So far so good for two Penguins rookies
Simon Despres takes New Jersey's David Clarkson into the bench area in the Penguins win against the Devils Saturday at Consol Energy Center. Despres has a plus-minus rating of plus-4 in eight games.
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In the statistics compiled by the NHL, there are two Penguins with an asterisk next to their name -- Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo.
They are the only rookies playing for the Penguins. Both are defensemen, which could be seen as impressive because they have cracked the lineup in an organization deep at defense or as a weakness because it can put a target on their backs.
"Both of them continue to make strides and go through growth," said Penguins assistant Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense and coached Bortuzzo for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League.
"They've both had a real positive impact on our defense."
The only other NHL team dressing two rookie defensemen with any regularity is the New York Islanders with Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki.
There's no assurance Despres and Bortuzzo will dress for the home game tonight against Washington, although at least one should because Matt Niskanen remains out with what is believed to be an ankle injury.
Despres has been filling in for Niskanen in a pairing with Kris Letang. Bortuzzo lately had supplanted Ben Lovejoy in the lineup and has been paired with Deryk Engelland. Lovejoy was traded to Anaheim Thursday night, but the Penguins recalled defenseman Dylan Reese, meaning they still have eight defensemen.
Despres, 21 and a first-round draft pick in 2009, has two goals, four points and a plus-minus rating of plus-4 in eight games -- he played the first three, sat out two and has been in the lineup since.
Bortuzzo, 23 and a third-round pick in 2007, has a goal, three points and is plus-2 in four games. He might be something of a good-luck charm. After being a healthy scratch the first six games, he has played in the past four, which happens to coincide with the Penguins' current winning streak.
The streak has been defined in large part by improved defensive play. That extends to the whole team, but the rookies are satisfied with their contribution.
"I think it's just great getting wins with this team," Bortuzzo said. "It's a great collection of guys. To be a part of winning hockey, a winning culture is something that is exciting to me."
Despres is the better known and stronger offensive force of the two. He could have been sent back to Wilkes-Barre after the short training camp last month without having to clear waivers, but instead the Penguins tried to send Brian Strait back to the AHL. He was claimed off waivers by the Islanders.
"It's a good time," Despres said of sticking in the NHL. "To play hockey for a living is the best thing in the world."
Despres played in 18 NHL games (plus three in the playoffs) before this season; Bortuzzo, six.
Both played for Wilkes-Barre during the NHL lockout earlier this season.
Despres had four goals, seven points and was a minus-5 in 27 AHL games. Bortuzzo had a goal, three points and was a plus-2 in 28 games.
Each has had one bumpy NHL game this season.
For Despres, it was the 6-3 win Sunday at Washington. Particularly early in the game, the Capitals forecheckers challenged him for position, for the puck and physically. At one point, star winger Alex Ovechkin dumped Despres to the ice. He finished with no shots, an even plus-minus and one hit.
Washington could employ the same tactics tonight. Despres isn't worried.
"They're bigger, stronger, faster" in the NHL, he said. "You've just got to execute, keep it simple.
"I still think I'm skating good, making passes."
He bounced back to score a goal Tuesday in a 4-2 road win against the Islanders.
Bortuzzo's subpar game was his first this NHL season, a 3-0 win against the Rangers last Thursday in New York.
"A little bit of settling in in the first game in New York," he said. "I hadn't played at this level in a long time and hadn't played a full-on contact hockey game for three weeks. But I feel like I can play my game, and things will work themselves out from there."
That's if they remain in the lineup for the Penguins, who did not practice Wednesday.
It's not just Reese who could eat into their game appearances.
Niskanen is expected to be out at least another week. When he is taken off of injured reserve, the Penguins will have to reduce their roster by one after adding winger Zach Boychuk on waivers.
The Penguins will have to make a decision or two, meaning the two rookie defensemen could be auditioning for one job.
In Reirden's assessment, Despres and Bortuzzo have handled the pressure of playing on the road and sometimes being matched against opponents' best offensive players. The Penguins have played seven of 10 games on the road, where opponents have had the advantage in making personnel changes and getting preferred matchups.
"I've been happy with how they've handled some pretty tough matchups and how they've responded," Reirden said.
First Published February 7, 2013 12:00 am