In the ever-changing sports world, where teams are affected by free agency, trades and roster turnover, countless changes can happen over the course of just one year. For the defensive prospects in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, those 365 days could make a huge difference. Going into last season, the depth chart along Pittsburgh's blueline was pretty much set. Kris Letang, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Oprik, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Robert Bortuzzo were entrenched among defensive corps and that was before first-round draft pick Olli Maatta made the big club out of training camp. The numbers game up in Pittsburgh even forced the coaching staff to skate eight-year pro Deryk Engelland at forward, let alone have a spot open or two for a prospect on the rise.
Ironically, injuries decimated the blueline for Pittsburgh such that players like Simon Despres spent extended time with the Penguins and Briand Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson also made their NHL debuts. This off-season though has a different feel along the backline. There is still plenty of depth among the defensemen in the organization, but with Maatta and fellow first-round pick Derrick Pouliot both working their way back injuries this summer, there is a sense of opportunity among the young defensemen for the Penguins. The next defensemen perhaps ready to make the jump are Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Reid McNeill.
Dumoulin came to the Penguins by way of a draft day trade in 2012 and has followed the path expected of the former second-round selection of the Carolina Hurricanes. During his rookie season in 2012-13, the former Boston College star and two-time NCAA Champion was tied for the lead among team defensemen with 24 points (6G-18A) in 72 games. He followed that up last year with a 21-point effort (5G-16A) in just 53 contests, while also appearing six games for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dumoulin also showed to be a prime-time player in the postseason. His 12 points (3G-9A) in the Calder Cup Playoffs were tied for first on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as the team made its run to the Eastern Conference Final. After proving himself at the AHL level, Dumoulin will be working hard this summer to try and find a more permanent role in Pittsburgh
"“It’s causing me to push myself even harder this summer knowing that there’s an opportunity for me,” Dumoulin told penguins.com earlier this week. “They’re not going to just give it to me. I have to earn it. It’s what I do from now until training camp is what will determine whether I have a better or lesser opportunity.”
Also a highly-touted prospect hoping to earn playing time in the NHL is Harrington. As a rookie with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2013-14, Harrington was the only player to skate in all 76 regular season games and appeared in all but one of the Penguins' 17 playoff contests. A steady two-way defenseman who put up five goals, 19 assists and a +9 plus-minus rating last year, Harrington also impressed with his leadership ability in a veteran-laden locker room despite turning only 21 on March 10. It is those qualities on and off-ice the ice that made a Harrington a two-time captain with London (OHL) and helped lead the Knight to back-to-back league championships. It also those characteristics that may help him become a mainstay in the Pittsburgh line-up in the future. Harrington, however, is focused firmly on the present.
"I think every year you just go to camp and try to play your best hockey and then see what happens from there," Harrington said. "I think that if you look too far ahead, it might psyche you out."
Emerging from the slew of defensive prospects is third-year pro Reid McNeill. The 6-4, 204-pound blueliner has had a more deliberate path through the ranks. Selected by the Penguins in the sixth round (170th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, McNeill's first taste of pro hockey came with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL in 2012-13. He skated in 44 matches with the Nailers, posting six points (2G-4A) and 90 penalty minutes before joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton late in the season and dressing for 12 playoff games. McNeill blossomed this past season. Starting of the year as the sixth or seventh d-man on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's depth chart, McNeill worked his onto the top pairing and played huge minutes for the Penguins under Head Coach John Hynes. Known as defensive defenseman, McNeill brought a toughness and edge as evidences by his 11 fighting majors and 119 PIM over 55 games last season. It is that physicality that could find McNeill a spot in the NHL some day.
"As the year went along, I kind of built [the physical play] into my game," said McNeill. "That's a different element that I can bring. I'm just trying to find different elements that set me apart from all the first and second-round draft pick [defensemen]. I have to work for my ice and I'm going to continue to do that."
If and when opportunity arises with Pittsburgh for these players is still to be determined, but until then, Dumoulin, Harrington and McNeill will patrol the blueline for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and act as the backbone for defense group that once agains looks to be one of the best in the American Hockey League.
Mark Recchi, who was named the Penguins new Player Development Coach on Friday, was behind the bench with Alain Nasreddine for Team Black. Wheeling Head Coach Clark Donatelli handled duties with Penguins Goaltender Development Coach Mike Buckley for Team White.
Observations from the scrimmage:
- Kasperi Kapanen displayed why he was the 22nd overall pick in this year's draft. The puck finds him in the offensive zone. In the first period, he controlled the puck for almost the entirety of shift, while dishing off to linemates anad almost scoring on a wraparound attempt himself. Bill Guerin had high praise for Kapanen, say he was even better than expected
- Adam Payerl and Jake Guentzel were two of the most impressive in the first period. Payerl continues to grow into his power forward role and was able to his size and strength repeatedly to control the puck against defenders. He also showed good speed in beating a defenseman to the front of the crease and tapping in Matia Marcantuoni's centering pass. Guentzel showed why he was named to the NCHC All-Rookie Team in his first year at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He used his speed and stickhandling to set up several chances.
- In the second period, the line of the Payerl, Matia Marcantuoni, Troy Josephs took over. They were able to the get cycle going in the offensive zone and get pucks toward the net. Josephs scored twice and also netted the deciding tally in the post-scrimmage shootout. If Development Camp is a time for prospects to make a name for themselves, the 2013 seventh-round pick who skates for Clarkson University did exactly that.
- Conor Sheary showed great hands on a penalty shot opportunity in the first period. The rookie out of UMass-Amherst went double deke before slipping a forehand past college teammate Stephen Mastalerz.
- Scott Wilson showed off a wicked wrist shot rattled off the top corner iron and into the net.
- The most seasoned of the goalies in attendance this week, Matt Murray not surprisingly had another solid performance in net today.
- Great crowd at CONSOL Energy Center this afternoon with 6,500 in attendance to take in the scrimmage.
Brian Dumoulin Audio
Reid McNeill Audio
Scott Harrington Audio
Bill Guerin gave his thoughts on the scrimmage today, while having some fun with the media, as he often does. He had high praise for Kapanen and Payerl and spoke of what Recchi will bring to the Penguins organization.
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