On the Penguins: Learning the value of a team

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The Penguins talk a lot about attention to detail, about being ready for virtually anything that could happen. That's an admirable approach, but almost nothing -- no series of brainstorming sessions, no run-throughs of worst-case scenarios -- could have fully prepared them for what they've endured this season.

Sure, it's true that injuries are an occupational hazard in hockey, and that every team has them. What the Penguins have experienced, though, is more like mass casualties.

They had lost 190 man-games because of injuries before facing Calgary at Consol Energy Saturday, and 200 will be a speck in the rear-view mirror by the time they limp into the holiday break that runs from Tuesday through Thursday.

Of course, "break" probably isn't the term the Penguins would choose to characterize their impending time off. They've heard that word used way too many times during the past few months to describe damage done to players' wrists, ankles, hands and leg bones.

Frankly, their team picture should be taken with an X-ray machine.

Only eight players have been available for every game, and their absentee list lately has been headlined by Evgeni Malkin and their top four defensemen: Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang.

Losing so many high-caliber players for so many games would be a perfectly plausible explanation for a miserable, exasperating season.

Except that the Penguins aren't having one.

Instead, they are perched atop the Eastern Conference and have had success bordering on remarkable for a team that has had to recall no fewer than nine players from its American Hockey League minor-league affiliate.

The Penguins not only have done that, but have brought up several of those guys multiple times. And they've seen a few, like Jayson Megna and Andrew Ebbett, end up on injured-reserve themselves.

Veterans who have bounced between the NHL and the minors -- Chris Conner, in particular -- have stepped into fairly prominent roles after being promoted and done a commendable job.

Fortunate as the Penguins were to have experienced guys like Harry Zolnierczyk, Conner and Ebbett on their depth chart when the run of injuries began, that doesn't mean it simply was a lucky break.

They have earned a reputation as an organization that promotes worthy players, even when there isn't a personnel crisis on the parent team, and that's a powerful selling point when trying to lure unrestricted free agents hoping to prove they are worthy of full-time work in the NHL.

The kind of free agents who are contributing so much now.

"It's certainly something we promote a lot to free agents of all kinds," said assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as GM of the Baby Penguins.

"What's happened with the Group 6 free agents and the Group 3 free agents -- guys like Andrew Ebbett or Chris Conner -- is we're continually showing, year-in and year-out, that we're utilizing these players."

New York Islanders winger Colin McDonald is one who parlayed good work in Wilkes-Barre and a cameo with the Penguins (five games in 2011-12) into a steady job in the NHL.

Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald and goalie coach Mike Buckley, who make up the Penguins' developmental staff, are charged with polishing the games of not only promising young prospects, but older players trying to use Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as a launch pad to the NHL.

"We're working with 21-year-old players, but we're also working with the 28-year-old or 29-year-old who's down there, trying to get to the National Hockey League," Botterill said.

"With our development staff, their responsibilities aren't just to work with our young players. It's to work with all of our players."

Having a stable of quality veterans in the AHL helps prospects adapt to the pro game -- "You don't want to put them in situations where they're overwhelmed," Botterill said -- and the shot at earning an NHL paycheck is all the incentive most older players need to fill their roles effectively.

"If you play well," Botterill said, "you're going to get an opportunity to come up and be part of our group."

The list of players who can testify to that is a lot longer now that it was when training camp ended.

It has been a classic win/win situation, with a twist. Because the wins just don't seem to stop.

The week ahead

Monday: at Ottawa ... The Senators might not be the most disappointing team in the NHL this season, but they're on the short list of candidates.

Friday: at Carolina ... The Hurricanes' home and away records are virtually identical. Unfortunately for them, bobbing along around .500 at PNC Arena might not be good enough to get them into the playoffs.

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