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Veteran Mentors Provide Leadership

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins had a makeover during this past offseason. The current roster features a lot of young and talented newcomers – including rookies Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh’s 2011 first-round pick), Beau Bennett (2010 first round), Jayson Megna and second-year pro Simon Despres (2009 first round).

But the Penguins also added a strong veteran presence through unrestricted free agency with the signings of goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, defenseman Dylan Reese and forwards Warren Peters, Riley Holzapfel, Trevor Smith, Philippe Dupuis and Benn Ferriero.

With 401 NHL and 1,866 American Hockey League games between them, the group provides a lot of experience to the lineup. And with nine players in the Penguins organization making the jump to professional hockey (either with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Wheeling), that type of veteran experience is much needed.

“I can lend some experience to guys that haven’t spent time in this league,” said Peters, who was an alternate captain during the preseason. “Hopefully, (I can) help them out and give them some pointers. I want to be somebody that has been through it for someone who hasn’t, and help them along, whether it be off the ice, on the ice, dealing with the schedule or dealing with the intensity of jumping to pro for a rookie.”

Peters, 29, has plenty of AHL experience with stops in Portland, Utah, Omaha, Quad City, Dallas and Houston. But his most valuable experiences came in the postseason. The Saskatoon native has played in 53 career playoff games and made back-to-back trips to the Calder Cup Final with Texas (2009-10) and Houston (2010-11).

“The roll that you get on is phenomenal,” Peters said. “Both places I was at, Texas and Houston, the bonds created with those guys is not something you’ll ever forget. The relationships and adversity you had to go through to get to that point is big. Only a tight-knit group can survive.”

Peters may have been a runner-up in both his Calder Cup series, but the same can’t be said for one of his current teammate. Smith, 27, not only won the Calder Cup with Norfolk in 2011-12, he was the AHL’s leading postseason scorer (tied) with 16 points (5G-11A).

“That was an unbelievable season. It was a lot of fun,” said Smith, who finished sixth in scoring in the AHL regular season with 69 points (26G-43A) despite playing in only 64 games. “We had a good group there as well. We went on a nice little streak towards the end. We had a lot of confidence. We took that into the postseason.”

Dupuis’ Toronto Marlies lost last season’s Calder Cup Final to Smith’s Admirals. That means the Penguins have four players with Calder Cup experience, including in each of the past three title series.

Smith, an Ottawa native, knows that their collective experience is valuable to the younger players on the WBS roster. He sees himself as a mentor to the young players adapting to pro hockey, returning a favor that he enjoyed himself as a rookie.

“I know how I was when I broke in as a rookie. I had a tough go at the start,” Smith recalled. “There are guys that I remember that helped me along and told me to do the right things. They’re pretty mature these young guys. I think they have a bright future.”

Reese, a native of Pittsburgh, is an elder statesman of experience on the WBS blue line, which has a defensive corps filled with players in their early to mid-20s.

“It’s crazy to think how time flies. I remember my rookie season and playing with a guy that was 27 and thinking he’s been around forever,” said 28-year-old Reese. “Now I’m that guy.”

Reese is used to playing the veteran mentor with a young team. During his time with the New York Islanders organization, Reese played that role with their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.

“Last year in the Islanders organization I was in the leadership role with the young guys and getting them used to pro hockey and comfortable,” he said. “A lot of it is confidence for those guys. It’s the first time they’re playing with older, stronger, bigger guys. A lot of it is having confidence in yourself so I try to instill that in them.”

And that blend of talented youth with veteran experience should make WBS a contender for the upcoming 2012-13 season.

“We have a great mix here of young, talented guys and veteran guys that can provide leadership and a good presence,” Reese said. “It’s a great mix. I’m just excited to start playing.”

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