Penguins minor league report: Samuelsson shines

| Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011

As he struggled through a September rookie tournament in Ontario, there were whispers that defenseman Philip Samuelsson might have made a mistake by leaving Boston College and turning pro after his sophomore season.

Two months later, it looks like the Penguins' second-round pick in the 2009 draft probably made the right call.

Samuelsson has been solid in his first six games, using his 6-foot-2, 198-pound frame to play dependable, stay-at-home defense. He's a plus-2.

"I've never really had good starts," Samuelsson said. "It takes me a while, especially in a new place. But once I get used to the pace, I can hopefully be a pretty good player at this level."

There are still bumps in the road ahead for the son of former Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. He has made some rookie mistakes amid the increased speed of the pro game, and playing time is getting harder to come by as the team's defense corps gets healthy. But he seems to be on the right track.

"His game has taken a 180," coach John Hynes said. "He's been in with (assistant coach Alain Nasreddine watching) video. He works hard every practice. A lot of his improvement comes through his own intensity of effort."

Power play guy

The Penguins' power play has been one of the 10 best in the NHL this season, but if it struggles, there might be a spark waiting in Wilkes-Barre. Veteran forward Jason Williams has been a boon for the Baby Pens playing the right point. In the five games Williams missed with a groin injury, the power play limped along at a 12.5 percent clip. In four games with him, it's at 22.7 percent.

Turnaround II

After a 5-4 overtime loss to Binghamton on Oct. 15, Brad Thiessen was saddled with a 1-2 record and .866 save percentage -- hardly numbers befitting the reigning AHL Goalie of the Year. He bounced back to win his next four starts, stopping 105 of 110 shots -- a .955 save percentage.

"I had one game I wasn't happy with," he said. "Got that out of the way and have been able to be pretty consistent lately."

Trade winds

Tom Kuhnhackl, the Penguins' fourth-round pick in 2010 and one of the organization's top prospects on the wing, was traded in the Ontario Hockey League this week. He went from the Windsor Spitfires, who are rebuilding, to the Niagara Ice Dogs, who figure to be a playoff team, for a package of picks and prospects.

Milestone win

The Wheeling Nailers became the first ECHL team to record 800 victories with a 6-4 win over the Trenton Titans on Sept. 29.

The franchise is one of the original five in the ECHL. First known as the Thunderbirds, the club played in Winston-Salem, N.C., during the league's first four seasons before moving to Wheeling in 1992 and being christened the Nailers in 1996.

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 at jbombulie@aol.com.

Additional Information:

Player to watch

Simon Despres

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)

Defenseman

6-foot-4, 225 pounds

Acquired: First-round pick, 30th overall, in 2009 draft

How he's doing: Having turned 20 about three months ago, Despres is one of the youngest players in the American Hockey League and, as such, his development process is still in its infancy. He scored his first pro goal in dramatic fashion Oct. 22, blasting home a slap shot as the trailer on a 3-on-2 break in Hershey. Still, expect more of a gradual, Alex Goligoski-style apprenticeship (96 AHL games) than a Kris Letang-style quick rise to the NHL (10).

Why he might make it to the NHL: He's got a long, effortless stride and the ability to go end to end to create a scoring chance. He's got NHL size, too.

Why he might not: Despres might struggle playing the structured style the Penguins expect from their defensemen. That's not something he was asked to do in junior hockey.

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