Penguins Prospects Gaining Valuable Experience

Tuesday, June 3, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Penguins take on the St. John's IceCaps tonight at 6:00 p.m. ET in Game Six of the AHL's Eastern Conference Finals. Trailing the series 3-2, they need a win tonight to send the series to a 7th game. 

While the Pittsburgh Penguins were bounced out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs early last month, their AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have extended their season to June for the second straight year.

What this means is that some of the organization's top prospects - defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington and forwards Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna and Anton Zlobin come to mind - are playing playoff hockey at a very high level, which bodes well for their respective future.

The blue line has been an obvious strength in the organization the past few years and with the AHL Penguins playing into the third round of the playoffs the last two years, those blue-chip prospects are developing into NHL-ready talent.

Through 16 postseason games, Brian Dumoulin been the team's best defenseman. His 12 points (3G-9A) and plus seven rating are both second best on the team behind Chuck Kobasew's 16 points (8G-6A) and plus nine rating and tops among the team's defensemen in both categories.

What has been most impressive about Dumoulin - the second year pro out of Boston College - has been his poise with the puck on his stick and his solid play in all three zones of the ice. My first impressions of Dumoulin was comparable to a young Brooks Orpik-like stay at home defenseman that is good at taking away time and space.

This year especially, Dumoulin has shown with his increased role that he has a bit of an offensive flare, eating up big minutes on both special teams units and being a key contributor to the AHL Penguins playoff run this year.

Dumoulin has shown in the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs that he's ready to make the jump to the NHL and can do so as early as next season, given the uncertainty surrounding impending free agents Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen as well as the injury that will likely slow Olli Maatta's start to the 2014-15 season. Add in the organization's lack of confidence in fellow WBS blueliner Simon Despres and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Dumoulin gets a solid look with the NHL club in training camp this fall.

Another pleasant surprise on the back end has been rookie Scott Harrington, who's brief stint with the AHL Penguins in last year's playoff run has seemed to pay off in a big way. The first year pro and former London Knights standout tallied 24 points (5G-19A) in his debut season, appearing in all 76 regular season games.

Harrington hasn't put up big numbers in the postseason (just one assist and an even rating in 15 games) but he's the kind of player you often forget is just a rookie. In fact, some nights you don't notice him at all and for a defenseman that's certainly not a bad thing.

While Harrington definitely has an NHL future ahead of him, I think he's still a year away from being a full-time NHL defenseman. That's not to say he won't get in some NHL games next season when injuries arise, and his chemistry with former London-teammate Olli Maatta shouldn't go unnoticed much longer.

The knock against the organization and former GM Ray Shero has been the lack of adequate depth of prospects at the forward position. With the emergence of third year pro Brian Gibbons this season as well as undrafted forwards Jayson Megna (2nd year pro), Conor Sheary (rookie) and Josh Archibald (rookie) and promising youngster Anton Zlobin, the AHL Penguins have several forwards developing  in big-game situations in the AHL postseason.

Penguins fans are probably most familiar with Gibbons (5G-12A in 41 regular season NHL games) and Megna (5G-4A in 36 regular season NHL games), but it's newcomers Zlobin, Archibald and Sheary that have been pleasant surprises this season.

Zlobin's season really began with the Pens' ECHL affiliate in Wheeling after recovering from an offseason shoulder surgery that caused him to miss all the offseason camps and the preseason. After getting his feet wet in the ECHL (5G-6A in 10 games), Zlobin was re-assigned to the AHL Penguins. After a streaky first pro season, Zlobin has been clutch for the Penguins in the postseason with three game winning goals to go along with 10 points (6G-4A) in 14 playoff games this spring.

Conor Sheary has been arguably the biggest surprise for the Penguins this postseason, having just arrived on ATO after he finished up his season at the University of Massachusetts. Sheary finished his senior year at UMass with 28 points (9G-19A) in 34 games before signing an ATO to join the AHL Penguins. Sheary also signed an AHL deal for next season.

Sheary was held scoreless in his first two regular season games as a pro, but has turned in quite an impressive postseason thus far with 11 points (6G-5A) in 14 games. At one point, Sheary had an eight-game points scoring streak before a scoring change in a recent game removed an assist and actually ended his streak at four games.

Nonetheless, the undrafted forward from UMass has been a nice addition and could be another one of those undrafted college products (i.e. Mark Letestu, Jayson Megna) that pan out. Sheary shows a lot of promise.

Playing games in June only helps along a player's development. The experience gained in these long playoff runs - even at the AHL level - pay off in a big way, especially in the case of Scott Harrington last year and the incoming rookies this year. To get their feet wet in the pro-style games now eases their transition in their first full season of pro hockey the following year.


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