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Penguins boast plenty of young talent on defense

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Alain Nasreddine can barely contain his excitement.

As the assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton whose focus is working with the defensemen, Nasreddine is enthusiastic about the thought of working with a projected group of defensemen that's brimming with some of the NHL's top prospects at the position.

"I've always enjoyed working with a younger D," the fourth-year assistant coach said. "Now being put in a position to be dealing with guys with that much talent -- talent that I never had as a player -- it's pretty nice."

Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington form a quartet of blue-line prospects that's likely unmatched across the NHL. None of the four is older than 21, and each was a first- or second-round draft pick. All are projected for top-four NHL roles at some point -- it's just a matter of when.

Bill Guerin marvels at the maturity of almost-19-year-old Olli Maatta. (Photo: Getty Images)

In some organizations, any one of Dumoulin, Pouliot, Maatta or Harrington would be the hands-down No. 1 prospect on defense. With the Penguins, they're jockeying for position on the depth chart behind a deep group of eight defensemen signed to NHL contracts with Pittsburgh.

"We're very happy; we're all thrilled at what we have coming through the system on the back end," Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. "We feel very, very comfortable with the talent that we have on the back end and feel that's our strongest position."

Maatta, a month shy of his 19th birthday, is destined for a third season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League -- unless the 22nd player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft makes the Penguins roster out of camp.

His teammate with the Knights, Harrington, is eligible to play in the American Hockey League for the first time and is expected to begin this season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He was the Penguins' second-round pick (No. 54) in 2011.

Maatta and Harrington helped their team to the OHL championship and Memorial Cup tournament berth, where they twice faced Pouliot's Portland Winterhawks. Pouliot was the Memorial Cup's top scorer among defensemen with seven points in five games, and Portland advanced to the final.

A few days after their duties for the junior teams ended, the threesome joined forces for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL Eastern Conference Finals.

"We wound up putting all three in some pretty important games -- Games 5, 6 and 7 of the conference final -- and they did a nice job," Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes said. "They're very mature players off the ice, and physically all three guys have done a nice job over the past couple years of getting bigger and stronger. ... What we saw from them was mature players, guys who can play the way that we want to play and are really starting to develop physically where they can handle men."


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When Rob Scuderi was signed as a free agent earlier this month to supplement a defense that includes veterans Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland, it added to the logjam that includes Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo, two younger players who spent last season with Pittsburgh and would already be regulars with a lot of NHL teams.

Barring a trade prior to training camp, that doesn't leave much room for any of the Penguins' defense prospects to crack the roster.

"You can't get too caught up in that stuff," said  6-foot-2, 205-pound Harrington, the most defensive-minded of the Penguins' top blue-line prospects. "Teams change all the time, the players on the teams. It's the best League in the world for a reason. I'm sure there's no easy team to crack. Especially Pittsburgh with the winning history that they have, you always want to go to the winning teams. They're more difficult to crack but you always want to play with the best players and prove that you can play there and that's all I'm looking to do."

Because Dumoulin has an entire season in the AHL under his belt, he would seem to be the closest to the NHL. He had six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 73 AHL games last season and eight points in 15 postseason games.

Dumoulin, the biggest of the group at 6-4 and 219 pounds, was part of two NCAA national championship teams at Boston College before being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Draft. That deal, which sent center Jordan Staal to Carolina, included the draft pick that became Pouliot.

"We all push each other, and that's a big thing," Dumoulin said. "We're all friends; we all played at the end of the season with Wilkes-Barre together. So a lot of us are really competing with each other. It's all in good fun, but at the end of the day there's a No. 1, a No. 2, a No. 3 and a No. 4. We don't decide that.

"I'd say just the competition of having these high-quality defensemen can only make me better as a player. Whether it's this year or next year -- it's just pushing each other, especially in this camp, and I feel like it's helped us all out."

Maatta, arguably, has the highest ceiling of the group. Fitzgerald and Penguins player development coach Bill Guerin marvel at the almost-19-year-old Finn's maturity.

"It's always good to have a great defense corps," said Maatta, who's 6-2 and 198 pounds. "With Scotty, Derrick, Brian and other guys too, other great defensemen, it's a good competition. But at the same time, we're good friends. That would be awesome to play with them [in the NHL] at some point.

"It always has been a dream to play in the NHL and I'm going to do my best to make the team -- and hopefully I will -- but it's tough for a 19-year-old D-man to make the team. I don't mind playing another year in London; that will be a good experience getting better and getting stronger there."

Pouliot was the highest draft pick of any of the Penguins' defense prospects; Pittsburgh took him with the eighth choice in 2012. He had 45 points in 44 games for Portland last season, and the 6-foot, 194-pound left-handed shot has a two-way pedigree that meshes well with the Penguins' philosophy.

He realizes working his way up the organizational depth chart won't be easy.

"You know it's just going to be a challenge," Pouliot said. "Those guys are competing for jobs, too, so you've got to look at it from the perspective that it'll push me to be better. I really do think that too."

As a player taken with the final pick of the second round in the 2009 draft and a week shy of his 21st birthday, Philip Samuelsson sometimes gets overlooked in the Penguins' passel of defense prospects. But with 111 games of AHL experience under his belt, it's not a stretch to say the 6-2, 198-pound blueliner -- a teammate of Dumoulin's at Boston College -- would be a top prospect on the blue line for a lot of NHL teams and could earn a roster spot with some of them.

Not so with the Penguins. Samuelsson, whose father, Ulf, won the Stanley Cup twice with the Penguins straddling the summer in which Philip was born, is another face in the crowd of high-end defense talent in the Pittsburgh system.

"Everybody wants to be NHL players -- that's just the nature of the beast," Philip Samuelsson said with a smile. "Certainly, it's not really our place to make management decisions, obviously. If it was up to me, I'd like to have a chance to play here [in Pittsburgh].

"But I think the main thing for me is just to know that I have to be patient and really earn everything that's going to come my way. You're going to have to earn it with who we have here. And I think that makes me more grateful for when it happens."

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