In recent years, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero has built an enormous amount of depth at the defensive position.
Getting ousted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 NHL Playoffs and to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 had everything to do with it.
Surrendering 19 goals to Montreal in seven games and an eye-popping 30 tallies to Philadelphia in six, what was once a formidable group of blueliners, became a soft, offensive relying six-man defensive core.
Of course goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was part of the issue, but given his age and pedigree (2009 Stanley Cup winner) — the Pens sought to improve the bodyguards in front of him.
Now that the team has a pool of young blueliners in the system (Scott Harrington, Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot), NHL-ready defenseman (Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres) and under-contract stonewallers (Deryk Engelland, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi) — someone will have to be moved.
And that very well could be Niskanen.
Niskanen, 26, was acquired from the Dallas Stars in the deal that landed them forward James Neal and has seen his share of ups-and-downs.
Leading every Pens defenseman with 15 takeaways during the 2012-13 regular-season, Niskanen also turned the puck over 17 times — which was third amongst blueliners.
Although he finished better than Kris Letang (34) and Brooks Orpik (19), Niskanen plays less than both of them — so they’re likely to rack up more giveaways than him.
With Niskanen set to be an unrestricted free agent after next season and considering the Pens little to no wiggle room as far as the salary cap goes — his $2.3 million contract makes it more than likely he’ll be moved this summer.
While Orpik is also set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2013-14 campaign, the 32-year-old’s history with the Pittsburgh organization and his roll as a stay-at-home defenseman suggest he won’t be traded.
Still, knowing Shero’s ability to move whatever is necessary to benefit the organization, we shouldn’t rule out either of them leaving the team.
However, knowing Orpik’s value, Niskanen is the likely target.
The Pens cannot afford to add on any other skater, and they need to shed some cap — so we should all anticipate them making some sort of transaction before the summer comes to a close.
Stay tuned — cause this could get interesting.