The Penguins’ defensive corps has undergone a transformation in recent weeks, with three of its six spots currently filled by recent members of the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. And, with significantly different skill sets and contributions, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Dylan Reese are taking advantage of their opportunities, with Joe Morrow next on tap to get a look.
Highly touted prospect Despres, 21, got off to a slow start this season before spending two games as a healthy scratch, with the Penguins reportedly willing to move him in exchange for a top-six forward. But when Matt Niskanen went down to a lower-body injury in late January, Despres got back into the lineup and started to make an impact with his speed, offensive ability and using the physicality of his 6-foot-4, 214-pound frame.
The Penguins plan to bring Despres along slowly – the rookie’s ice time has bounced between 12 and 19 minutes a game since his return to the lineup – but, with five points (2G, 3A) in 10 games, he’s making a case to stick based on skill.
“Simon is a good player. He’s playing a tough position, he’s a first-round pick and, yes, he’s had some growing pains as a defenseman and learning that, but he’s a solid guy,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, following a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers on January 31 that saw Despres score on a breakaway out of the penalty box. “Even seeing him be a physical, big body out there defending-wise – he gets to be on the scoresheet, too, but just the defending aspect of how he played tonight was a big factor for us.”
Despres believes he’s up to the challenge of being used in any on-ice situation, including matching up against the opposition’s top lines.
“There’s a lot of good defensemen on this team, and this is a good opportunity for me,” he said. “I like to play every situation; I’m not uncomfortable anywhere. I like challenges and feel I play better against good players.”
He’s also embraced the opportunity to spend several games paired with Kris Letang, a player whose game is similar to his own.
“He’s an exceptionally good defenseman; it’s easy to play with him,” Despres said. “He talks a lot, and it helps me for sure.”
Bortuzzo, meanwhile, isn’t looking to appear on the scoresheet much, but to keep the opposition off of it. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, the 23-year-old blueliner has set himself apart from the Penguins’ crop of promising young defensemen through defensive responsibility and toughness.
“That’s one of the things that Robert brings to the table,” Bylsma said. “He’s a bigger-bodied guy, he’s a little bit lanky but he has some sandpaper to his game. He’s a guy who, when he turned pro, fought pretty much every tough guy in the American Hockey League and had 12 majors in his first 30 games.
“He’s been a shutdown defender for the last two years in Wilkes-Barre, and he does it with a big stick and he does it with some grit. He’s got a little bite to his game; that’s what he brings and, really, what differentiates him from some of the other defensemen we have. He has bite like Deryk Engelland has bite.”
Bortuzzo is taking a game-by-game approach to his big-league opportunity: “Someone told me early in my career that you kind of control what you can control and, when you get out there, just put your best foot forward, play your best hockey and things will work themselves out from there.” But he also credits his experience in the Penguins’ organization with helping him make the most of it.
“They make it real easy on me here, between the coaching staff and the guys they have in the room – just keeping yourself mentally prepared, physically prepared off the ice,” Bortuzzo said. “[And] I’ve played a lot of games in Wilkes-Barre and having the systems almost exactly the same is a real luxury. That’s a huge factor.”
Reese, 28, signed with the organization last summer and got his shot when Letang suffered a lower-body injury in last Tuesday’s 4-2 win at Long Island. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound Reese is a solid, two-way player with some speed who led Wilkes-Barre defensemen in points, and the team liked what they saw in his first game, Thursday’s 5-2 win over Washington.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Bylsma said. “We were playing without a big-minute guy in our lineup [in Letang], a guy who does a lot for our team, and Dylan went in and played really well. He’s a skating guy, he went back for pucks well and you saw him do a lot of good things, alleviate pressure out of the defensive zone by skating and making plays. He’s played a fair amount of games in the National Hockey League and he looked like it tonight; he played quite a few minutes and was out there against some of their better players as well.”
Reese is also a feel-good story. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St. Clair, he was inspired to lace up skates for the same reason as many of his peers – the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship teams of the early 1990s.
“I’m definitely a product of the early Stanley Cup teams,” Reese said. “Western Pennsylvania’s a football and baseball town, so those Cups brought hockey to Pittsburgh. Kids started playing floor hockey and roller hockey, and that translated to ice, and here I am. [Those teams] did so much for hockey in the city, and when Sid [Crosby] got here eight years ago, and Geno [Malkin], it really started to pick up again. A lot of the best athletes are choosing hockey now, and you’re seeing that with the draft picks over the last few years from western Pennsylvania. It’s awesome to be part of that group, and I think you’re just going to be seeing more as the years go by.”
With those three joining veterans Engelland, Brooks Orpik and the resurgent Paul Martin, the Penguins may have tough decisions to make when Niskanen – who practiced with the team Sunday – and Letang are ready to return to the lineup. The team also threw one more name into its look at its organizational depth chart Sunday, recalling 20-year-old defenseman Morrow, their first-round draft selection in 2011.
“He can skate, he’s big, he’s a strong guy,” Bylsma said of the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Morrow, who has the chance to see his first NHL action in the second half of a home-and-home against the New Jersey Devils. “He’s highlighted for his shot and his offensive and skating ability, which is very high-end, but he’s also a big body, he’s a farmer-strong kind of player down low.
“In particular, this game today – if Joe Morrow were to get into the game, you’re going to see some [of him on the] power play, you’re going to see his skating ability, and you’re going to see a guy in a game where there’s going to be a lot of [play] along the boards and in the corners, being able to handle guys down low. That’s what Joe can bring.”