Despite an offseason that has seen many longtime Penguins move on, the blue-line for next season looks to remain relatively the same.
Both of these fan favorites were signed by the Washington Capitals to long-term contracts. It truly will be strange to see the Penguins play against the Capitals with both of these excellent defenders wearing a different uniform.
However, with them moving on, here’s how I envision their defensive pairings shaking out.
First Defensive Pair: Kris Letang and Paul Martin
This first pair should be no surprise to any avid Penguins fan, as these two without a doubt are the best defensemen on the roster, when healthy. I cannot stress the “when healthy” part of that sentence enough.
Both players have immense talent, but there is no question that Paul Martin is the best true defender. Unfortunately, he has a proven track record of suffering injuries throughout the season. In fact, he was only able to play 39 games last season, per Hockey-Reference.com, due to injuries of a fractured tibula, a broken hand (during the Olympics), and an undisclosed lower-body injury.
My point is not that he cannot play on the top pair, but the Penguins should not rely on him to perform the entire season. When Martin is healthy and playing his best, he is without a doubt one of the best defensemen in the league.
The other projected shutdown defender is the frustrating Kris Letang.
Like Martin, when Letang is healthy, he is the most dynamic offensive defensemen in the league. Yet, he is also able to shutdown the opponents top-line when asked.
Unfortunately, he is injury prone, shown by his 37 games played this last season. Unsuprisingly, he has only ever played one full season, which was during the 2010/2011 campaign, per Hockey-Reference.com.
Former general manager Ray Shero showed great faith in Letang by giving him an astronomical contract before his firing. Yet, I would like for current GM Jim Rutherford to trade Letang, but it simply won’t happen because of his new contract.
Letang and Martin will technically be the top shutdown pair for Penguins this season, but I have doubts that they both will be able to stay healthy for its entirety.
Second Defensive Pair: Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff
Many people will question playing Olli Maatta and newly signed Christian Ehrhoff together, but they are more than capable. Honestly, I would not be surprised if Maatta and Ehrhoff actually take over as the top pair for long sections of the season, given the injury histories of Martin and Letang.
Maatta played top-line minutes with Niskanen last season, and frankly, I thought they could have remained the Penguins’ top pair. Yes, Maatta is young and still developing his game, but is already an excellent defender. Also, by giving Maatta a chance to be a more crucial to the success of the blueline it will only accelerate his development.
Putting Ehrhoff with Maatta will not only be a replacement for Niskanen, yet also an upgrade. While with the Buffalo Sabres, Ehrhoff was not put in a position to be successful. I expect to see a drastic improvement in his play while with the Penguins.
The biggest asset Ehrhoff brings to the Penguins his steady defensive play with his offensive production being an added bonus. The moment he was bought out by the Sabres he instantly became one of the top, if not the top, free agent defensemen. Yes, more valuable than Niskanen, who was one of my favorite players and vastly underrated.
Pittsburgh was lucky enough to sign Ehrhoff, now they need to give him a chance to become one of their top defenders.
Third Defensive Pair: Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres
This third pair I have suggested is very controversial, and may or may not happen during the season.
Robert Bortuzzo has been in-and-out of the Penguins’ lineup during the last three seasons. I predict he will finally earn a starting spot in the lineup. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 215-pounds, Bortuzzo uses his large frame to play forcefully.
Given Brooks Orpik’s departure, Bortuzzo is the perfect candidate to replace Orpik’s physical style of play. Of all of the defensemen on the roster, Bortuzzo is the most aggressive without sacrificing defensive play.
The situation surrounding Simon Despres is one of the most interesting in recent Penguins history. Despres was drafted in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft at 30th overall, but despite his draft pedigree, he has not been able to capture a starting position in the Penguins’ lineup.
He has all of the physical talents to become at least a top-four defensemen for the Penguins, but former head coach, Dan Bylsma, never gave Despres the opportunity to prove himself. Almost identical in size to Bortuzzo, Despres stands at 6-foot-4 and 214-pounds. Aside from both players size, they have shown quick feet and slick skating. Combining Despres and Bortuzzo could give the Penguins a solid pair of physical defensemen on the third pair.
Despres is much more valuable to the Penguins than most fans would think. Check out the advanced statistic that Josh Yohe of Tribune-Review found out about Simon Despres.
Here’s an advanced stat for you: With Despres in lineup the past three seasons, Pens have won 68.2% of games. Without him, 62.9%
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_Trib) June 30, 2014
Spare Defensemen and the Penalty Kill
I know what you must be thinking, “Rob Scuderi makes too much money to be a spare,” or “Scuderi is a superior player to Bortuzzo or Despres.”
The best case scenario is that Rutherford finds a team desperate for a veteran defenseman and is able to trade Scuderi. Ray Shero’s signing of Scuderi was thought to be genius at the time, but Scuderi proved he is no longer “the piece.”
Given his age, large contract, and the depth of young hungry defensemen in the Penguins AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Scuderi is no longer needed on the team.
If Scuderi remains on the roster it should only be as a reserve defender.
Unknown Young Defender
Like I have previously mentioned, the Penguins have a plethora of young defensemen who are all looking to make the jump to the NHL.
As many as five or six defensemen will be competing in training camp for a spot on the roster. Frankly, this race is completely open and it is anyone’s guess who will impress the coaching staff.
The most likely candidates to make the jump are Derrick Pouliot, Phillip Samuelsson, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington. However, Maatta and Pouliot are coming off shoulder surgery, so neither might be ready for the start of the season.
I would not be surprised if we see Brian Dumoulin and Phillip Samuelsson/Scott Harrington start the season on the Penguins.
The youth movement will be taking place over the two seasons and it is very possible that these four defensemen will be the second and third pairings at the NHL level very soon.
Changing the Penalty Kill
Losing Niskanen and Orpik will hurt most on the penalty kill. Both players were not only tough and responsible defenders, but were excellent at killing penalties.
Unless Letang can correct his sloppy play this season, I don’t trust him on the penalty kill. Plus, Letang isn’t nearly physical enough to play on the top penalty kill. I am clearly not a fan of Scuderi, and he would be a detriment to be on even the second penalty kill.
Martin is a lock to assume one of the spots on the top penalty kill, given his skill-set. It would be incredibly unwise to place Ehrhoff on the top penalty kill with Martin, but at the same time not, because of Ehrhoff’s ability. Placing a younger player like Maatta or Bortuzzo on the top penalty kill would make the most sense.
The best combination on the second unit would easily be Ehrhoff and either Maatta or Bortuzzo. Maybe even Despres could take the spot next to Ehrhoff, but Ehrhoff and Martin should be separated to keep a strong defender on each unit.
New head coach Mike Johnston will have plenty of time to experiment with combinations during the regular-season, and I hope he does. Everyone knows that the Penguins are almost guaranteed to be a force in the Metropolitan Division, and barring a collapse, they will make the playoffs. Johnston should do what Bylsma never did and change the lines during the regular-season to find the best pairs.
We all know and love a lot of the veterans on the Penguins currently. However, enjoy watching them while you can during the next few seasons, because most of them are running out of time in a Penguins sweater.
Tags: Pittsburgh Penguins