mason Raymond in the third period Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Simon Despres defends on the Maple Leafs' Joffrey Lupui in the second period Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

In the 4½ years since they've joined the organization as part of the same draft class, Penguins defensemen Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson have developed a friendship based largely around being bowling and golfing buddies.

Earlier this autumn in Wilkes-Barre, the duo developed into quite a pairing for the Baby Penguins.

Now, Despres and Samuelsson are playing together in Pittsburgh.

“It's pretty cool I get to play with him up here (in the NHL),” Despres said. “We've been friends for a while now, so it makes it easy to (be paired together).”

Samuelsson made his NHL debut during Monday's 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing 15 minutes, 43 seconds — including 50 seconds of penalty-kill time — over 22 shifts.

The majority of those were alongside Despres, his one-time roommate who was taken 31 picks ahead of Samuelsson in the 2009 draft.

Despres made his NHL debut in December 2011, eliciting coach Dan Bylsma to point out that Despres is the “leader” and experienced veteran of the pairing at age 22.

Despres was born one day after Samuelsson in 1991. But having birthdays so close to one another hasn't made the two hockey soulmates — spending five training camps and significant portions of three seasons playing together has.

“We're pretty good buddies,” Samuelsson said. “We get along off the ice.

“It's obviously nice to have a little familiarity out there, just knowing what I'm going to get out of him.”

Despres and Samuelsson were matched up against opponents' top lines in the AHL through the first six weeks of the season. They also comprised the back end of the Baby Penguins' top penalty-killing unit.

“Those were roles I was certainly pushing for, and it's been a lot of fun trying to do that on a nightly basis,” said Samuelsson, son of two-time Stanley Cup winner Ulf Samuelsson.

Each player has taken tremendous strides since September's training camp.

In the case of the highly skilled Despres, it was proving he was capable of thriving in a more defensive role. Despres had been in uniform for more than two-thirds of Pittsburgh's games last season and had been described by Bylsma as being a “top-four” defenseman in June.

A poor training camp, though, left his status within the organization on shakier ground. His strong play for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton allayed those concerns.

If Despres had to prove he didn't deserve to slip down the Penguins' crowded organizational defenseman depth chart, Samuelsson's objective was proving he was worthy of scaling it.

“Both of them are ahead of where they were last year,” said Matt Niskanen, the Penguins' lone healthy veteran defenseman. “They have obviously put in the work and gotten a lot better.

“With Simon, it's really shown this year. He's played really, really well — responsible, better positioning. And you can see Samuelsson's demeanor on the ice in practice this year. … You can tell there's something different about him. He's got more confidence.”

Bylsma said Samuelsson “has developed the most in our organization of any defensemen in the last three years.”

Having a mentor of sorts who's one day his junior aided that effort.

“No, all the progressing he's been doing has been because of his own hard work,” Despres said. “He's had to (compete with) a lot of good D-men in this organization, so to get a call-up is huge. He's going to hopefully make the most of it.”

Note: Forward Brian Gibbons was recalled from AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins needed a forward because winger Jayson Megna was injured against Toronto on Monday. He won't play Wednesday, Bylsma said.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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