It’s a good thing that the Pittsburgh Penguins have a knack for taking quality defensemen in the draft, because their once log-jammed blue line has gone through a pretty massive overhaul the past couple of weeks and is currently being tested on the NHL level.
The future defensive prospects of the Penguins are now finding themselves in meaningful roles on a nightly basis with the big club, for a variety of reasons. This has many Pens fans wondering if the “future is now” for these prospects.
Brooks Orpik, Deryk Engelland and Paul Martin are currently the only “healthy” players on the Penguins defense that wasn’t playing for the teams AHL affiliate team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton earlier this season.
Kris Letang went on the Injured Reserve list this morning with a lower-body injury, and Matt Niskanen, took part of an optional skate with the team this morning, but is still about a week away from seeing game action, as he’s nursing a lower-body injury of his own.
Earlier this week, General Manager, Ray Shero traded Ben Lovejoy to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a 2014 fifth-round pick. During training camp, Shero tried to sneak Brian Strait through waivers. However, the New York Islanders claimed him and placed him on their top defensive pairing. Shero also traded Carl Sneep, a former second round selection, to the Dallas Stars for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft.
All of these moves have created opportunities for guys like Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Dylan Reese to contribute quality minutes at the NHL level this season as the Pens are in a battle for first place in the Atlantic Division.
Earlier today, the Penguins recalled 2011 first-round draft pick, Joe Morrow to join the team for “insurance reasons” because the blue line has taken some bumps and bruises during the compact, 48-game schedule.
Morrow is a first-year pro who was playing third-pairing minutes in the AHL. However, Head Coach Dan Bylsma believes Morrow is ready to play an NHL game. “He (Morrow) can skate. He’s big and he’s a strong guy. He’s highlighted for his shot and his offensive ability and skating ability which is very high-end,” commented Bylsma after the Pens optional skate today.
“He’s also a big-body and a farmer-strong kind of player down low… If Joe Morrow were to get into the game, you’re going to see some power play, you’re going to see his skating ability…” -Dan Bylsma
After being a healthy scratch early on in the year, Despres has really stepped up his game when called upon. The 6’4” 214-pound defenseman has made an impact lately with his speed and offensive capabilities. He has five points (2G, 3A) in ten games this season.
Bortuzzo’s game has also come along nicely. The rugged defenseman has made his presence known the old-fashioned way with gritty positional play. He has agitated top players like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk in recent games.
Reese was called up earlier this week to fill in for Letang and the Pens defense hasn’t missed a beat. Reese has been paired with Despres and is averaging nearly 14 minutes of ice time per game. He is a solid, two-way player and led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defensemen in points.
The Pens have been fortunate they haven’t missed a beat. What was perceived to be a weakness going into the season on paper, has proven to be a steady ship, mainly because they have continually stocked the system with high-end defensive talent. That talent should continue to prove itself well into the future with players like Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Mattaa.
It is apparent that Shero believes in his young defensive corps and that their future is now, or he would’ve found other ways to strengthen his defense.