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Player Development is Key for Pens

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
With Sidney Crosby sidelined with a mild concussion and Evgeni Malkin out for Thursday’s game at New Jersey with an undisclosed injury, what did head coach Dan Bylsma have to say?

“Thank goodness we got (Mark Letestu) locked up for a few years, because he’s going to break out (Thursday) and be worth a lot more.”

Players like Letestu, who spent three seasons developing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League before making the Penguins lineup, have been invaluable to adding depth and consistency to the roster throughout the season – especially with the absences of key players.

RELATED: Letestu Earns Two-Year Deal from Penguins  >>

The success of similar Penguins – most notably fellow forward Chris Conner and defensemen Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy – are a credit to the organization’s philosophy and structure.

“You’re always trying to get assets into your organization,” assistant general manager Jason Botterill said. “Once you get assets, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of building them down in WBS.”

Players always want to be in the NHL yesterday. But it’s a situation where hopefully they understand that if they take the process in the same way Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland did by spending some time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, they’ll get their opportunity up here in Pittsburgh. - Assistant GM Jason Botterill
Letestu, 25, just inked a two-year contract extension with the Penguins on Tuesday. He is in his first full NHL season after signing with the Pittsburgh organization as an undrafted free agent in 2007 out of college. Lovejoy followed almost the exact same path, signing that same summer after a four-year career at Boston College and Dartmouth. He earned a full-time roster spot this year after three years in WBS.

Engelland, who signed a three-year extension with the Penguins on Jan. 3, didn’t make his NHL debut until last season at age 27 after stints in the AHL and ECHL.

“I think our organization’s done a good job,” Botterill said. “You look at some of the players we’ve found – Mark Letestu is a college free agent, Ben Lovejoy a college free agent, Deryk Engelland was playing in the AHL at the time when we brought him into our organization. I think our scouting staff has done a good job in trying to locate players not only through the draft, but other avenues also.”

All of those players have become priceless to an organization that has allotted much of their salary cap to keeping star players like Crosby and Malkin.

“It’s a situation where we’re going to be able to go out each year and get some NHL free agents who have played in the league, but it’s just financially impossible to go get 5, 6, 7 of these guys each year,” Botterill said. “You have to grow them from within.”

Of course, it’s hard to wait to make it in the National Hockey League. But looking back, Letestu knows he needed that extra time to develop into the player that Pittsburgh needed him to be.

“They allowed me three years in the minors to develop, and here still, trying to make me a better hockey player,” he said. “Definitely the organization and the coaches and the people involved have done miles, a tremendous amount for my career.”

Lovejoy agreed, saying “It was huge for all of our development. We spent three years learning how to play the system and the type of hockey that this organization wants us to play. We played the same exact roles down in WBS that we are here. Everything’s the exact same except for the talent, which is obviously greater. ... We were really able to grow in a way that this organization wants.”

RELATED: King of Engelland >>

Botterill hopes that the current members of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are motivated by the success of players like Letestu, Engelland and Lovejoy.

“Players always want to be in the NHL yesterday,” he said. “But it’s a situation where hopefully they understand that if they take the process in the same way Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland did by spending some time in WBS, they’ll get their opportunity up here in Pittsburgh.”
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