Dissecting the Penguins’ Defense

On Monday, I posted a list of the players who I think will be invited to training camp based on the reports that we’ve heard. That list came to 22 players–four short of the 26 mentioned by general manager Ray Shero during his pre-season press conference.

If Shero plans to honor that number, then most of these last four spots will probably be filled by defensemen.

With Zbynek Michalek’s departure to the Pheonix Coyotes, the Penguins have six returning defensemen with significant NHL experience.

Not a single Penguins’ defensemen played more than 75 games in 2011-12. That’s not surprising given the demands required of the position. NHL D-men are called upon to block shots regularly, play a physical game and log between 15-25  minutes per game. So the importance of carrying a seventh defensemen who is prepared to make the jump at this level is not something that should be overlooked. At the same time, you don’t want to take a player with a bright future and stifle their development by feeding them coneys in the press box.

Based on numbers alone, the top two should be obvious. All-star Kris Letang, and US Olympian Brooks Orpik represent a world class presence on the blueline for the Penguins.

Beyond that, things get a little bit murky. A casual fan could look at salaries and circle Paul Martin’s name. Anyone who watched this team last year might take issue with that decision.

But as we all know, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Here’s the scoop on the Penguins’ defensive corps:

DERYK ENGELLAND

2011-12 was Engelland’s second full-time stint in the National Hockey League. During his rookie campaign, he earned a reputation as the Penguins’ heavyweight who could go toe to toe with anyone in the league. Due to injuries, he ended up being called upon to do a lot more than that in 2010-11.

Between his first and second year, Engelland’s penalty minutes dropped from a hearty 123 down to a paltry 56. That’s not to say that his physical play has diminished in any way, registering 174 hits during the 11-12 season.

Engelland’s speed isn’t going to light the world on fire, and he doesn’t have the offensive prowess to be challenging for a top stop on the Penguins’ power play–but he is a steady, physical player who plays well within the system. He does an excellent job on the third defensive pairing, but things could get ugly if he’s asked to play outside of this role.

KRIS LETANG

Kris Letang had a busy lockout. Like many of his teammates, he kept in shape at Southpointe while skating with other Penguins; He played in the “La Tournee Des Joueurs” tournament in Quebec that is organized by Bruno Gervais and Max Talbot; His wife gave birth to their first child in late November; and then he signed with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg approximately 45 seconds before the NHL lockout came to an end.

Penguins’ fans will be relieved to know that Letang will not challenge his NHL contract like some players and has already returned to North America. This morning, Letang was in Montreal where he took part in an informal workout with players from the Canadiens. He plans to return to Pittsburgh tomorrow.

The 2011-12 season was a frustrating one that was riddled with injuries for Letang. He appeared in only 51 games, yet managed 42 points and a team high +21. The Pens’ record with and without Letang in the lineup shows how valuable he is to the team.

The power play also clicks at a full percentage point higher with Letang in the lineup vs when he is sidelined. There’s no reason to believe that that he will not be the most significant piece of that puzzle again this season.

He also has one more full season after this left on his 3.5 million dollar contract. So he’s not far off from free agent status.

 

BEN LOVEJOY

Lovejoy made an immediate splash with Pens’ fans by being an energetic personality who loves coming to the rink every day. He’s beaming in every interview, he’s grateful to the fans and he is a public relations darling. His first major tour of duty in the NHL played out beautifully on HBO’s 24/7 where he got into a fight and scored his first career goal–before turning into a pufferfish after taking a Bryan McCabe slapshot to the face.

Lovejoy has more offensive upside than Engelland, but finds himself out of position far too often for a 28 year-old going into his fifth year of experience in the Penguins’ organization. He fits in well as a fifth or sixth defensemen on this team, but could find himself watching many of the games this season as the seventh man out.

PAUL MARTIN

Unlike Lovejoy, Martin won’t be running for mayor of Pittsburgh any time soon. His play in 2011-12 has been much maligned during this extended off season and many hoped that Shero would unload his five million dollar cap hit during last year’s draft.

Martin is a mobile defensman who has the skills to be the kind of puck-moving player that the Penguins’ need in their system. He is not a bruiser by any stretch of the imagination. Over the course of his career, Martin’s 92 total hits would still finish fourth amongst the numbers put up by the Penguins’ defensemen last season alone.

But here’s the secret truth with Paul Martin. He is a good hockey player, and he is a professional.

Martin spent much of the time during the lockout skating with a pool of NHL players who make their home in Minnesota. It’s fair to assume that he has taken the time to digest some of the tape from last season and has used this extended vacation to improve upon his weaknesses. I would also consider it a healthy bet that head coach Dan Bylsma and the other coaches have spent some time thinking of how to use Paul Martin differently.

Expect 2013 to be a very different year for Paul Martin. Like it or not, he’ll be in the top four and Bylsma has mentioned the idea of pairing him with Brooks Orpik. Whether that’s on the top pair or second group remains to be seen.

MATT NISKANEN

When Matt Niskanen was acquired from the Dallas Stars, nobody in Pittsburgh was too worried about missing Alex Goligoski. Now that probably had a lot to do with Niskanen being overshadowed by James Neal being the other piece of that package, but nonetheless–Niskanen made the fans in Dallas who were rejoicing in his departure look rather foolish during the 2011-12 season.

