The Pittsburgh Penguins entered training camp with few roster uncertainties. Other than the shakeout of the forward lines in light of Sidney Crosby’s cloudy return date, only a spot or two remains up for grabs among the team’s forwards.

What aren’t up for grabs are any of the top seven defensive positions.

Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin and Ben Lovejoy are locks for the top five spots, and Deryk Engelland began staking his claim to the sixth spot with his physical play and crisp passing over the weekend.

Matt Niskanen is the presumed seventh member of the NHL defensive corps, with Wilkes-Barre Scranton standouts Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo and offseason acquisition Alexandre Picard waiting in the wings.

In watching the first two days of camp, however, Pittsburgh’s most intriguing defensive names might still be a few years removed from cracking the NHL roster.

Prospects Simon Despres, Joe Morrow and Scott Harrington will all start the 2011 season at some prospect level, but watching them over the weekend gave glimpses of what Pittsburgh’s defensive cast may look like four or five years from now.

All signs were promising.

Despres, widely considered the best prospect in the Penguins’ system, has the all-around makeup of a number-one NHL defenseman and showed signs of his continuing development over the weekend.

Morrow, the Pens’ first round pick of the 2011 draft, displayed poise and a command of the defensive zone, skating away from pressure without rushing his passes and controlling the tempo of the game around him.

2011 second-round pick Harrington showed off his skating prowess and a willingness to move deep into the offensive zone, despite early scouting reports that he is a defensive defenseman.

Despres is expected to start the season with Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the AHL, while Morrow and Harrington will begin their seasons in the WHL and OHL, respectively.

Combined, the three offer a great deal of potential at what is already the deepest position in the organization.

General Manager Ray Shero, a product of the defense-first Nashville Predators front office, holds defensive prospects in high regard, both as NHL players and as high-value trade chips.

2011 marked the second draft in three years in which Shero drafted defensemen with his first two picks. Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson were the Penguins’ first and second round picks of the 2009 draft.

While the youngsters impressed, none of the them exactly lit the weekend’s sessions afire.

Morrow and Harrington, both 18, are among the youngest players in the camp and have a great deal yet to learn. Despres on several instances was beaten up along the boards by older, bigger players.

There have been calls for Despres to make the jump from QMJHL straight to the Pens’ third defensive pairing, usurping Matt Niskanen or Deryk Engelland. Watching Evgeni Malkin undress Despres during one-on-one drills was a crisp reminder that the youngster still has a ways to go in his development.

This training camp won’t be an NHL audition for the defensemen, but it is a showcase of what they can offer in the future.

Along the blueline, at least, the Penguins’ future is bright.


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