If nothing else, bottom of NHL roster, AHL club is well-stocked

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No matter how it's spun, Wednesday was a pretty bad day for the Penguins.

Most of the organization, anyway.

After all, the free-agent left winger they envisioned as a long-term linemate for Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, accepted a contract from Minnesota. So did the defenseman, Ryan Suter, they hoped would work on their No. 1 pairing.

Turned out the day wasn't a total write-off, though. Especially not for their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.

Late that evening, they agreed to a one-year, two-way deal with Philippe Dupuis.

He's no relation to Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis -- and perhaps is a long shot to ever be a teammate -- and doesn't have a pedigree remotely close to that of Parise or Suter, but he was just the latest in a series of accomplished minor league players who will bolster the Wilkes-Barre lineup.

Signing Dupuis was not Plan B, a knee-jerk reaction to losing out on Parise and Suter.

More like Plan D. As in, depth.

The point of adding players such as Dupuis -- whose contract is worth $600,000 when he's in the NHL, $105,000 when he's in the minors -- is to give the organization players who can fill in at the major league level, if necessary, and can generate competition for spots at the bottom of the NHL roster.

Forwards such as Dupuis, Warren Peters and Trevor Smith not only are formidable additions for the Baby Penguins, but "can give us NHL games right away and challenge [players on the] NHL team right off the bat," said assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as Wilkes-Barre's general manager.

Their first move, though, was to lock up a guy who might be the least likely of all the newcomers to pull on a Penguins sweater in 2012-13.

Shortly after the free-agent signing period began Sunday, they worked out a deal with Jeff Zatkoff, an American Hockey League all-star while playing for Manchester last season. He will share the goaltending duties in Wilkes-Barre with AHL veteran Brad Thiessen.

That gives the Baby Penguins a reliable duo to work behind a defense that, while loaded with outstanding prospects such as Joseph Morrow and Scott Harrington, figures to have limited professional experience.

"We were extremely happy to get Zatkoff done," Botterill said. "With our young defense, we felt it was important that we solidify our goaltending."

That issue resolved, the Penguins made a series of moves intended to replenish Wilkes-Barre's supply of centers.

"We didn't have much, from an NHL-ready perspective, down the middle," Botterill said.

That changed before Sunday was over, as Smith, Peters and Riley Holzapfel were signed to transform what had been an area of concern into a major strength.

Although Peters played 58 games for the Wild last season, Smith is the headliner of the group.

He was a key member of Norfolk's Calder Cup-winning club and was the AHL's No. 6 scorer in the regular season, despite spending part of it with Tampa Bay, for which he appeared in 16 games.

Smith, 27, had 26 goals and 43 assists in 64 regular-season games with the Admirals, then tied for the AHL playoff scoring lead by piling up five goals and 11 assists in 18 games.

"You always try to bring in players who have won championships," Botterill said. "We made a call [to Smith] very early at the start of free agency."

Although Wilkes-Barre is a perennial playoff team, that probably isn't the primary selling point for free agents the Baby Penguins are trying to attract.

Rather, Botterill and other team officials can point to how many Wilkes-Barre players get call-ups to the NHL, and how many Wilkes-Barre alums end up with NHL contracts in other places.

Just this week, four players who were on AHL contracts with the Baby Penguins in 2011-12 -- Ben Street (Calgary), Bryan Lerg and Geoff Walker (Colorado) and Brandon DeFazio (New Yosk Islanders) -- got NHL deals elsewhere.

That kind of upward mobility makes an impression on minor league players looking for a break to reach the next level.

"That proves out system is working," Botterill said. "It's about our opportunities. About our experience and stuff of actually playing players [in the NHL who are] on a two-way [contract]."

Part of Botterill's challenge when making over the AHL lineup, pretty much an annual event in the minors, is to strike a balance between developing young talent and having veterans who can help the team be competitive.

The Penguins have done a pretty good job of that in Wilkes-Barre for years. The moves they've made this week suggest it will be that way again in the coming season.

NOTE -- Thirty-four players will attend the Penguins prospects camp July 10-14 at Consol Energy Center. The list includes high-profile prospects such as winger Beau Bennett and defensemen Simon Despres. Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta, Morrow and Harrington.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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