Defensemen benefit from injuries

| Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011

The Penguins have suffered an inordinate amount of injuries on defense in the first two months of this season, with eight of the top 11 players on the organizational depth chart missing at least one game.

When the dust settles, the big-picture beneficiaries might end up being Carl Sneep and Philip Samuelsson.

If the Penguins were completely healthy, Sneep, a second-year pro, would have been the sixth or seventh defensemen in the pecking order in Wilkes-Barre, and Samuelsson, a rookie, might have spent time with the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers.

Instead, they're playing top-four minutes in all situations in the AHL.

Sneep and Samuelsson, both Boston College products, are big-body, stay-at-home defensemen, and that type of player generally benefits more from minor-league reps than players in other roles. Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik, two more BC alumni who played plenty of minutes during their formative years in Wilkes-Barre, proved that almost a decade ago.

Despres today

As a big, smooth-skating defensemen with the ability to go on an end-to-end rush at a moment's notice, defenseman Simon Despres is one of the more exciting prospects in the Penguins system.

But how close is he to being ready for regular NHL duty?

"He's got a good skill set. He can play at the pace of the NHL, his skating," Baby Pens coach John Hynes said. "I think the areas where he's got to become more NHL-ready is his physical play, being able to play against those types of players night in and night out and defending in the hard areas of the game, and managing his game as far as not trying to do too much. He does have offensive gifts. He can get up and go when he wants to. Now, it's blending when it's the right time to go and when it's not."

The big picture

Top prospects Eric Tangradi, Brian Gibbons and Paul Thompson have been spending time on the Baby Pens' fourth line lately, even though they rank fifth, sixth and eighth on the team's scoring list.

"Points aren't important around here to Coach Hynes," leading scorer Bryan Lerg said. "I've known that long enough."

Bad blood

The rivalry between the Penguins and Capitals organizations is alive and well in the AHL.

After Washington's affiliate, the Hershey Bears, defeated the Baby Pens, 3-2, in a shootout Nov. 25 in Wilkes-Barre, Bears goalie Braden Holtby celebrated by sliding out on one knee past the blue line, pumping his fist all the way.

The Baby Pens objected, and a 40-man get-together ensued at center ice.

"We were just upset, just the showboating," center Zach Sill said. "In our own barn, you don't want that happening."

Canadian hopefuls

The Penguins' first two picks in last June's draft, defensemen Joe Morrow and Scott Harrington, were among 41 players invited to tryouts for Team Canada's World Junior Championships squad last week.

How likely are they to make the team?

According to pundits who follow the process closely, Morrow is a slightly better than 50-50 bet while Harrington is a longshot at best.

Morrow is among Western Hockey League defenseman scoring leaders with 24 points in 22 games for the Portland Winterhawks. Harrington leads the Ontario Hockey League with a plus-21 rating for the London Knights.

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 jbombulieaol.com .

Additional Information:

One to watch: Colin McDonald

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) - Right wing

6-foot-3 - 205 pounds

How acquired: Signed as a free agent, July 2011

How he's doing: McDonald has been the Baby Pens' most consistent offensive player over the past month, posting 15 points and a plus-11 rating in his past 15 games. How he's reached those numbers has been surprising. Last year, McDonald was a pure sniper for Oklahoma City. He led the AHL with 43 goals and was third in the league with 259 shots. This year, he leads the Baby Pens in assists with 13 and has been a strong two-way player, even contributing on the penalty kill.

Why he might make it to the NHL: He has good size and a good shot and is showing he can play a bottom-six type of game.

Why he might not: He doesn't create his own offense or skate particularly well and the Penguins' depth chart up front is crowded.

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