Who's Coming Up To Pittsburgh?
The NHL and NHLPA finally got their respective acts together and got a deal done. The season is going to start in the next couple of weeks, and it’s going to be a mad dash to the postseason. There are going to be stretches of four games in five nights and that’s going to take a toll on players around the league. Guys will miss time with groin pulls, tweaked ankles, and general fatigue. Ray Shero prepared the Penguins for this by adding another starting-level goaltender in Tomas Vokoun to split time with Marc-Andre Fleury.
So what are the Penguins going to do when a skater goes down and has to rest up for a week or so? There are players in Wilkes-Barre who are ready and willing to fill in, and for the majority of you who aren’t following the Baby Penguins, here’s your introduction to the Penguins’ call-ups.
I am operating on the assumption that the NHL roster will be:
Neal-Malkin-Kennedy (sorry guys)
Much has been made of the Penguin’s hole among top-six forwards. I’ve made my pitch to give Eric Tangradi a chance there on a regular shift, but in a 48-50 game season the Penguins just might not have the luxury of spending some early season games letting a prospect get acclimated to the NHL. Despite the vitriol he gets from fans, I have Tyler Kennedy as the best option for the top six among players already in Pittsburgh. Give Dustin Jeffrey a shot if you like, but fans are going to have to face facts that we aren’t getting an all-star in that position this year.
ERIC TANGRADI: Tangradi would be the first forward called up from Wilkes-Barre if a top-6 forward were to miss time. (He might play on the 3rd line if Jeffrey moves up, but that will be up to the coaches, obviously). Despite the offense coming slow for everyone in the AHL lately, Tangradi is their most prized forward prospect (Beau Bennett is on his heels at the very least) and you can bet Shero and Bylsma are anxious to see what he can do when he gets to Pittsburgh for good.
WARREN PETERS: Warren Peters is a veteran who has spent most of his career in the AHL with a few decent runs on fourth lines in the NHL. He is Ryan Craig 2.0 and if the Penguins need someone to fill in on the bottom two lines, Peters is a bona fide faceoff winner who isn’t afraid to forecheck, hit guys, and go to the dirty areas. Wilkes-Barre’s hardest working player could fill in on the PK if necessary and would drop the gloves if he had to.
TREVOR SMITH: For some reason, he’s stuck on the NHL Penguins’ roster in NHL 13, and if you don’t follow the AHL, that’s probably the only way you’d know him. However, Smith has been one of the best Penguins’ players over the past month. The Baby Penguins are mired in a slump of two wins in their last 14 games and they’ve struggled mightily to put pucks in the net during that time. But Smith has been their most consistent forward in terms of getting points for himself and keeping his +/- on the brighter side of even. A playmaker at the AHL level, Smith could fill in on the bottom lines, play a regular shift, and not make the mistakes that hurt teams. It’s important to remember that for an offensive forward, if he were going to blow you away, he wouldn’t be a career AHL-er.
BENN FERRIERO: The door may not quite be closed on Ferriero’s (It’s pronounced “fairy-oh,” by the way) status as a prospect, but he’s no spring chicken either, so his ceiling is limited. He has already spent time in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks playing with the likes of Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe (second line duties; the Pascal Dupuis to Couture & Clowe’s Crosby & Kunitz) so he’s no stranger to the big show. He can play on the top lines and might even contribute to the offense. But as with Trevor Smith, if he were going to be a top-flight NHL scorer, he wouldn’t be in the minors.
STEVE MACINTYRE: Just kidding. Engelland, Vitale, and Glass can all do his job in the NHL as well as play better hockey.
The Penguins boast a wealth of high-end defensive prospects, from junior plays Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot to the NCAA’s Nick D’Agostino to the now-professional Joe Morrow and Brian Dumoulin. None of those guys are going to play in the NHL this year (barring catastrophe) because, while they aren’t as exciting, there are older prospects and veterans who are knocking on the NHL’s door.
SIMON DESPRES: This should be obvious, considering I have him penciled into the starting lineup over Ben Lovejoy. He’s still not a totally polished defenseman, but his talent in the AHL is overwhelming. Getting him reasonable minutes on the bottom-pairing will help Despres and likely won’t hurt the Penguins as a team. He’ll make his mistakes, but if he plays some sheltered minutes as he did last season, it should accelerate his development.
DYLAN REESE: For as much as I’ve been pumping Robert Bortuzzo’s tires all season, I think Dylan Reese gets the first call-up in the event of an injury. He’s been paired with Islanders captain Mark Streit last year, so Reese, like Ferriero, is accustomed to the NHL already. Reese is a calming presence on the blue line for Wilkes-Barre, and his steady two-way style of play is the reason Ray Shero signed him in the offseason.
ROBERT BORTUZZO: Bortuzzo has come along nicely this season as a defensive defenseman. He tends to play well positionally, he lays out to block shots, and his stick-checking is probably the best on the team. Bortuzzo looks like he’s ready for the NHL, and whenever Brooks Orpik or Deryk Engelland gets hurt, he’ll have his chance to prove it.
BRIAN STRAIT: Brian Strait has had a tough year in dealing with some injuries, otherwise he would be higher on this list. He plays the kind of game where if you never hear his name called, it means he played well. That does make it hard to judge him as a player, especially from stats sheets and box scores, but I would guess that he’s a lower-priority call-up for now. If Despres and Bortuzzo move up to the big leagues, Strait will be able to feast on their ice time and get back into top form. He’ll be in the NHL full-time next year, almost certainly.
Two names everyone is probably looking for are Beau Bennett and Joe Morrow, two of the Penguins’ recent first-round picks.
Morrow especially, who showed flashes of brilliance in training camp last year and nearly won himself a place on the roster, would figure to be in the mix for an NHL call-up. His rookie season has been one of growing pains though, and he can no longer win games by virtue of his fluid skating and strong shot. He’s still learning to read plays and be smart with the puck. The mistakes are still there, and the coaches will work with him to correct them. He’ll be in the NHL eventually, but he’s not ready yet. The playing time he’ll get in the AHL will do much more good than an NHL call-up would.
As for Bennett, he’s been Wilkes-Barre’s most dynamic offensive player by far. His hands and vision are top-notch, and he’s learning how to use his big frame effectively. The trouble with Bennett (and get used to this refrain, Pens fans) is that he’s been in and out of the lineup with what one assumes is a nagging injury of some kind. He’s had injury troubles his whole career, and while this season has certainly been better for him, it’s an uneasy feeling knowing that your most talented forward can’t stay in the lineup. While he might be able to contribute to an NHL team if healthy, he offers nothing to a bottom line and there are enough guys ahead of him in line for a spot in the top 6. Bennett will be better served getting healthy and learning the pro game in the minors as opposed to being forced into a role in the NHL he isn’t ready for.
Ray Shero has built a nice corps of fringe-NHL depth players. In a compressed schedule in 2013, I believe we’re all going to see the benefit of the decisions he made that we may have questioned in July.