As of now, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi appear to be guaranteed the first five spots. But there is a competitive mix of proven NHLers and high draft picks still fighting to make Pittsburgh’s roster after the first round of cuts made on Tuesday morning, which is something the Penguins didn’t have at last year’s shortened camp where only nine defensemen attended.
Here’s a look at the guys hoping to be in the NHL on opening night. But no matter who ends up on Pittsburgh’s roster to start the season, it’s a long season. Anything can happen in the next eight months (trades, injuries), so some of the other guys could potentially be called on to contribute at some point during the year. And if not this year, certainly sometime in the future.
After eight years split between the American Hockey League (338 games) and ECHL (148 games), Deryk Engelland finally broke into the NHL three years ago at age 28. The persistent and dedicated defenseman signed his first one-way deal that season, which he is now entering the final year of. But although it’s a contract year for Engelland, he doesn’t need any extra motivation. He may be the most established out of all the defensemen trying to earn a spot, but he also knows better than anyone that nothing is guaranteed for certain guys.
WHY HE'S A CANDIDATE: He can and will drop the gloves against anyone in this league. What coach Dan Bylsma termed his “pugilistic achievements” is what kept him in the lineup the most that first season, and they have been his biggest asset ever since. But the ability to fight isn’t his only asset. He has worked hard with trainer Mark Philippi the last four offseasons on his strength, conditioning and footspeed and has proven he can be a solid defender on the third pairing. A guy who can fight, be physical and defend is valuable.
ENGELLAND ON MAKING THE TEAM: “For a guy like me, I think every year, no matter what, I have to come in and battle for a spot. There’s always young guys coming up and knocking on the door wanting your job. It keeps you on your toes and it makes you get better. If you just stay at a certain level instead of improving, you probably wouldn’t be here. So every year you’ve got to improve and get better.”
After developing in the Penguins organization for three years after being drafted in the third round of the 2007 draft, Bortuzzo played his first full NHL season in 2012-13. He appeared in 15 games with Pittsburgh and was plus or even in 12 of those contests. He was a restricted free agent going into the offseason, and eventually signed a two-year, one-way deal with an average annual value of $600,000 with the team in late July. Bortuzzo was clearly working hard those summer months, as he came to camp with a noticeable amount of muscle added to his frame. “It was tough,” he said of his training program. “I was working with other hockey players in Thunder Bay. We were at it pretty early. I’ve never had a short summer like that before, so I got into it pretty quick. I paid attention to what I was eating and how I was training. Hopefully, it’s paid off here.
WHY HE'S A CANDIDATE: At 6-4, 215 pounds, Bortuzzo has a Hal Gill-type of body, tall and hulking with long limbs that give him a sizeable reach and a good stick – which is always valuable to have in a defenseman. He has also displayed a fearless, aggressive edge and the willingness to fight – proving that he can defend and be physical, a valuable combination. He plays a simple, relatively mistake-free game and spending a full season with Pittsburgh has done wonders for him. “I learned so much last year. I can’t explain how much that year meant to me,” he said. “I feel more comfortable. That goes a long way.”
BORTUZZO ON MAKING THE TEAM: “I feel like camp is going well. I’ve been working hard. I came in feeling good. I worked hard this summer. I’m just trying to implement the system that I’ve learned the last couple of years and some new stuff we’re trying to implement. Hopefully, it pays off.”
Despres is in an interesting situation. He is entering the last season of his three-year entry-level contract, meaning he could be sent down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League without clearing waivers – unlike Engelland and Bortuzzo. But Despres did spend all of last season with Pittsburgh, skating in 33 of 48 games. He said that experience has drastically improved his game. “Being around the older guys I got to learn a lot on the ice and off the ice, watching from the stands, too,” Despres said. “They play such a simple game. Little habits make such a big difference. I’m a way better player than last year.”
WHY HE'S A CANDIDATE: Like Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta, Despres was also a first-round pick back in 2009 – and there’s a reason for that. He has intimidating size at 6-4, 214 pounds, but is surprisingly mobile for someone that big. He has learned how to be poised with the puck and move it (though he still needs to work on consistency with his decisions) and has displayed offensive capability, playing on the second power-play unit last season. And finally, he has shown he is capable of defending other teams’ top guys. There are so many reasons to like Despres, and the coaching staff knows he is capable of being an NHL regular. "Simon Despres is a guy who's played against the best players in the game at different times in different spots," Bylsma said. "He played with Kris Letang. He's done a good job of that. He's grown as a defenseman. He's in a really good position in his career where he's ready to take the next step to full-time NHL guy who can add in a lot of different areas."
DESPRES ON MAKING THE TEAM: “Keep it simple. Play smart. A smart, simple game is the key. I have the tools to make it. I just have to play it smart.”
Just listen to what the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaches said about Brian Dumoulin at the rookie tournament in London a couple weeks ago: “He’s going to contend for the National Hockey League now,” said head coach John Hynes. “He’s past us, to be honest,” assistant coach Alain Nasreddine said. They watched Dumoulin play 73 games for them last season, his first as a pro and with the Penguins after being traded here from Carolina and loved his game, especially during the playoffs. Unfortunately, Dumoulin had a setback in camp after sustaining an upper-body injury in the first exhibition game on Sunday in Columbus. Bylsma said on Monday Dumoulin could be out about a week, and it’s yet to be determined how that missed time will affect his chances of making the team.
