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Fierce Competition Exists For Roster Spots On Defense

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Nothing brings out the best in players than competition. Whether it’s battling to simply make the big team or working hard to receive a more significant role, each of theplayers that remain on the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp roster has something to play for over the next week.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on defense, where no less than eight players are fighting for what appears to be two openings on the team’s defensive corps.

The next chance for some of the top candidates for these spots to impress head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff comes Tuesday night when the Penguins play host to the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks at CONSOL Energy Center at 7 p.m.

This game is significant for these players because for many it will be their second game of the preseason, which means their performance will be much more scrutinized now that they have one game and several practices under their belts.

“The first game you are still trying to make an impression, but everyone is a little rusty,” said Deryk Engelland, one of the candidates vying for a spot. “The scrimmages and the first couple of days of camp are different, too, because you don’t want to hurt your teammates. But now you really have to pick that up.”

Engelland, who played nine games with the Penguins last season, is one of several veterans along with Ben Lovejoy, Corey Potter, Andrew Hutchinson and Steve Wagner competing to make the opening day roster on defense. Also still in the mix, but more of longer shots, are a trio of younger blueliners – Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait and Simon Despres.

What each player has to do to give himself the best shot is pretty simple according to Bylsma.

“Each guy brings a different element,” Bylsma said. “They have to get to their game and play their game. … If they play their game and play well, that gives them the best chance.”

Hutchinson, who was signed away from the Dallas Stars organization this summer, is the most offensively-talented of the group, with Wagner, acquired late last season from St. Louis, right behind him. Engelland and Potter add a physical presence and are both willing to drop the gloves when called upon. Lovejoy is a smooth-skating, defensive-minded blueliner who makes a good first pass out of the zone and is an effective penalty killer.

Entering training camp, Engelland and Lovejoy were considered the frontrunners for the spots. Both players had successful stints with Pittsburgh last year, and the thinking was after another offseason they’d be ready to make the full-time transition into the National Hockey League.

Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland is one of several candidates vying for a roster spot on defense. Credit - Getty Images
While both players have played well, the other candidates haven’t conceded anything. Instead, they have tried to consistently bring their ‘A’ game to the table on a nightly basis to help provide the level of competition Bylsma hoped would exist.

“I think I have played some pretty good defense,” Potter said. “I have made a couple nice plays on some two-on-ones and three-on-ones. I also had a few shots on goal.”

“I just have to play confident now that I have been here a week,” said Hutchinson, who picked up an assist against Columbus on Saturday on a beautiful give-and-go play with Evgeni Malkin. “I feel like I am really starting to know the systems and where guys are going to be. That makes it a lot easier for you to go out there and produce.”

Each player said they are pleased with the body of work they have put forth thus far, but each one knows they must continue taking their games up a couple more notches over the final three exhibition games if they want to give themselves the best chance to make the team.

“I just have to continue to play the way I have been playing,” Potter said. “I have to play really good defense and get in on the offense as much as I can. I have to make sure that I play physical, too.”

“I definitely want to pick up the intensity and be a little more physical,” Engelland said. “That’s my whole game and that’s what got me this far. That’s what is going to allow me to stay (in Pittsburgh) as well. I am going to try to get as many hits as possible and play chippy.”

“I have to be physical, be quick to the puck and keep my game simple,” Lovejoy said. “We have so much talent on our roster that the less time I have the puck on my stick and the longer they do, the better the team will be.”

“I have to make a good first pass and help us get out of the D-zone as quick as possible,” Hutchinson said. “I also have to help out on the power play and make plays on the blue line.”

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