Wilkes-Barre Defense Survives And Thrives With Smaller Squad
It’s true; the Baby Penguins were in a heck of a slump through a month and a half. The forwards weren’t scoring, the defensemen were turning pucks over, and the goalies weren’t making big saves in big moments. Things were a mess, and the team was plummeting down the standings.
Then Beau Bennett, Eric Tangradi, Jayson Megna, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, and Simon Despres were invited to attend NHL training camp in Pittsburgh, and John Hynes’ squad suddenly put together 3 straight wins. Now, to suggest that guys like Bennett and Bortuzzo were holding the team back would be farcical. At a time when the team couldn’t buy a goal, losing their two most talented forwards wasn’t going to fix that.
What did seem to fix it, however, was a lot more team cohesion, especially among the defensemen. Before the call-ups, Wilkes-Barre’s defense corps had included Strait, Bortuzzo, and Despres, along with the current group of Alex Grant, Joey Mormina, Philip Samuelsson, Joe Morrow, Brian Dumoulin, and Dylan Reese. Nine defensemen means some guys have to sit out, and it was painfully obvious that the team was having trouble getting into a rhythm.
With Despres and Bortuzzo still in Pittsburgh and Brian Strait starting a new chapter on Long Island, the Baby Pens’ defense looks more like a normal hockey team, with six regular players. (Carl Sneep and Cody Wild have also been recalled from Wheeling)
Although the pairings still change throughout a game, a regular crew of skaters getting steady and consistent ice time has fixed a lot of problems for the team. The leadership is there every night in Mormina and Reese, the crippling, game-losing turnovers are down, the confidence is up, and the team is winning.
I believe that Penguins management recognized this, and felt that losing Brian Strait on waivers wouldn’t hurt the organization’s depth on defense. In fact, by keeping the number of bodies down in Wilkes-Barre, the team’s depth may actually have been strengthened by giving young guys more playing time to develop and mature.
News came out this morning that Mark Eaton had been signed to a professional tryout contract in Wilkes-Barre, which at first seems counter-intuitive to the idea that the young guys need as much ice time as they can get. I think that deal is a two-way advantage: Mark Eaton wants to prove he can still play at a high level and get another shot at an NHL contract, and the Penguins certainly don’t mind having a steady veteran defenseman with his name on the Cup working and practicing with their young and talented core.
The leadership provided by Dylan Reese and Joey Mormina is nice, but they can’t match the experience and pedigree of Mark Eaton. Eaton is obviously a guy Ray Shero knows well, and he wouldn’t have agreed to giving him a tryout unless he could help the organization now and in the future.
Brian can be found on Twitter, @BlitzburghBrian