There are plenty of different ways to build a team. The Edmonton Oilers will tell you the best way to build is to be so bad that you acquire three consecutive #1 overall picks, then pick dynamic forwards, and outscore opponents 7-6 for the next decade. The Philadelphia Flyers may tell you that the best way to build a contender is to trade away first round draft picks to acquire veterans (and goaltending is optional). The Detroit Red Wings would tell you the best way to build a contender is to draft well, but more importantly, develop the prospects with time, care, and attention to maximize their potential. The Kings would tell you to draft well, let the team’s core mature together, and add a few important veterans to transform a good team to Stanley Cup champion.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are going a different direction. Unlike the last organizational rebuild when they stocked their team with #1 and #2 overall draft picks, this time they have had to be a little more resourceful. Sure, they couldn’t develop a skilled winger to go with Crosby or Malkin to save their lives—but that may not matter in a few years. Why is that? Take a look at their depth on their blueline and you shall find all the answers you are looking for.
If things work out the way the Pens hope they will, the team will have more talented defenseman than they know what to do with. A quick look at their defensive corps shows a stable of players that would be the envy of all 29 other teams. If they develop, not only will they have one of the best six man units on any given night; but they’ll also have plenty of talent to trade in order to round out the rest of their lineup. For anyone who has forgotten how valuable Top 4 defensemen can be, the Kings were able to deal a mistake-prone Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for the high scoring forward that they desperately needed. Jeff Carter slid onto the wing with Mike Richards, gave the Kings some secondary scoring, and the rest is history.
Of course, the Kings’ situation would be the best case scenario. But still, the blueprint has been laid out for the Penguins.
So who are these defensemen who hold the Penguins future in their collective hands?
First and foremost, the Penguins should send a gift basket to Carolina GM Jim Rutherford for making all of this possible (maybe they should send it to Jordan Staal, but I digress). At the draft, they were able to turn Staal, their third line center, into Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and Derrick Pouliot. Sutter will fit in nicely, but it’s those two defensemen that will shine bright for the Penguins in the future.
Dumoulin spent three years on Boston College’s blueline, won a pair of national championships, and developed into the best two-way defensive prospect in the Hurricanes’ system. He was a first-team All-American as a sophomore with the Eagles and in the words of his coach, even though he was an elite player, he was “a notch better” during his junior year when he was a Hobey Baker finalist. BC’s captain Tommy Cross had some high praise for Dumoulin:
“He does everything well. He’s our top shutdown guy and he’s our top offensive D-man too. He does so much right and he’s found a way to get better every year. There’s been a physical maturity to his game that he has added.”
Dumoulin wasn’t the only defenseman that the Pens picked up in the Staal trade though. In fact, when all is said and done, he may not even be the best defenseman acquired in the deal. Derrick Pouliot was selected with the 8th overall pick that the Penguins acquired from the Canes. In Pouliot, they acquired a guy who is absolutely oozing offensive talent, which is probably why he was the first pick in the WHL Bantam draft by the Portland Winterhawks back in 2009. Hockey’s Future said he, “remains a long-term project at this point, but has the pedigree and innate understanding of the game to one day be an offensively dynamic top four defenseman in the NHL.”
The Penguins must have a thing for Portland defensemen. In 2011, they used their first round pick on another Winterhawks defenseman when they nabbed Joe Morrow with the 23rd overall selection. Depending on who you talk to, Morrow or Pouliot could be the best prospect in the entire Pens organization—but they are certainly different players. Morrow almost made the Penguins out of training camp last year, while Pouliot has plenty of work to do before he’s ready to make the transition to the NHL.
Portland Winterhawks GM and head coach Mike Johnston described the pair’s differences:
“The Penguins got two very different defensemen in Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot… Joe is all about power with his shot and his skating and physical play, and Derrick is about controlling the puck and controlling the tempo of the game.”
Sounds like a pretty good pair of defensemen in consecutive years. Maybe next year, the Penguins can figure out a way to draft Winterhawks’ blueliner Seth Jones?
Going back to the 2012 Draft, the Penguins were able to bolster their blueline in another move that wasn’t related to the Jordan Staal trade. With their own first round pick, they were able to select Olli Maatta with the 22nd overall selection. You just know that GM Ray Shero was doing back flips when he saw that Maatta fell all the way down to the 22nd pick. The big two-way Finnish defenseman was rated as one of the best European born prospects in the draft and even came over to the OHL to help ease the transition to the North American game.
Maatta’s teammate with the London Knights and fellow Pens prospect Scott Harrington had nothing but great things to say about his fellow blueliner:
“He’s a great two way player. He’s very responsible defensively but he has no problem jumping up in the rush. (He is a) quarterback on the power play, which I guess has Penguins defenseman written all over it. He’ll definitely transition well to the Penguins game and pick up on the systems quickly.”
Harrington should know a little something about the Penguins game—he was a 2nd round pick by the team in 2011. But even though he knows something about the team’s drafting strategy, he’s not the same kind of prospect as Maatta, Morrow, Pouliot, or Dumoulin. If Pouliot has the opportunity to develop into a Kris Letang type of player and Maatta can develop into a player in the same mold as Paul Martin, then Harrington could fill Brooks Orpik’s role for the next era of Penguins hockey. He plays with heart and nastiness in his own zone—qualities he’ll need to keep if he wants to grow into a shutdown role in the NHL one day.
The best part about the entire situation is that the Penguins’ brass can afford to take their time with all of the defensive prospects. Their current top 4 consists of Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, and Matt Niskanen—a quartet of players that are all under contract until at least the end of the 2013-14 season. Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy round out the six defensemen (assuming all of the prospects are held back). The blueline is so strong, Shero was able to trade Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes for three prospects to clear salary cap—the most promising being yet another defenseman in Harrison Ruopp. Shocking, another defenseman.
The Penguins have all of these players lined up in the pipeline, and we haven’t even touched on the most NHL-ready prospect of them all. Simon Despres was the Pens first round pick in 2009 and has steadily grown into a very promising prospect. How often are teams able to find smooth skating, 6’4” defensemen and are able to develop them at their own pace? Despres was even able to play 18 games last season for the Pens and showed that he wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the speed of the NHL game.
The best thing Despres (and the Penguins) having going for them right now is that the young defenseman will be forced to start the season in the AHL during the lockout. A player can be ruined by being rushed, but no prospect has ever failed because they were given too much time to develop. While plenty of Penguins prospects were disappointed that they weren’t able to attend the NHL training camp, guys like Despres will only get better while learning his craft in Wilkes-Barre. That is, if he makes the AHL team.
“My place in the (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) lineup is not locked. I have to work hard. It’s going to push me to work hard. The depth here is incredible. You can’t have a day off. You have to have your A game to make sure you have a spot in the lineup.”
He’ll make the team, but just that he can make that comment speaks to the incredible depth the Penguins have in the AHL during the lockout.
Who knows what will happen with all of these defensemen in the coming years while they learn how to be professionals. It’s safe to say that there will be at least a player or two who fails to live up to his potential. We can also assume one or two of them will be traded to help round out the Penguins roster in the coming years. What will be left will be the foundation for a damn good defense—and if we’ve learned anything, you can never have enough good defensemen when trying to build a contender.
The Pens look like they have that part down pat.