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Penguins Notebook: Development Camp

Joe Morrow, Beau Bennett, Derrick Pouliot and 31 of the Penguins other top prospects are in Pittsburgh this week for the organization’s development camp.

The goal is not to make the opening day roster—that is reserved for training camp. Instead, the development camp is to “Learn what it is like to be a Penguin in all aspects,” as assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald phrased it. Making a good impression on the Penguins brass, however, will expedite the process for any player at camp.

So, who has stood out?

All seven of Pittsburgh’s top two round picks from the last four years are at camp. The best among them has unquestionably been Joe Morrow.

Smooth skating, Morrow has impressed in nearly every practice. His offensive talent is rare for a defenseman. Only Beau Bennett has a better pair of hands of the prospects in camp. It can be reasonably argued that Morrow has more offensive skill than Kris Letang.

The Portland Winterhawks defenseman is turning pro this year and is expected to start the season with the Wilkes/Barre Scranton Penguins. Don’t be surprised if he earns NHL action, though.

Morrow’s shot is accurate and hard. He is smart with the puck as well, but his game does have flaws. In the post-practice media scrum Morrow mentioned that the Penguins coaches told him in each of the past two years to keep working on his defensive game. The good news for Penguins fans is that Morrow now thinks of himself as a well-rounded player and he is anxious to make it to the NHL sooner rather than later.

The 2011 first-round pick still needs a year to develop, but playing in an organization that is thin on current NHL caliber defenseman, he could get the nod this year. Head coach Dan Bylsma mentioned as much earlier in the week:

“It will be interesting to see [what happens] with our first-rounders and Brian Dumoulin. There will be lots of opportunity in training camp. It is going to be a competition between these players and there will be nothing set in stone coming into camp about where these players are.”

Simon Despres is another first round pick in camp. Despres has not stood out but his objective this camp is different than in previous years. He was asked by the coaching staff to talk to the team about his experiences over the past few camps and take on more of a leadership position.

“I’m trying to help the other guys like some older players helped me when I came in,” Despres said of his new role at camp.

It is a bit concerning that the 2009 first-round pick has not separated himself from the pack, but there is little doubt that he will be in the NHL at the beginning of the season. At this point, his role mentoring players in July is more important than his play on the ice. Hold your judgment on Despres until training camp.

Beau Bennett has been a polarizing player thus far. He has elite hands and a dangerous shot. Bennett appears to be the homegrown answer to the Penguins consistent question at wing. What is surprising about Bennett is his craftiness. He is able to escape tight situations by utilizing his skill and vision.

“He has the ability to create space and make plays in traffic,” Bylsma said of the blue-chip offensive prospect. “He won’t race up and down with speed but he has a great shot. He is a guy you see in a top six role with that skill and ability.”

Photo by Justin BerlBennett has also put on weight since last season. His bigger frame has helped him possess the puck more and allowed him to be more physical along the boards. Still, the 20-year-old Californian appears to be a minimum of one more year away.

Two first rounders that have struggled have been the Penguins 2012 picks.

Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta both need work. One positive aspect is that skill is not the question with these two prospects. Keep in mind that the Penguins have many top-flight prospects in their organization and they are all at development camp. Just because Pouliot and Maatta aren’t standing out does not mean that they aren’t future stars.

Maatta has shown a superb ability to outlet his own end. His backwards skating to retrieve the puck is smooth and he thrives at quickly shifting the puck out of his zone into transition—which might be the biggest compliment that can be paid to a defenseman in the Penguins system.

The 2012 late first-rounder also has more offensive ability than expected. He is a smart player who is calculated in his decisions.

Maatta’s faults thus far have come in his defensive game. He has been fooled by some of the offensemen’s speed and has lost his player in the defensive zone on occasion. His physical play is something that should be praised though. Touted as a defensive-defenseman first, there is no reason to panic at his gaffes through the first three days of camp.

Maatta’s skill and hockey sense are apparent. He will need some time to develop, however.

Pouliot has also shown flashes. He has struggled with some of the same concepts on defense that Maatta has but Pouliot’s offensive talent is obvious.

He is a fluent skater who is comfortable at any place on the ice. It is worth noting that Morrow suggested Pouliot was the more talented of the two Portland defenders when he was interviewed.

“[Portland] put him on the half-wall on the powerplay and I played the point,” Morrow said. “That is where the skill guys go—on the half wall. I’m just a hard shot from the point.”

Before panicking over the fact that neither Maatta or Pouliot has wowed in camp, remember that they are being compared to two players that had exceptional first year camps in Despres and Morrow. It also should be said that the organization appears to be very high on both players.

Scott Harrington is the last top-tier pick in camp.

Harrington is mature beyond his 19 years. He is sound positionally and exceptional with his stick. On the rare occasion that he is beaten by an offenseman, he simply pokes the puck off the carriers blade.

Photo by Justin BerlThere have been times at camp when Harrington lost his man in the defensive zone. But, the mishaps are countered by his increasingly sound offensive game. His shot is NHL ready and his poise with the puck should be commended. Again, the London Knight is likely one or two years away from competition for an NHL spot, though.

The surprise of camp has been 2012 second-round pick Teddy Blueger.

A center from Shattuck St. Mary’s, Bluegar has impressed with his patience and silky hands. His Datsyukian toe drag around a defender and saucer pass over another to a wide open teammate on Thursday was the play of camp so far.

Bluegar has been a puck-hawk and forechecking machine. He is a player to watch  in a system that has not produced many NHL-caliber forwards over the past few years.

Other exciting prospects have been Matia Marcantuoni, Dominik Uher, Adam Payerl and Antoine Laganiere. All are offensemen.

Marcantuoni is the prize of this group. His hands are nearly as good as Bennett’s and his shot is one of the best among all Penguins prospects. While his slap shot is yet to be seen, Marcantuoni’s wrister is hard an accurate. Add that to a stable of crafty dekes, and the 2012 fourth-round pick is a future NHL player.

Uher is an interesting prospect. At 5’11” his frame is not best suited for physical play, but don’t tell him that. He uses his body as well as anyone in camp to shield the puck. A pest in front the net, Uher will make a goaltender’s life miserable. He also has a cannon of a shot that he can release while on the move—an attribute that many of the League’s top scorers have.

Uher needs to work on a couple aspects of his game, but an NHL ready shot and bull-like mentality suggest that he will be playing with the Penguins at some point down the road.

Payerl and Laganiere are not on the same level of Marcantuoni and Uher, but they both have given the Penguins cause for excitement.

On more than one occasion Payerl has drawn praise from his teammates and coaches for a beautiful shot. He does not have great puck possession skills, but when left open, he can bury the biscuit.

Laganiere has drawn attention for a different reason—his body. The 6’4” Yale prospect shields the puck much like Uher, except he has the frame to do it more effectively. Laganiere has also a nice release but it is not on the same level as Uher’s.

Many Penguins fans have been frustrated by the fact that Ray Shero has selected mostly defensemen in the top few rounds of the draft. But, Marcantuoni, Uher and Blueger are all prospects that have the talent to make an impact at the next level. All three players have a combination of skill and hard work that have made them stand out in development camp and should someday pot them in the NHL.

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