Introducing Your Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins Defense!
As you may have already heard somewhere, the National Hockey League has locked out its players (because that’s just how things get done in the NHL) and that means no one gets to watch any hockey at all this year. Except that’s not true! In fact, you can still watch the Penguins play all season, as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL prepare for another run at the Calder Cup.
Most fans are only really familiar with the AHL as a developmental league, which it is, but as the highest level of professional hockey we’ll be seeing in North America for quite some time, it might be worth getting to know the regular players who are going to battle every day for the Penguins’ organization.
Today we’ll go over the defensemen and goaltenders set to play this season for Wilkes-Barre.
The Wilkes-Barre blueline is simply flooded with talent. At least three of the defensemen on the roster should be in the NHL this year, but the lockout has forced a lot of players back into the minors, and lot of AHL players down even further. The AHL defensemen are going to have to fight each other for ice time, and that’s an excellent problem to have. It’s also worth noting that everyone one the blueline is absolutely huge, and they are going to be able to push a lot of forwards around with size alone.
Brian Strait – Strait is just about NHL-ready. He plays a very steady game, good in his own end. He’d be in the NHL right now if not for the lockout.
Robert Bortuzzo – He’s in the same situation as Strait, but his style of play is only slightly different. Bortuzzo has a bit better offensive game than Strait, though he’ll never be confused with Erik Karlsson. He’s not bad at anything, but he’s not great at anything, either. He and Strait have been Wilkes-Barre’s shutdown tandem recently.
Simon Despres – At 21 years of age, Despres is perhaps the most promising defensemen in the organization. He proved last year that he can play in the NHL, but, at his age, spending another year in the minor leagues is going to help him get even better. Despres was talked about as potentially being a defense partner for Kris Letang, and if the coaches are already thinking about him as a top-2 defenseman at age 21, the future is certainly bright.
Brian Dumoulin – Another ogre of a human being, Dumoulin is a surprisingly good skater. He’s 6’4”, 219 lbs, but he has a fluidity to his skating not normally seen in big guys. He plays well positionally all over the ice, and coming out of Boston College, he’s become accustomed to winning big games. Thought of as a throw-in to the Jordan Staal trade, Dumoulin could end up making an impact in Pittsburgh as a 2nd-pairing guy in the next few years.
Joe Morrow – Perhaps the most exciting player on the Wilkes-Barre blueline, Morrow very nearly made the NHL club as a 19-year-old last September. His booming shot will get him time on the power play, and he’ll be in the NHL sooner than later. Morrow is practically guaranteed to be a star.
Dylan Reese – The one non-prospect likely to see NHL time as a call-up is Pittsburgh native Dylan Reese. He brings no semblance of offense to a team, but he plays well enough in his own end. He’s no stranger to the NHL, as he has spent the past few years patrolling the blue line for the New York Islanders.
Much like the forwards we previewed yesterday, there are a number of AHL veterans you probably shouldn’t expect in Pittsburgh any time soon.
Alex Grant – Grant is a powerplay specialist who doesn’t play well defensively.
Joey Mormina – At 30 and with 1 NHL game on his resume (Carolina, 2008), Mormina will be the veteran leader of the young defensive group.
Philip Samuelsson – Playing in the shadow of his father, Ulf, Samuelsson hasn’t shown enough yet to predict an NHL future. Because of the logjam of defenders, Samuelsson will likely spend time in Wheeling this year.
Carl Sneep – Despite having a game of NHL experience, Sneep may find himself phased out of the defense in Wilkes-Barre as the flood of first year players battle for ice time.
The Penguins’ only real goaltending “prospects” (Matt Murray and Sean Maguire) aren’t ready to turn pro yet, so the Penguins are going with a pair of AHL veterans between the pipes this year. Either one could realistically join the NHL Penguins for a few games in case of injuries.
Brad Thiessen – Thiessen was the best goalie in the AHL a couple years back. While his NHL performance was shaky last season, he should still be able to backstop the Baby Penguins during another competitive season.
Jeff Zatkoff – Zatkoff was an All Star with Manchester last year. Shero and Botterill ostensibly brought him in to make sure Thiessen doesn’t get complacent. Having two goalies push each other is a good thing for a minor league team. Zatkoff’s great uncle was an NFL linebacker in the 50s, in case you wanted some obscure sports trivia.
All in all, the back end of the team figures to be their greatest strength this year. The goalies are established at the AHL level and the defense corps is just nasty, not even including junior players Scott Harrington (captain of the London Knights, 2011 2nd round pick), Olli Maatta (also in London, 2012 1st round pick), and Derrick Pouliot (2012 1st round pick), who all figure to get into the organization in the next two years.