Young Penguins defensemen hope to make impact at NHL level
Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland are gone.
Olli Maatta probably won't be fully recovered from shoulder surgery when the regular season begins.
The door is open for the Penguins' much-hyped young defensemen to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL. And they know it.
“I think we're pretty fortunate to be the first guys that the new coaches see,” said defenseman Scott Harrington, who will attempt to make the Penguins' roster during training camp in September.
“We get to showcase ourselves. This is an opportunity for us.”
One of the blue-chip defensemen in the Penguins' system —Derrick Pouliot — also probably won't be ready for the start of the season because of shoulder surgery.
Harrington and Brian Dumoulin, who was drafted by general manager Jim Rutherford in Carolina, will be expected to challenge for a roster spot.
Dumoulin did not look out of place during a brief stint in the NHL last season.
“I feel like I'm ready,” he said. “But I can get better come training camp. I need to keep developing, no matter what happens.”
There once was a time when some of the young defensemen in the Penguins system became discouraged because of the franchise's exceptional depth at the NHL level. Even though the Penguins added a high-profile defenseman in Christian Ehrhoff earlier this month, the sense of opportunity hasn't been diminished among the young players.
“You have to stay positive,” Dumoulin said. “If I make this team, he's (Ehrhoff) one more guy with NHL experience that I can learn from. You can never have enough guys like that. Niskanen, Orpik and Engelland taught me a lot of things when I went back down to Wilkes-Barre. I think of this situation as being a positive. But I'm going to use it as motivation.”
Many of the Penguins noted after Tuesday's workout that their early observations of Johnston's system are that it is more “simple” than former coach Dan Bylsma's.
This is no surprise, as many players, particularly defensemen, found Bylsma's system complex. While they no longer need to concern themselves with that system, some words from the former regime still hold true for Harrington, who was a second-round selection in 2011.
He was instructed to stop stressing about the long road to the NHL because of all the top-notch defensemen in the organization. Harrington recalled an exit interview before summer with the former coaches.
“They said that if you (worry about it) that it can affect your day-to-day life and your play,” he said.
The competition for roster spots on the blue line figures to be more intense than ever come September.
A dark horse for playing time will be defenseman Harrison Ruopp, who was acquired in a trade for defenseman Zbynek Michalek two years ago.
“Some guys left, but there are still so many great defensemen here,” he said. “But that's OK. My goal is to play in Pittsburgh someday, and I'm just going to keep pushing myself.”
Dumoulin and Harrington increased their stock in the organization with strong play during the postseason, helping Wilkes-Barre/Scranton reach the conference finals.
Dumoulin will enter training camp with likely the best opportunity of any youngster to make the roster. He won't, however, take anything for granted.
Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Ehrhoff, Robert Bortuzzo and Rob Scuderi essentially are assured roster spots. That leaves at least one opening, and possibly two if Maatta is unavailable to start the season.
“I'm pushing myself as hard as I can, and it starts here in this camp,” Dumoulin said. “I can't slack off now.”