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Penguins season has a familiar look

Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008

ATLANTA -- His title is "assistant general manager," but Chuck Fletcher might as well have "co-architect" etched onto the door to his Mellon Arena office.

Speaking last week on an it-hurts-too-much-not-to-laugh absurdity that is the Penguins' injury epidemic, Fletcher actually labeled his organization as "fortunate."

"Our scouts have done a good job of identifying players and we have a lot of good depth at (AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton)," said Fletcher, whose job responsibilities include stocking the organization's minor-league system.

"We can use any number of guys at any time on a call-up basis."

And they have.

The Penguins recalled forwards Jeff Taffe and Ryan Stone on Wednesday, each of whom coach Michel Therrien said will play tonight against the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena.

Stone is the eighth minor-league player the Penguins have recalled since Nov. 17.

Not counting right wing Tyler Kennedy and defenseman Kris Letang, each of whom became NHL regulars after beginning last season in the AHL, the Penguins recalled 10 minor-league players -- many on several occasions -- during a 2007-08 campaign that became defined by their ability to handle injury-related adversity.

"I thought it was a lot last year," Taffe said. "I've never seen something like this with any other team.

"But I think it's great, in a way -- not that guys get injured, you never want to see that, but that it keeps guys in the American League energized. They see a guy like (forward) Tim Wallace come to Pittsburgh and get an opportunity to play for a championship-caliber team.

"Sometimes you never see that on other teams. It shows this is an organization where you can get rewarded if you work hard."

All bodies being healthy, Therrien would prefer to promote prospects as a reward, but ...

"We're more specific right now," he said. "Like (with) Wallace and Stone, we need some grit on the wall. With Taffe, we need a center. So that's how we made our judgment for the players we've got."

The NHL-proven players the Penguins don't have are the reason this season has turned into "Injury: Reloaded."

High-scoring defensemen Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar were out of the picture before the opening act, and the Penguins again will play tonight without forwards Mike Zigomanis and Max Talbot.

Neither Zigomanis nor Talbot practiced yesterday. Each has an undisclosed injury; Zigomanis has missed six consecutive games, Talbot only one.

The Penguins are 4-6-1 over their past 11 games, and perhaps they haven't played that well since a 3-2 win at Atlanta on Nov. 20. Of course, since then they've lost Zigomanis, Talbot, Kennedy (sprained knee) and defenseman Hal Gill (left shoulder injury).

Therrien said yesterday he "honestly (doesn't) think about (injuries)."

"I don't concentrate much on the players that aren't here," he said. "I concentrate on the players we've got."

The players the Penguins get from their AHL affiliate, which implements Therrien's system, range from Taffe, a veteran seemingly at peace with his professional role as a go-between guy, to Stone, who admittedly struggled to start his AHL season after not earning an NHL roster spot in training camp.

Stone called his promotion yesterday and chance to play tonight "an opportunity (he) wants to make the most of," especially given his slow start at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (6 goals, 12 assists in 18 games).

The Penguins' abbreviated training camp did not allow players such as Stone and free-agent Finish prospect Janne Pesonen, who has recalled then returned on three occasions this season, a typical chance to prove their worth to Therrien.

Of course, that short camp also cost Therrien a chance to evaluate the progress of the organization's first-in-line prospects.

Therrien's thoughts on that reality provided a perfect motto for his club's current injury plight.

"Was it unfair at times• Yes," Therrien said. "But that's what we had to deal with, and we tried to make the best out of it."




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