By Jeff Z. Klein and Stu Hackel
December 21, 2013
Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta, a first-round draft pick in 2012, scoring against Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom on Thursday in a 5-2 win.(Gene Puskar/AP)
Year after year, the Pittsburgh Penguins are hit hard by injuries to star players, and even more so in the past two seasons. But they continue to win, in large part because of General Manager Ray Shero’s foresight and industriousness.
In Thursday’s 5-2 victory against the Minnesota Wild, only one Penguins defenseman — the eight-year veteran Matt Niskanen — had played more than 62 N.H.L. games. Four were recent products of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s farm club in the American Hockey League.
Brian Dumoulin, Philip Samuelsson and Simon Despres were all recent call-ups, and Robert Bortuzzo had spent most of the previous four seasons there.
A sixth defenseman, the 2012 first-round draft pick Olli Maatta, scored on a penalty shot and added an assist against the Wild. He has never played in the A.H.L. but he started against Minnesota having played in only 36 N.H.L. contests.
That young crew was augmented by three Penguins forwards — Chris Conner, Zach Sill and Harry Zolnierczyk — who also began the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
These fill-ins helped the Penguins win their sixth consecutive game, despite the absence of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and five other regulars, to keep Pittsburgh atop the Eastern Conference.
“It’s not a new thing,” said Shero, referring to late last season, when four top players — Malkin, Neal, Martin and Sidney Crosby — were simultaneously missing. “We played at a .600 pace without those guys.”
Shero, named the general manager of the year last season, has fortified his team’s depth in recent seasons, drafting well and acquiring lots of young talent, even if it has meant trading valuable players like Jordan Staal.
He has excelled at projecting his team’s needs down the road. With the superstar centers Crosby and Malkin still relatively young, Shero focused on stockpiling defensemen, a position that requires time to master. Shero also aimed to add mobile defensemen after N.H.L. rule changes in 2005 sped up the game.
Having previously run Nashville’s minor league operation — one that funneled defensemen Kimmo Timonen, Shea Weber, Kevin Klein, Greg Zanon, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis to the Predators — Shero had recognized the value of a productive farm team before joining Pittsburgh in 2006.
He praises many on his staff — including Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Coach John Hynes and the assistant Alain Nasreddine — for the work they do out of the limelight to help build that depth.
A crucial task in player development is working on prospects’ weaknesses. Hynes points to Despres, the Penguins’ 2009 first-round draft choice, as Exhibit A.
After a brief, wobbly playoff performance last spring against the Islanders and a poor training camp this fall, Despres began this season back in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“He has offensive abilities,” said Hynes, a 38-year-old career coach who played four years at Boston University, “but what he lacked was his defensive habits, defensive fundamentals and, most importantly, just a mind-set of how you have to play when you’re under pressure in your defensive zone, how to defend against bigger, stronger players.”
Hynes and Nasreddine, who played 15 professional seasons as a defenseman, improved Despres’s defensive skills by playing him against the top opposition lines. They also took him off the power play — he did not need to work on those skills — and gave him extra work killing penalties.
“That’s really what changed his game.” Hynes said. “He was able to perfect that down here, and when he went back up to the N.H.L., he was more comfortable; it was automatic for him. He’s played great.”
The Penguins teach their A.H.L. club to play the same style of hockey as the parent club, so executing all sorts of things in the faster-paced N.H.L. becomes similarly automatic.
“They play a certain way because they’ve been taught to play that way down in Wilkes-Barre by John and Naz,” Shero said. “They come up, and it’s a pretty seamless transition. They know our system.”
Hynes talks regularly by phone with Pittsburgh Coach Dan Bylsma and the assistant general manager, Jason Botterill, whose job is akin to the one Shero had in Nashville. Still, in-person contact with the prospects is highly beneficial, and members of the parent club are a regular presence.
Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin, former N.H.L. players who are part of Pittsburgh’s hockey operations, regularly assist Hynes and Nasreddine on the ice during practices. Hynes has even had Guerin, a Stanley Cup champion with the Devils and the Penguins, behind the bench with him during games.
Shero said someone from his staff attended nearly every Wilkes-Barre/Scranton game.
“It’s important for the players to know — and the coaches, too — that they have our support and we care about their development,” he said.
Thornton Makes Case
N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday heard Boston forward Shawn Thornton’s appeal of the 15-game suspension he received for attacking Brooks Orpik.
Should Bettman uphold the suspension issued by the league’s Department of Player Safety, Thornton has the option to further appeal to James C. Oldham, an independent arbitrator for discipline agreed to by the N.H.L. and the players’ association.
Under the collective bargaining agreement that went into effect this season, players who have been suspended for six or more games can appeal the commissioner’s determination. Previously, an appeal to the commissioner was the final step available to players.
No appeal of a suspension has gone yet to Oldham, a law professor at Georgetown University.
Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta, whose 10-game suspension earlier this season was upheld by Bettman, declined to pursue the matter further.