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Penguins minor league notebook: Defenseman drawing attention with physical play

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

WILKES-BARRE — There's a darkhorse defenseman in the Penguins' prospect pool, and his name is Reid McNeill.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound second-year pro has emerged as a top-four defender for the Baby Pens. His solid stay-at-home game has helped ease the loss of top shutdown performer Philip Samuelsson, who will miss the next three to five weeks with a lower-body injury.

“He's playing big minutes, and he's really been able to establish an identity: physical play, his confrontations, being able to defend,” coach John Hynes said.

When the Penguins picked McNeill in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, he was less than two years removed from a growth spurt that saw him shoot up from 5-foot-6 to 6-foot-2. The team figured he was a long-term project who would need time to get used to his newfound frame.

It hasn't taken as long as expected. McNeill isn't quick or gifted with the puck, but he's rangy and has added snarl to his game. He's effective in hard areas of the ice and is just the eighth defenseman in Baby Pens history to hit double digits in fighting majors in a season.

He's starting to look like a left-handed Robert Bortuzzo.

“You look at the depth chart in Pittsburgh, and it's a pretty deep back end,” McNeill said. “You have to find something to bring that somebody else can't. (Fighting is) definitely a way to get noticed. I know I'm not an offensive defenseman. You just have to play your role.”

Next generation

The Penguins are starting to assemble in Wilkes-Barre the organization's next crop of forward prospects.

In addition to winger Josh Archibald, who scored his first AHL goal in a 2-1 win over Norfolk on March 28, the Penguins have signed Notre Dame senior right wing Bryan Rust and UMass-Lowell junior left wing Scott Wilson to two-year NHL deals.

Rust, a third-round pick in 2010, is probably the furthest along in his development. He is a four-year, two-way contributor at Notre Dame who played for Hynes in the U.S. National Team Development Program before college. Like Archibald, he already has joined the Baby Pens.

Wilson, a seventh-round pick in 2011, emerged on the prospect radar with big numbers as a freshman and sophomore in Lowell. He's not big at 6-foot, 175 pounds, but he has a nose for the net.

Set-up man

Veteran center Andrew Ebbett entered the weekend with a team-record 11-game assist streak, breaking the 10-game mark set by Tim Brent in 2008.

“He's such a true professional,” Hynes said. “I can tell you that if you ask anyone on the team, they'd probably like to be on his line.”

Best behavior

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin has a penalty-minute record that would make Rob Scuderi proud. He has taken just one penalty, a delay of game minor, in 24 games since Jan. 1.

“I think it's a sign of player that's matured and is in control of himself when he's in battle situations,” Hynes said.

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 jbombulie@aol.com.

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