After a busy 2012 NHL Draft that saw the Penguins add blue-chip blue-line prospects Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin to the organization, Penguins general manager Ray Shero made a statement regarding Pittsburgh’s enviable stockpile of young defensemen.
“We have some young defensemen coming,” Shero said. “We drafted a lot of defense. People write this a lot. It’s time for these guys to play.”
With an influx of injuries to Pittsburgh’s veteran defensemen, that time has come. Not just for them to play, but to enter the lineup together as a group.
The Pens will be playing with a young, inexperienced D corp for at least the next week, as Brooks Orpik (concussion) is out indefinitely; Kris Letang (upper-body) was placed on injured reserve Monday and won’t be eligible to return until after Christmas; Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) is another 7-10 days away from a return; Paul Martin (broken tibia) just completed the third week of his 4-6 week timetable for recovery; and Deryk Engelland has an in-person hearing on Wednesday for his hit on Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader and will miss at least five games.
Starting Monday against Toronto, those veterans will be replaced by a group that has just 134 games of NHL experience combined between them. Simon Despres has the most with 60, followed by Robert Bortuzzo (39), Maatta (34), Dumoulin (1) and Philip Samuelsson (0; will make his NHL debut against the Leafs).
Despite their relative greenness, Shero likes what he’s seen so far – and is looking forward to seeing more.
“It's always a great opportunity for these guys no matter what to get an opportunity to play,” Shero said. “To see some of these guys, from Olli Maatta from the drop of the puck to play the way he's playing, and certainly some of the other guys who get a chance with veteran guys being out, I actually look forward to seeing them play and see how they do.
"It’s a great experience for these young players and that's what happens with injuries. So far, they've acquitted themselves quite well.”
Matt Niskanen, the only remaining veteran left on the Penguins defense, has played over three times the amount of games (444) of the other five guys combined. While he’s not too familiar with a lot of them, he joked that wearing a “Hi, my name is Matt” tag won’t be necessary as he’ll be getting to know them all better these next few days.
“It'll be me and five pretty young guys tonight, so a big challenge,” Niskanen smiled. “The young guys are excited and they’re full of enthusiasm and young legs. So it’ll be fun.
“I’ll get to know some of them a little bit more now going through some games with them. Kind of a crummy situation having guys out, but exciting for young guys to get a chance. They’re going to get a chance to play a lot, too, so it’ll be fun.”
Bortuzzo, Despres, Dumoulin, Maatta and Samuelsson are certainly familiar with one other, as they have developed in the organization together at prospect camps, training camps, rookie tournaments and in the American Hockey League (all except for Maatta, who’s a special exception as he went straight to the NHL out of juniors).
“We all played together in Wilkes-Barre, and it’s good to see some familiar faces here, especially with me only being up for a week,” said Dumoulin, who will skate on the top power-play unit against Toronto. “But it’s a pretty inexperienced group; we’ve just got to really focus on keeping things simple and really focus on defending.”
While it’ll be a big challenge, they’re fortunate to have a guy like Niskanen leading the way.
He was already logging a lot of minutes and shouldering a lot of responsibility before the Pens lost Letang and Engelland in their last game on Saturday in Detroit. Niskanen ended up skating a career-high 29:26 minutes and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma praised him for how he has delivered in a tough situation.
“I sure do appreciate how hard it is now,” Niskanen joked of his ice time. “’Tanger,’ ‘Paulie,’ those guys make it look pretty easy sometimes. It’s a big load, but yeah, for that one game I thought I handled it pretty well and doing it consistently, we’ll see. That’s a challenge I look forward to and hopefully I don’t have to do it too long because that means guys are coming back.
“It’s not something that happens every day for me, so just kind of enjoy it while it lasts and try to do the best I can to go out and compete hard and be a little bit of a leader, because I’m the oldest guy back there now.”
There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities for both the veteran Niskanen and the rest of the inexperienced blueliners. It’s now up to them to make the most of them.