“We’re talking about four guys right there with (Derrick) Pouliot and (Olli) Maatta and (Scott) Harrington and (Joe) Morrow that may make up, down the road, one of the best defensive corps in the league,” he said.
Bylsma isn’t the only one promoting his young D-men. Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero made it very clear at the draft that he wants to make room for younger defensemen to develop. The first step in that process took place last month when Pouliot, Maatta, Harrington and Morrow were joined by Simon Despres, recent acquisition Brian Dumoulin and seven other defensemen in the Penguins’ annual development camp.
Poised to break through this year is Despres, who only turned 21 late last month. The Pens’ first-round pick from 2009, Despres played in 18 NHL games last year, notching a goal and three assists, and made his NHL postseason debut, appearing in three games in the Pens first-round loss to the Flyers. He also had 15 points in 44 games for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pens.
“I don’t think you need to think farther than Simon Despres in terms of seeing him develop as a professional; seeing that development in him,” Bylsma said. “You see a significant difference in him as a player and him as a person.”
Bylsma also lauded Harrington, saying that this year he is “a guy who possibly could see him take another step in his career.”
If training camp and the exhibition season happen as planned, Morrow, the Pens’ first-round pick from 2011, could also be on the bubble.
“There is definitely going to be a competition level for players and opportunities with that competition,” Bylsma said. “There is not going to be something that’s set in stone coming into camp with where players are.”
While coaches see Despres, Morrow and Harrington as possibly taking strides in their development this year, Tom Fitzgerald, assistant to the general manager, cautions against pushing the younger players—specifically the two 2012 first-round draft picks—too soon.
“Because they’re first-rounders you think, ‘when’s he going to be ready to play?’” Fitzgerald said. “You know what, every kid’s different, but the one thing is they’re talented.”
Talented and, in the case of Maatta, formidably-sized.
“Maatta is 200 pounds right now,” Fitzgerald said of the 17-year-old. “You can see what he’s going to be. Pouliot is going to be that smooth, Brian Campbell type of skater that can get you out of your end.”
Glowing scouting reports aside, it’s unlikely that all of the Penguins’ top tier prospects will eventually don a black and yellow sweater. The Penguins also have a very successful record of developing and then trading talented defensemen, as they did with Ryan Whitney in 2009 and Alex Goligoski in 2011. When a team stockpiles players like Morrow, Despres, Harrington, Dumoulin, Pouliot and Maatta, they have the ability to turn them into top NHL blue-liners, or the luxury of simply using them as blue-chip prospects in trades.
For now, though, the Penguins are anxious to see what their rich crop of defensive talent can do within the organization.
“Some are raw, some are a little bit more advanced than others, but they can play,” John Hynes, head coach of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, said. “They have good physical skills and we’re excited about that group.”
The players themselves also realize they are part of a special collection of talent.
“I think there are great opportunities for all of the defensemen here,” Harrington said. “You’ve just got to take it day by day.”