Penguins prospect Ruopp one to watch

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LONDON, Ontario -- The Penguins' developmental pipeline is all but clogged with promising young defensemen, and a few have generated some pretty gaudy stats.

Derrick Pouliot, a first-round draft choice in 2012, piled up 45 points in 44 games last season with Portland in the Western Hockey League.

Olli Maatta, selected shortly after Pouliot, accumulated eight goals and 30 assists in 57 games with London of the Ontario Hockey League.

Those two are among the headliners for the Penguins in a prospects tournament, which continued with a 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto Saturday night at Budweiser Gardens.

Harrison Ruopp, acquired from Phoenix in the 2012 draft-day trade that sent Zbynek Michalek to the Coyotes, put up some offensive numbers in his four seasons with Prince Albert in the Western Hockey League, too.

Just not many.

To be precise, three goals and 31 assists in 214 career games.

While averaging a point every six games or so isn't a terribly effective way of getting noticed by scouts, there are others.

And Ruopp found a pretty good one.

He hits. Hard. And often.

And if he continues to do that as his career progresses -- Ruopp will play pro hockey for the first time this winter -- there's a pretty good chance he'll show up on the Penguins' blue line someday.

Because for all the quality defense prospects on the Penguins depth chart, no one figures to fill the niche for a punishing hitter the way Ruopp could.

"Harrison is a stay-at-home defenseman who has really good size (6 feet 3, 205 pounds) and is physical," assistant coach Jason Botterill said. "He makes guys pay a price in the corner and in front of the net."

He had been expected to play against the Maple Leafs, but was held out because of an undisclosed injury that a team official characterized as "minor."

Ruopp, 20, got his first exposure to the pro game this spring when he was on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's taxi squad for the Calder Cup playoffs.

"Just from watching, the guys are bigger, faster, stronger [than in junior hockey]," he said. "I've worked quite hard over the summer, and I feel it's not going to be difficult bringing my physical game up to the next level."

Although Botterill describes Ruopp as "a legit prospect," Ruopp is expected to need at least a couple of seasons in the American Hockey League before he's ready to move into the NHL.

That doesn't seem to faze management, and Botterill noted that similar patience was required with Deryk Engelland before he was ready for steady work with the Penguins.

"Hopefully, down the road, [Ruopp] is a guy who can turn into a hard-nosed, NHL defenseman for us," Botterill said.

Phoenix was looking for that when it spent a third-round draft choice on Ruopp in 2011.

He learned he no longer had a place in the Coyotes' plans as he watched the 2012 draft while working out in a gym.

"I was quite shocked," Ruopp said. "I didn't see it coming at all, but at the same time, I was super-excited for a new opportunity in a new organization, and such a great organization as Pittsburgh. I was very happy."

The Penguins acquired him along with a third-round draft choice that was used on center Oskar Sundqvist. They also acquired goalie Marc Cheverie, whose rights they retained only briefly.

Little more than a year later, Botterill says Ruopp's goal "should be to really have a strong role on that team in Wilkes-Barre this year" and that "there's going to be a specific role for him" with the Baby Penguins.

The Penguins do not have a timetable for him to reach the parent club, and neither does Ruopp.

"Definitely not," he said. "I'm just going to work as hard as I can and fill my role. I feel I'll play where I deserve to play."

NOTES -- Scott Harrington, Jayson Megna and Tom Kuhnhackl scored the Penguins' goals against Toronto in regulation. ... The Penguins, whose training camp begins Wednesday, will open practices and a scrimmage to the public Saturday at Consol Energy Center. Gates will open at 8:30 a.m.

penguins

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


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