By Matt Popchock
The Arena Football League’s Pittsburgh Power, part-time occupants of CONSOL Energy Center, were neither anywhere near playoff contention nor anywhere near the city this particular Saturday, but that didn’t prevent uptown traffic from slowing to a crawl.
A crowd of over 6,000 filled most of the building’s allocated seats to watch a bunch of young men, several of whom may be bagging groceries at a Costco near you this fall, and one of the pubescent patrons, when she wasn’t golf-clapping at the image of retired Stanley Cup champion Bill Guerin like a Pavlovian dog, displayed a sign asking for the hand of Olli Maatta in marriage.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you Pittsburgh isn’t a hockey town.
It must have felt like only yesterday for Maatta, who had just been there in his Sunday best on a Friday night that saw the Penguins make him the 22nd overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. He skated for Team White in the intra-squad prospect scrimmage that marked the end of the franchise’s annual five-day developmental camp.
The 17-year-old Finnish defenseman represented not only the future of the Penguins, but also their backbone. While the big club is trying to fine-tune an offensive freight train through free agency, the wannabe blue-liners on display this weekend derailed any hopes of a shootout.
There was, however, an exhibition shootout after each of yesterday’s 23-minute “halves,” which was won by Team White. But even the stars of that event were the defensemen; seven different men at said position scored for their respective sides.
Furthermore, fellow defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin, acquired in the Jordan Staal trade, beat 2012 third-round draftee Matt Murray from close range for the decisive goal in a 3-2 sudden-victory scrimmage win for Team Black while the teams skated in a five-minute, 3-on-3 overtime session.
This was the second developmental camp for Team Black member Joe Morrow, who made quite a first impression on the black-and-gold during the previous preseason, and was impressed by Saturday’s turnout (which was roughly a ten percent improvement):
Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, who opposed player development coach Guerin on the bench, was impressed with the talent on display at both ends of the rink:
That talented included Harrison Ruopp, 19, who also aims to beef up the Penguins’ future blue line. Ruopp, who spent last season with Prince Albert of the WHL and was sent to the Pens in exchange for Phoenix Coyotes returnee Zbynek Michalek, has always tried to make toughness a part of his game:
This former piece of Coyote property might be a small dog in a big kennel right now, but it is comforting to know the organization has added a player who seems to share the pack mentality of a Deryk Engelland type, while, at the same time, putting more money back in the wallet of GM Ray Shero to address more pressing needs.
One of those pressing needs is organizational depth up front. On that frontier Shero is not exempt from criticism; the one offensive draft choice of his to significantly impact the Pens is now in Carolina (Staal), and with all due respect, Fitzgerald’s statement about the talent pool at this year’s developmental camp rings somewhat hollow after the way the defensemen seized the spotlight.
As the “baby” Baby Pens (not to be confused with the Justin Bieber mash-up sure to be up shortly on YouTube) struggled to find the net, it became obvious that 2009 first-round choice Simon Despres, who already spent parts of last season at the top of this totem pole, was the most NHL-ready player on the ice.
Despres (6’4″, 214 lbs.), dressing on defense for Team White, earned an assist and crashed the net for a nifty late-game goal, and seemed to do all the little things right in his own zone, including one of the things Fitzgerald tries to teach:
The former QMJHL Defenseman of the Year, who will turn 21 later this month, was a plus-5 in 18 regular season games with the Pens during 2011-12 and even saw limited ice time during the playoffs. Despres was demoted surprisingly early–surprising to some of us, anyway–in training camp last year, but when he got the call, he did show flashes of excellence. I wouldn’t put it outside the realm of possibility to see him paired with fellow countryman Kris Letang on a more permanent basis this winter.
Morrow was not nearly as visible as Despres on Saturday, but he may not be that far behind the Frenchman in terms of on-ice maturity. If the organization corroborates me on Despres’ readiness, Morrow remains, at best, a long shot to crack the opening day roster. Still, I won’t be surprised if the 2011 first-round draftee gets his act together in camp and later earns a mid-season call-up, though given the defensive talent on the projected 2012-13 roster, and GM Ray Shero’s recent endorsement thereof, they’ll probably show the same patience with one they did with the other.
The bane of existence for the 2011-12 Penguins was the buckling of Marc-Andre Fleury under the pressure of picking up a team defense that played deceptively poor hockey down the stretch. That beget not-so-deceptively poor play on the back end in the playoffs, leading to another first-round flame-out, this time against the hated Flyers. Despres can be part of the solution, and Morrow, in the long run, as well, while the rest of these defensemen can either blossom or be dealt someday for offensive help.
Whether a Robin to Sidney Crosby’s Batman emerges this summer or not, scoring will come organically for these Penguins. In the meantime, as Shero looks for a worthy winger to put beside him, at least give Shero credit for building what appears to be something special behind him.
Check out “Shea-ved Ice” for more Penguins coverage.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)