Behind The Net
Defensive Corps Growing Into A Force For The Future
By Bob Grove
There was consternation in some quarters when Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick did nothing at the NHL trading deadline to improve his team's defensive depth problems for the short term. But the 1998-99 season did nothing to dispel the notion Patrick's recent drafts will solve the problem over the long term.
The group of young defensemen selected by Pittsburgh over the past six drafts performed well this season, the progress of some slowed only by injuries. Two members of that group, Sven Butenschon and Pavel Skrbek, made it to the big club because of late-season injuries, and many others have the potential to follow in the not-so-distant future.
"We've got the best crop of young defensemen of any team in the NHL," said Penguins Assistant General Manager Eddie Johnston, whose job it is to monitor the team's developing players. "It's a crop of guys everybody likes. You have to give a lot of credit to (head scout) Greg Malone and his staff for making the picks they've made."
The 6-4, 220-pound Butenschon (23 years old, drafted in 1994) and the
6-3, 212-pound Skrbek (20, 1996) saw NHL action this season when the Penguins were struggling to find their game after a rash of injuries. It wasn't the easiest situation for either player. Skrbek, in his first season in North America, was plus-2 in four games, and although Butenschon was minus-8 in 17 games, he displayed good reach and a defensive mindset that helped him compile a plus-15 mark with Houston of the IHL.
A February knee injury ended the season for 6-1, 200-pound Michal Rozsival (20, 1996), but he was the best defenseman on the Syracuse team of the AHL that Pittsburgh helped stock. "Rozsival is one of the top two or three defensemen in that league," Johnston said. "He's very good stepping up on the play, has good mobility. And Skrbek has played very well. Everybody talks about those two guys."
Andrew Ference (20, 1997) missed 32 games with a fractured collarbone, but the 5-10, 190-pounder continued to display fine skating skills and good hockey instincts with his junior team in Portland. He had 32 points in 40 games. Josef Melichar (20, 1997) helped his junior team in Tri-City challenge for a Memorial Cup berth. The 6-2, 204-pound Melichar was plus-30 in 65 games. Brian Gaffaney (21, 1997), a 6-5, 205-pound St. Cloud State sophomore, was a plus-10.
Chris Kelleher (24, 1993), a 6-1, 210-pounder playing his first pro season in Syracuse, struggled to adapt to the longer, more physical season after starring at Boston University. Tuomas Gronman, at 25 the oldest defenseman in the Penguins' system who has yet to be an NHL regular, played four games with Kansas City of the IHL before a knee injury ended his season.
Among the Penguins' young forwards, Robert Dome (20, 1997) was the biggest disappointment. After playing 30 NHL games the previous season, he arrived at camp out of shape and did not handle his subsequent demotion to Syracuse well. Sent to Houston of the IHL to salvage his season, he scored just twice in 20 games.