One of the biggest assets the Pittsburgh Penguins had was the depth on defense this past season.
With the surprise addition of Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh – when healthy – scratched both Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland, who could each easily start on any other club. That, and the defensemen called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton showed true promise.
However, next season, that luxury will be diminished.
Engelland and Brooks Orpik – who are both unrestricted free agents – are in all likelihood finished as Pittsburgh Penguins, although Engelland could possibly get a small deal to return. But their largest loss will be that of Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen – who like Engelland and Orpik, is set to join free agency – was the Pens’ most valuable defenseman for 2013-14. The 27-year-old has had his ups-and-downs since be acquired from Dallas, but Niskanen really blossomed for Pittsburgh this season.
Cementing his spot on the power-play’s first unit and evolving into a true team leader, Niskanen transformed into an all-around effective player. Leading all Pens’ defensemen in scoring (46 points) and finishing sixth on the team in scoring during the regular-season, Niskanen has earned a big payday this summer.
A paycheck that Pittsburgh won’t be able to deliver.
After forking over large deals to Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Rob Scuderi last summer, Pittsburgh has just below $16 million in cap space – per Cap Geek. The odds they will have enough dough to please Niskanen is hard to imagine, considering he’ll arguably look for the best deal out there for security.
The Pens have a pool of defensive prospects waiting their turn as well.
Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot, Philip Samuelsson – all three could start in the NHL next season. Probably not Pouliot now though, given he had shoulder surgery this week. But you get the idea. Pittsburgh’s future is ready to step in and start making a difference. And while it would be phenomenal if they could bring back Niskanen, Pittsburgh has many holes on their roster to worry about one player.
Besides, Pittsburgh’s probably learned their lesson after handing Letang that monstrous $7.25 million per year contract. Personally though, I’d love to see Niskanen return.
After hearing about Maatta and Pouliot’s separate shoulder surgeries, and Orpik sporting a knee brace following Game 7, the Pens’ starting six is looking a little thin for next season. Right now, the starting blueliners would be Robert Bortuzzo, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, and the rest are question marks. Obviously, Maatta’s a starter, but there’s no telling when he’ll be ready.
Point is, the Pens’ rank eighth in terms of least amount of cap space, so there are a bunch of teams that will give Niskanen what he wants. And as we’ve seen in the NHL over recent years, players shift to another franchise more frequently than ever.
Hopefully, Pittsburgh can retain Niskanen, but it’s a long shot.