On the Penguins: Deep on the blue line

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Conventional wisdom holds that any team hoping to contend for a Stanley Cup should have about 10 defensemen capable of taking a fairly regular shift in the NHL on its depth chart.

That's not always possible for a lot of clubs, especially in the salary-cap era.

It's not a problem for the Penguins, though. They've had seven on the major league roster all season, and have nearly a half-dozen more who either have played in the NHL, or look capable of doing so.

They have almost an embarrassment of riches on defense throughout their organization. And while there aren't many who project as game-changers, there are plenty who figure to be cashing paychecks at this level sooner or later.

"If you had to pick one strength of our organization, it would probably be defense," said assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as GM of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. "You look at the players we don't have signed yet, or who are in junior or college, and we have some good prospects there."

The finest is Simon Despres, who will play for Canada in the world junior championships that begin today in Buffalo. He was a first-round draft choice in 2009, and has the potential to develop into an impact player at both ends of the ice.

But while Despres is the headliner, he's not the only young defenseman who has shown considerable promise.

"Our amateur scouts have done a good job at identifying some players early, like Simon Despres, but also some guys late, like a Reid McNeill, who we hope will develop down the road, or a Nick D'Agostino, who is off to a good start at Cornell as a late pick," Botterill said.

It could be a couple of seasons before Despres moves into the NHL, however, and even longer before McNeill or D'Agostino gets there. If and when they reach this level, they can expect to be greeted by a few guys who have spent this season in Wilkes-Barre.

Not necessarily journeymen like Andrew Hutchinson, Steve Wagner and Corey Potter, who are having productive seasons with the Baby Penguins, but prospects like Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo, who challenged for jobs in the NHL this fall and will do it again at camp in 2011.

"You look at our team in Wilkes-Barre, and one of the main reasons we're having success there is that Hutchinson, Wagner and Potter have done an excellent job and could give us games in the National Hockey League right now," Botterill said.

"But it's Strait and Bortuzzo who have stepped up and, instead of just surviving in the American Hockey League, have taken on the attitude of, 'Hey, we can play against the other team's top lines, if need be' and have really pushed our group down there and give us great depth. They've made huge strides in their game."

That those two are playing in the AHL is not an indictment of their games, Botterill said, but a simple concession to the reality that experience is critical for defensemen who hope to perform at this level.

"You look at players like Rob Scuderi or even Brooks Orpik ... you have to spend time in the minors," Botterill said. "It's a long process."

Developing defensemen requires a lot of time and patience; failing to do so takes a lot of cash. The Penguins, you might recall, invested $45 million in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek in the span of a few hours July 1.

"Look every year at free agency," Botterill said. "Teams spend a lot of money on defensemen, because there's such a need for them each year. If we can somehow develop them internally, it's a huge benefit for us."

The week ahead

Today: at Ottawa ... The Penguins make their first visit of the season to Ottawa, after beating the Senators twice at home. The most intriguing issue might be whether the temperature in Celsius or Sergei Gonchar's plus-minus rating for the season will be lower.

Tuesday: vs. Atlanta ... The Thrashers might become the first team in NHL history to finish with more points than season-ticket holders.

Wednesday: at New York Islanders ... Think there's a position in management for Gilligan on this Island? Think he'd accept it?

Saturday: vs. Washington ... This game will be played at Heinz Field. Perhaps you've heard.

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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