The Pittsburgh Penguins have long boasted one of the best groups of prospect defensemen in all of hockey, a group littered with first- and second-round picks, offensive contributors and defensive stalwarts and strong skaters at every level.
General Manager Ray Shero and his staff have a deliberate (and sometimes dogmatic) commitment to building their club from the blue line out. They've used young defensemen to fill vacancies on Pittsburgh's roster when necessary (Kris Letang, Deryk Engelland) and as expendable trade assets when possible (Ryan Whitney, Alex Goligoski). The Penguins acquired five defensemen through selections or trade at the 2012 NHL Draft alone, and have used four of their top-four picks in the last two drafts on defensemen.
As an organization, the Penguins are stacked. But the team is still short on proven D at the NHL level.
Zbynek Michalek was traded to Phoenix over the offseason with no replacement gained in return, and Matt Niskanen, in a new, top-four role, remains shelved after injuring his knee in a shootout win in Ottawa. With Brian Strait lost on waivers and the trade market still thin so early in the season, the Penguins have had to turn to some of their prospect blue liners to help fill the void.
Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo have been tabbed by the Pens to step into top-six duties. The duo has so far affirmed the club's philosophy of building a defense-heavy farm system, gradually picking up points and earning more ice time as they work their way into the NHL game.
Despres, 21, is a former first-round pick (2009, 30th overall) in his second season of professional hockey. At 6'4", 214, Despres is one of two Penguins blue-liners to stand 6'4" or taller (Bortuzzo the other). Despres became one of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's best defensemen last season and through the lockout-cancelled parts of this year, but was still a surprise on the NHL roster at the beginning of this season due to his waiver ineligibility.
Dan Bylsma and his staff apparently thought Despres' talents warranted time in the NHL, however. Despres has appeared in seven of the team's nine games, logging one goal, three points and a plus-four rating in that time.
There are knocks on his still-developing game, to be sure. Despres has logged 10 penalty minutes in his seven contests, including two careless minors for delay of game and high-sticking against the Capitals Sunday that resulted in one goal against.
And while Despres has been physical (14 hits, two blocked shots), more than a few of his boards battles and one-on-one collisions have left him with all fours on the ice.
Still, Despres has found success, largely by making simple plays when dazzling plays bring with them the risk of turnover. His ice time has gone up as a result, from averaging less than 10:00 minutes per game through his first three contests to playing 18:00 or more minutes in two of his last four.
His game is still a work in progress, but the skill and size are there and perhaps ready to be molded by the speed of the NHL game.
Bortuzzo may not possess Despres' natural skill set, but he is near-identical physically at 6'4", 215 and has the AHL experience to warrant an increasing role with the Penguins.
A healthy scratch through the team's first six games, Bortuzzo has gotten into the line-up as Ben Lovejoy has failed to produce in Niskanen's absence. Bortuzzo has been very strong in his short playing time, earning two points (including his first NHL goal) and a plus-five rating in three NHL games this season, all Penguins victories.
Bortuzzo has been a quietly heralded prospect for some time. The 78th-overall pick of the 2007 Draft (third round), Bortuzzo has logged 261 regular-season and playoff games with the WBS Penguins since 2009-10.
Bortuzzo never finished any of his three-plus seasons in Wilkes-Barre with a minus rating.
His minutes have been sheltered in Pittsburgh. While veterans Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang pick up 25-plus minutes per game, Bortuzzo has averaged just 12:02 TOI through his first three games.
Despite limited minutes, Bortuzzo and Despres have made the most of the time they've gotten by limiting their mistakes and showing flashes of what they can do once they're more comfortable in their NHL roles.
Pittsburgh has been slow to introduce its prospects to the NHL game in the past, burying names like Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey in the minors or in the press box when some thought it was time to see what they had to offer.
By necessity or choice, the Pens are beginning to work their heralded young defensemen into the NHL fold. While there have been and will still be growing pains, the early returns have been promising.