Last year, Penguins fans got to see highly touted prospect Olli Maatta
earn a full-time job at the NHL level. This year, they may get to see his fellow London Knights alumni Scott Harrington
on the blue line in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins had 10 defensemen remaining on their training camp roster as of Monday. With Robert Bortuzzo and Derrick Pouliot both sidelined due to injury, that leaves eight. And with Maatta’s status unknown for Thursday's season opener against Anaheim as he continues to rehab and progress from offseason shoulder surgery, there’s a chance Harrington could be on Pittsburgh’s opening-night roster.
“Every day since I got here at the beginning of camp, even at the rookie tournament, I’m just trying to take it one day at a time and not think too far into the future,” Harrington said Sunday. “I’m just trying to make the most of every day and every day, try and make a better impression on the coaching staff and prove that I can play at this level.
“Thursday is a long ways away. I know we have some defensemen that are getting back healthy here, so I’m just trying to show them every day what I’m capable of and then we’ll just go from there.”
Regardless of what happens in three days’ time, the 21-year-old defenseman looks to be a player that will be in the NHL for years to come.
He's been in the organization since he was chosen by Pittsburgh in the second round (54th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft after finishing his second season in London, where he helped the Knights win the Ontario Hockey League championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup. The next year, Harrington’s teammates voted him captain of the Knights “by a landslide,” according to head coach Dale Hunter.
“He’s one of these kids that you want to marry your daughter,” Hunter said of Harrington. “He’s a kid that’s a leader and does everything right. The biggest thing about him is that he has great character.”
Harrington played two more seasons in London (where he won another league championship, appeared in another Memorial Cup and represented Canada in two World Junior Championships) before turning professional in 2013-14, where he skated in 76 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and posted 24 points (5G-19A).
“I learned a lot last year in Wilkes-Barre,” Harrington said. “I’ve said it before and the other young defensemen have said it too, the coaches do a great job with us down there watching a lot of video and doing a lot of 1-on-1 development. In return, it makes you feel that much more comfortable up here. They gave me some things they wanted me to work on over the summer. Tried to do that to the best I could, then take that into this camp this year. Just try and leave a better impression every day.”
In addition, during the offseason Harrington trained under the strict guidance of former NHLer Gary Roberts, who’s built a reputation as one of the most respected trainers in the business with his intense fitness and nutrition programs and has developed into an almost Chuck Norris-like legend.
“Myself, Reid McNeill and Steve Downie (all trained with Gary),” Harrington said. “That was great. Gary really knows his stuff and the staff they have working with them is great. I was really happy with my summer and the gains that I made. I’m happy with the shape that I came in to camp this year.”
Right before he arrived here, Harrington attended the 2014 rookie tournament in London, Ontario. Penguins assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald said for older prospects like Harrington, it was their chance to make an impression on the new hockey ops and coaching staff that would be up there watching and getting a feel for who they are and what they can bring to the team.
“You only have one chance for a first impression, and this is their chance to make a first good impression because they want exhibition games,” Fitzgerald said. “With an exhibition game becomes the opportunity to get another exhibition game. And the more exhibition games you get, that means you’re making the coaches think that there’s a kid that could make our team or this kid could be our first call-up guy. So for those older players, that’s what this camp is for them.”
Harrington certainly did something right at the tournament and the weeks after, as he went on to play in five of six exhibition games during the preseason.
“I had heard a lot about Scott and watched him as a junior player in London, so I knew of him before,” said Penguins head coach Mike Johnston, who had spent the previous six seasons with Portland of the Western Hockey League. “I had a chance this year to see him play in the tournament in London with our guys. I thought ever since the tournament in London, his play keeps getting better and better.
“Maybe he’s getting more confident. He is a young guy; he had a good year last year in Wilkes and I know everybody was really high on the end of his season. I see him as a really good puck-moving defenseman. A guy who coaches have a lot of confidence in because of his defensive play. I thought he’s handled the speed of the game. For all players, whether you’re a forward or D, when you get to this level it’s handling the speed. I know the speed’s going to ramp up when we start Thursday night, but at the same time, it’s different from the American League. It’s a step up in exhibition play and he’s handled it really well."