Highlighted by 2009 and 2011 first-rounders Simon Despres and Joe Morrow, the Pens had a long and deep list of blue-line talent. Second-rounders Philip Samuelsson (2009), Brian Dumoulin (Carolina, 2009), Scott Harriington (2011) and Harrison Ruopp (Arizona, 2011) rounded out the group, but Despres and Morrow were the clear jewels of the organization.
“I think the things that jump out at you right away were just his size and his skating ability,” said Penguins assistant GM Jason Botterill of Despres, selected by the Pens at 30th overall in 2009, weeks after winning the Stanley Cup.
Then-GM Ray Shero said that the Penguins simply couldn’t afford to pass on Morrow.
“He’s a very strong player, real solid on his feet,” Shero said at the time. “He should be a good two-way defenseman for us.”
The already-impressive group was bolstered by the 2012 addition of first-rounders Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta, both still just 21 years old.
“There are the two kids at the top end who are pretty much bets to play at the NHL level,” said former NHL scout Kyle Woodlief, now the publisher of the Red Line Report, about Pouliot and Maatta when the Penguins selected the duo in the first round in 2012. “Those two kids at the top end are pretty much bets to play at the NHL level. I don’t think I would rate any of [Pittsburgh’s defense prospects] as highly as I would rate either of these two kids.”
While it was clear that the Pens would never have room for the entire group of tantalizing prospects, the abundance of talent gave the team trade bait as well as plenty of time to develop the group.
And that’s exactly what the Penguins’ front office started to do more than two years ago.
Morrow, now 22, was traded to Dallas as part of the trade that send veteran winger Brenden Morrow to Pittsburgh in 2013 and made his NHL debut last season with the Boston Bruins.
Last season, Philip Samuelsson was shipped to Arizona and Després, 24, was traded to the Anaheim Ducks. The 22-year-old Harrington was traded this offseason to Toronto as part of the deal that brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh.
Despite injuries and illness, Maatta has blossomed into one of the team’s top defensemen at just 22 years of age. The team expects to have Maatta back to full health this season and skating with Kris Letang in what could be one of the top defensive pairings in the entire Eastern Conference.
The hopes for Pouliot are similarly high, but the former first-rounder is not yet ready to match his high potential with similar production. Instead of entering his first full NHL season, he’ll be back in the AHL. The team still believes he can be a top-four defensemen in coach Mike Johnston’s system, but he had a quiet enough camp to force management to send him back to the minors.
Dumoulin will begin the season with the Penguins and is expected to take a regular shift. Ruopp, still 22, remains a bit further down on the organizational depth chart and will likely spend the season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
As for the former Penguins, Morrow has not lived up to his immense potential and is currently with his third NHL organization. At just 22, he still has time to fulfill his promise although it’s difficult not to be wistful about the team’s decision to pass on local product Brandon Saad, a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
Despres is much further along in his NHL career than Morrow, although he never got much of chance to play under former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. Current coach Mike Johnston used Despres regularly last season to varying degrees of success, but the former first-rounder nonetheless was sent to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy at the trade deadline. Despres flourished in his brief time on the west coast and it will be interesting to see if he has ironed out all his inconsistencies. If so, he could be a top-caliber blue liner for the Ducks.
Totonto’s Harrington and Arizona’s Samuellson are still depth-guys at this point.
With only three members of the once imposing group still with the Penguins, judgement will soon be passed on how successful Shero’s “Blue Line Experiment” has been.