WHY HE’S A CANDIDATE: Dumoulin is a freakish athletic combination of natural size and strength. At 6-4, he is tall with long limbs like Bortuzzo – giving him that reach and the ability to play stick on puck while defending. But even though he’s rangy, you can tell he’s built. Dumoulin is 219 pounds of muscle. And in terms of his game, he has the ability to contribute on offense and be a shutdown defender. He has mobility and puck-moving qualities from the back end, but his priority is playing solid in his own zone. He’s also been playing in the same type of system for years now, as he played a similar style with Boston College before coming to WBS – he said the Eagles “emulated” the Penguins. And having played a professional season gives him an edge over the younger prospects.
DUMOULIN ON HIS STYLE OF PLAY: “I wouldn’t say I’m a flashy offensive defenseman, but I like to play solid in my defensive zone. Puck retrievals are key for me, as is getting that first pass and getting the puck out of the zone. Also jumping up and being that fourth guy in the play. Not leading the rush, but jumping up and being able to get up there and create offense as well.”
Pouliot is just a teenager, and he won’t turn 20 until Jan. 16. It’s a long shot for him to play in the NHL this year, but we feel he is worthy of mentioning here as someone who at least has a shot – however distant it may be. Pouliot has been compared to Kris Letang and called the team’s future power-play quarterback. I keep going back to this quote by assistant to the GM Tom Fitzgerald about Pouliot where he says, “forwards are going to love playing with him. Pouliot is going to be that smooth, Brian Campbell-type of skater that can get you out of your end, be quick on our retrievals and put the puck on our forward's sticks.” And Pouliot has shown all of those qualities that made him the 8th-overall pick in the 2012 draft so far in training camp, his first one with the team.
WHY HE'S A CANDIDATE: The coaches gave Pouliot ample opportunity to show what he could do in his first-ever exhibition game on Sunday in Columbus. They put him on a pairing with veteran Rob Scuderi and had him man the point on the first power-play unit with Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen – and Pouliot excelled. Bylsma singled him out as someone who stood out, saying, "On the defensive side of things, you notice Derrick Pouliot with the poise and him playing back there with the puck on the top (power-play) unit there with Evgeni Malkin. The poise and patience he showed, I thought there was a lot there."
POULIOT ON MAKING THE TEAM: “I want to try and make this team. That’s why everyone’s here. Even if I don’t, I want to make it a hard decision for the coaches to send me back. I’m just going to put it all on the ice every day, work hard and things will sort themselves out.”
For young elite defensive prospects turning pro, usually the toughest part of the transition is learning how to simplify their game after dominating in juniors or college. To me, what is intriguing about Maatta is that while he has posted impressive offensive numbers with London of the Ontario Hockey League, leading all Knights D-men in scoring in both of his seasons, he is adamant that his focus is keeping it simple. "I don’t try to do too much. I’m not a flashy player like (Kris) Letang or one of the best D-men. I just play my game, do the easy plays, and play like that," he said.
WHY HE'S A CANDIDATE: Maatta has already achieved virtually everything he could accomplish in just two seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, leading the team to back-to-back league championships and Memorial Cup appearances. “He’s a guy who has played a lot of big hockey games; he’s played a lot of important hockey games,” Bylsma said of Maatta. “And while he still is a teenager and could go back to junior potentially, he’s a guy who a lot of people talk about, scout him and say he’s ready for the next step; NHL-ready.” Additionally, Maatta has played under legendary NHLer-turned-coach Dale Hunter in an organization that does everything they can to prepare their kids for the pros. “Those guys have been a big help for me. Every day I go to the rink, they’re talking about the NHL. Every single day. Not a day off about the NHL, what you’ve got to do, what you’ve got to learn, everything is about becoming a better player and getting to the NHL.”
MAATTA ON WHAT HE HAS TO SHOW THE COACHES: “Just play my game, you know? Play an easy, simple game. I don’t really do too much else out there. Just a good first pass; solid defense, that’s what I do.”
Like Maatta, Harrington has been developing in the London Knights organization – having just finished his fourth season with the team. That means he will be turning professional whether it be with Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Wheeling, and comes this level with an impressive resume from the last few years – back-to-back Ontario Hockey League championships and Memorial Cup appearances, along with two bronze medals from two World Junior Championships with Team Canada.
WHY HE’S A CANDIDATE: Harrington is one of those guys that is a coach’s dream because he just does everything well. He doesn’t necessarily excel at any one aspect; he is just steady in all of them. “You can see he can play solid in all three zones, so it makes him a very valuable defenseman,” Nasreddine told me. “At the offensive blue line, he’s smart with the puck. In the defensive zone, he’s big and strong.” (Harrington has bulked up his physique since being drafted in the second round back in 2011 and is now up to 6-2, 207 pounds). Playing the way he does paired with knowing how to win from his junior days makes him an attractive candidate to be a reliable defender that can use his shot to contribute in the offensive end.
HARRINGTON ON MAKING THE TEAM: “You want to have competition like this. It’s exciting. You want to be the best out of the group that you’re competing against. Whenever you get to that level, it means that you’ve earned it and it’s obviously more difficult breaking into a team like the Penguins and an organization that’s successful every year. But once you’re in, you have an opportunity to win Cups every year, right? So I think if you ask anybody that’s playing on a poor team, they would trade this opportunity to compete for a winning team. You just have to focus on your own game and try not to worry too much about other guys and stuff like that.”