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Pittsburgh Penguins playing fine with call-ups

Posted on December 31, 2013 by Scott Huntington

Jayson+MegnaHockey is a game of “What Ifs.” What if Ken Dryden had a longer career? What If Brett Hull’s crease violation was called? What If Mario Lemieux didn’t get cancer? So many records and games could be changed by just the slightest details, and we often mull over them and ponder an alternate universe where Kerry Fraser doesn’t blow a call or Tim Thomas doesn’t go hide in a bunker. One of the biggest “What Ifs” involves the Pittsburgh Penguins and their constant injury issues. “What If the Penguins stars never got injured?” Ever since Crosby’s concussion in the Winter Classic, the Penguins have been setting records for man-games lost to injury. This season they’ve already racked up over 210 man-games lost, which is staggering not only in the amount, but the fact that it isn’t just 3rd and 4th liners, but some of their top stars like Malkin, Dupuis, Orpik and Letang. Fortunately, Pittsburgh is lucky enough to have one of the best farm systems in the NHL, and can pull from Wilkes-Barre Scranton and receive NHL-ready players while their starters watch the game from their physical therapy pools. Let’s take a look at a few of the call ups who have been outstanding in their time with the big club.

First, we’ll start with Robert Bortuzzo, who isn’t exactly a call-up, as he started the season with the Penguins, but injuries to regular starters required him to be moved up on a more permanent basis. Bortuzzo is like Brooks Orpik, only bigger and younger. He has the ability to deliver bone crushing checks, yet still has the heads-up awareness to move the puck well. This season has been his first real shot at staying on the roster, and he’s made a good case for an extension.

Jayson Megna, who debuted against the Islanders on Oct 25th, registered an assist in his first appearance, and has been the leading scorer of all the WBS Penguins who’ve seen time in Pittsburgh. In his 15 games played, he’s notched 4 goals and 2 assists for 6 points), which is pretty good for someone who gets thrown on the roster mid season and has to work with ever-changing linemates. Megna has blistering skating speed, and that makes him a natural pair with Crosby and Dupuis, who both can turn on the jets. Sadly though, Megna wasn’t quick enough to avoid the injury bug, and he’s been sidelined after a collision against Toronto.

Simon Despres has had several shots with the Penguins, and it has never seemed to stick until recently. A poor training camp got him relegated to Wilke-Barre again, and some questioned what the long term plan was for grooming defensemen, as Letang received a massive long term extension, and the Penguins re-signed a much older Rob Scuderi. Despres has clawed his way back though, and has proved to be the responsible defenseman that Letang has not been lately. Despres has only been on the ice for 3 even strength goals against in over 200 minutes of ice time, which is exceptional. With Penguins fans getting flustered by unsteady play in their own end, it’s reassuring to have a solid guy like Despres to back you up. Sure, he isn’t the strongest or fastest, but you can set your clock by his reliability to be where he needs to be.

Finally, Chris Connor is back, and back with the big club too. Connor is a perennial call-up/send-down for every team he’s been on. He got his NHL break with Pittsburgh during the 2009-10 season, but found himself back on the AHL bus in Wilkes-Barre for conditioning. 2011 saw him head to Detroit, where he started strong with the Wings, but ended up in Grand Rapids with the Griffins. Throw in a brief stint in the Phoenix organization and Connor has come full circle, back to Wilkes-Barre, and now to Pittsburgh. Connor is a small guy, at only 5’8” 190, and it’s been hard to find a role that he fits. He nets clutch goals, but that’s about it. A solid passer, Connor doesn’t have the size to battle in the corners with NHL level talent, but he certainly has determination. He could potentially be a Max Talbot style player who has a limited role, but comes up big in intense situations.

All in all, the Penguins have benefitted from their AHL comrades coming to the rescue. They sit in 1st place not only in the Metropolitan Division, but the entire Eastern Conference. Losing as many stars as they have would cripple most teams, but the system in WBS is interchangeable with the main franchise, and coach Dan Bylsma has a knack for getting the most out of his call-ups. For a more in depth look, check out the breakdown from Pensburgh.com.

Scott Huntington is a writer, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son, doing research for Safer Brand. You can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington and at blogspike.com

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