Philip Samuelsson had the best excuse imaginable for ditching out of a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team charity bowling event. He had to catch a ride to Pittsburgh and the NHL.
“My bowling game has been subpar anyway, so I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Samuelsson joked.
That was Sunday. In the interim, the 22-year-old defenseman made his NHL debut with the Penguins, playing 15 minutes, 43 seconds in a 3-1 win Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs with his dad, former Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, and other family members watching from owner Mario Lemieux’s private suite at Consol Energy Center.
He flew to New York with the club Tuesday and is expected to play again tonight against the Rangers — for whom Ulf Samuelsson happens to be an assistant coach.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Philip Samuelsson said after the Monday game. “It was nice to have my family — my mom and dad, brother and sister — come to the game. It was a blast. I had a lot of fun.”
So did Ulf, who was a popular player during the Penguins Stanley Cup runs of the 1990s.
“We were a little late,” the elder Samuelsson told reporters Tuesday back in New York. “We missed the first shift, and [the Penguins] scored on the first shift. We walked into Mario’s box and, all of a sudden, I saw Philip step onto the ice. It was a pretty cool feeling watching him.”
The Penguins are depleted on defense because of injuries and a suspension to Deryk Engelland — he has a hearing with the NHL department of safety today in New York — and Samuelsson would be counted as the No. 11 defenseman in the organization, going by the order of promotions from Wilkes-Barre, the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Samuelsson’s path wasn’t necessarily a smooth one at every step.
He was a second-round draft pick in 2009 and chose to leave Boston College in spring 2011 after two seasons and a national championship.
Since he turned pro, Samuelsson got passed by other Penguins prospects — including Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Olli Maatta — and even had a five-game stint with Wheeling in the ECHL in 2011-12.
It took a couple of seasons for him to grow into being a solid pro player and find his niche as a physical, stay-at-home defenseman.
“Philip is a guy who has developed the most in our organization of any defenseman in the last three years,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s come a long way. He left BC and he’s developed into a top shutdown defenseman, a top [penalty-killing] guy for Wilkes-Barre.”
Samuelsson, 6 feet 2, 194 pounds, stopped short of saying that he perhaps could have remained in college for another season or two, but he is happy with his development.
“It’s definitely taken some big strides over the past couple of years — just maturing into my body physically, and then being able to make quicker decisions,” he said.
Before a stream of recalls of defensemen this season, Samuelsson was on a top pairing for Wilkes-Barre with Despres, who has been in the NHL the past 10 games.
Samuelsson is the steady, defense-minded onewith three goals, 20 points in 116 minor-league games; Despres is the better two-way defenseman. They were reunited Monday against Toronto and appeared to be comfortable on the ice together.
“I just know what he’s going to do,” Samuelsson said. “I think we play pretty well together.
“We have a pretty good mix of what we both do. We bring out the best in each other.
” It’s been a good pairing for me.”
Although Samuelsson is a physical player, he’s not in the same class as his father, who delivered thundering hits and agitated opponents.
That’s OK. There are things, Ulf Samuelsson said, that his son does better than he did, things that are required of defensemen with systems that emphasize specific puck retrievals and transitions to offense.
“He’s a modernized version of what I was,” Ulf Samuelsson said.
“He’s a modern-day good defender, but I think he’s a better passer than I was. You defend with different methods nowadays than when I played. You’ve got to be a lot better on your skates and mobile and quick.”
Monday, Ulf got to relax and watch Philip. It will be a little different tonight.
“You’re pretty busy when you’re coaching, and there are a lot of things that go through your mind, but I’m sure I’ll throw the odd glimpse on the ice if he’s playing,” the elder Samuelsson said.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.