In his four seasons with the Stars,  Niskanen played 277 games, scored 82 points, and a -5; though he was -27 over his last three years. But in his first full season as a Penguin, he made a case to be cemented in everyone’s mind as a pilar of stability for the Penguins. His 6’0 frame gives him average size for an NHL defensemen, and he will probably see some time on the second power play unit.

Matt Niskanen can pass the puck well and Pens’ fans should expect to see him in one of the top two pairings on opening day.

BROOKS ORPIK

You could make an argument that Brooks Orpik is the pulse of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now entering his tenth season in the NHL, he is the emotional leader on the team. When things aren’t going well, you can expect Orpik to make it clear that he’s not satisfied–for better or for worse.

Orpik is consistently among the league leaders in hits, bringing an element to the Penguins’ defense that is very much needed. He is often criticized for roaming out of position to make a big hit, but he has been paired with players who have required a steady partner ever since he was matched with Sergei Gonchar. Will he provide the same kind of balance for a guy like Paul Martin this season? Time will tell, but history seems to suggest that it would be a winning combination.

 

 

So who will be called up from Wilkes-Barre Scranton to audition for the gaps in the Penguins’ defense? Here’s a look at the most likely candidates:

Of these players, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait would require waivers to be sent back to Wilkes-Barre.

Simon Despres played 18 games with Pittsburgh last season and the coaching staff trusted him enough to play him in three playoff games. But the general consensus is that he is not quite ready for the NHL full-time. This was an argument that was used to define Kris Letang early in his professional career as well. It’s rare for a young defenseman to bloom as quickly as Letang did, but not completely unprecendented. Despres has not had a good stretch with the Baby Pens lately and has been a healthy scratch within the past few weeks.

Brian Dumoulin was acquired from Carolina along with Brandon Sutter as part of the Jordan Staal deal and is playing in his first professional season with Wilkes-Barre. His name is mentioned a lot by the coaching staff and Ray Shero when talking about the future, but he’s not a stand out blue chip who will be making a splash this season.

Joe Morrow turned a lot of heads during his first prospect camp. He has a fantastic skill set and a really strong head on his shoulders. His play isn’t exactly what the Penguins need on D right now, but he will be a fixture of an NHL blueline before too long.

Brian Strait is the rock. He won’t score a lot of goals, but he will stay in position and get the job done. If Rob Scuderi was the piece, then Strait may be the yellow lego that you steal from another set to finish your model of the space shuttle. He’s been one of the best players in Wilkes-Barre, but he’s reportedly hit a bit of a rough patch like most of his teammates as of late.

Robert Bortuzzo was one of three regular players to be a healthy scratch in Wilkes-Barre immediately after the reports of the lockout ending. Like Strait, he’s a reliable defender who plays a sound positional game.

Strait and Bortuzzo are the odds on favorites to win the position. The situation gets sticky when you factor in the waiver effect. Shero may have to take the chance of losing one of these players for nothing if he wants to look at them both during camp. Realistically, I can’t see any other players playing in the NHL at this time.

It’s difficult to predict what the pairings for an NHL team will be going into a game–let alone a season before training camp even starts–but barring any trades or free agent transactions; if I had to guess, I believe it will look something like this.

Letang – Niskanen

Orpik – Martin

Engelland – Bortuzzo

Lovejoy

In regards to everything that I’ve been seeing from Pens’ fans lately, the blue line isn’t the complete train wreck that a lot of people have made it out to be. Don’t be mistaken, it will require tweaking if the Penguins want to be playing for the Stanley Cup in June, but Shero has just over 9 million dollars in wiggle room with this year’s cap to experiment at the deadline if he elects to move some of his assets to make a run now.

 

 

What are your thoughts on the Pens forwards? Do you agree or disagree? You can reachKen on Twitter @PensNation_Ken

 

 

Patrick Blucas @pjb029
@PensNation_Ken @ThePensNation i don’t believe Pens can win cup with a phsyical stay at home D man to clear crease area and add presence

Patrick Blucas @pjb029
@PensNation_Ken @ThePensNation Pens D has too many finess puck movers and little toughness ,what i wouldn’t do for a 2nd Hal Gill for 2013

Paige Lewis @RatTrickLewiz
@PensNation_Ken I’m going to go out on a limb here and say there is no way he will or can be as bad as he was last year.But I still love him

csher#91 @pensjetsfan
@PensNation_Ken invite Bortuzzo and Strait. Other guys too young.

Eric Majeski @LGP_netwolf
@PensNation_Ken If have to keep just 1, I keep Bortuzzo. By most accounts, he’s been the top D at WB all season.

sparkdog @sngldadnthecity
@PensNation_Ken @ThePensNation Morrow

Amber K @SousLeRadar
@PensNation_Ken Despres and Bortuzzo are the only two that should get looks. And, you just keep whoever has a better camp.

Eric Majeski @LGP_netwolf
@PensNation_Ken Bortuzzo,Strait are waiver eligible. Invite,keep both. Other 3 aren’t eligible or ready; have been recent healthy scratches.

You can reach Ken on Twitter @PensNation_Ken