Pittsburgh Penguins Must Utilize Young, Cheaper Defensive Corps


The Pittsburgh Penguins are more than likely going to lose Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff via agency this summer. And, that actually might not be a bad thing.

Fortunately for the Penguins, they have a wealth of young defensemen that should be ready to make the jump to the NHL next season. This, combined with the high salary cap hits that Martin and Ehrhoff will certainly ask for, will make it hard to re-sign either defenseman.

However, unfortunately for the Pens, Ehrhoff and Martin fit really well with the system that Mike Johnson has implemented. It requires the defensemen to be mobile and able to move the puck extremely well to get it up ice quickly, and let talented forwards such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin take over from there.

If the Penguins had to pick one to re-sign it would be Paul Martin, given his rapport with Kris Letang. As good as Martin is, he is 34 years old and isn’t getting any younger. The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Chris Kunitz to a contract when he was 33, and then Pascal Dupuis and Rob Scuderi when they were 34, and look how that has turned out for this team. A lot of money invested in older players past their primes.

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I love Paul Martin and think he is a great defenseman with something left in the tank. But the Pittsburgh Penguins need to get younger and sometimes tough decisions need to be made. Let him and his $5 million cap hit walk. I would only consider re-signing him if Rutherford can somehow right Shero’s wrong, and clear significant money by shedding the salary of Kunitz or dupuis in addition to Rob Scuderi’s. That’s a difficult task, and make no mistake about it, having all three of these unattractive contracts on the books greatly restricts what the Penguins can do this offseason.

These Penguins cannot afford, quite literally, to spend money where it is not absolutely necessary this offseason. They just simply cannot resign Martin.

But it is not the end of the world. Olli Maatta and Kris Letang will return. Ian Cole and Brain Dumoulin are both restricted free agents and they should retain the 26 year old Cole – who was acquired in a steal of a trade that Mike Lange might refer to as a “2-11 in progress” – and the 23 year old Dumoulin, who played fantastic this playoff season. I also believe the reports that have been floating around that Jim Rutherford has options to use buyouts and one will be used on Scuderi.

The Penguins defensive pairs next year could shape up as (and keep in mind this is still very early and subject to change):

Letang – Maatta
Dumoulin – Cole
Lovejoy – Pouliot

Let’s not kid ourselves, Olli Maatta is an up and coming star in this league and will continue to fit in well on the top pair with Kris Letang.

When Ben Lovejoy came over at the trade deadline and played with Derrick Pouliot those two found instant chemistry and should continue to play together. He has claimed that playing with Pouliot is similar to playing with his former teammate, Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks.

Many fans, myself included, have harshly criticized Rutherford for the Lovejoy trade. It was an unquestionably horrid trade given the fact that Despres is 23 years old and still has some upside with room to improve. Lovejoy is on the wrong side of 30 and doesn’t have the same potential as Despres does. Rutherford even acknowledges that he wouldn’t make this trade today.

But let’s not pretend like Simon Despres was the second coming of Paul Coffey in Pittsburgh.

Also, to be fair, remember that Ben Lovejoy was way over his head and playing out of his role. The Penguins were playing with 5 defenseman at times for crying out loud, he was often logging in the range of 22-24 minutes a night and into the playoffs due to the many injuries to defensemen. While he might not be an ideal defensemen, he certainly can be much better than he was if he plays within his role.

Take a look at the HERO charts below for Despres and Lovejoy (via ownthepuck.blogspot.ca). Click to enlarge each chart.

Obviously it is clear that Despres has the better advanced stats, but Lovejoy’s might not be as lousy as one might think, considering none of his advanced metrics are worse than a top four defenseman. Including his 5v5 TOI, which is shows his role increase above what Despres has faced.

Getting back on track, the reason I love this defensive corps – other than its young potential – is its low cap hit. Outside of Kris Letang, whose cap hit is $7.25 million, Ben Lovejoy’s is $1.1 million, Maatta counts $894,167 against the cap, which is pivotal for a top-pairing defenseman, and Pouliot counts $863,333. There is also Scott Harrington who counts $589,167 against the cap as well.

Cole and Dumoulin are both restricted free agents and will have to sign new contracts. If we assume that Cole’s new deal is similar to Matt Niskanen’s, when he was a restricted free agent in Pittsburgh, he would count about $2 million against the cap. Dumoulin is likely to make around $1.1 or $1.2 million. So even with resigning Cole and Dumoulin, adding in Scott Harrington’s contract, and just for the sake of it lets add in Scuderi’s potential dead money ($1.29 million), the Penguins’ defense would have a cap hit of about $15.19 million. That is only about 21% of the projected cap ceiling of $71 million for 2015-16.

The NHL has moved past the days where NHL defensemen need to be a huge daunting physical presence. In today’s NHL, to be an effective defensemen you need to be able to skate and move the puck extremely well. Remember when the Penguins acquired Douglas Murray at the 2013 trade deadline? He may have been able to dish out a big hit occasionally, but at the end of the day he was a big, slow, stay at home defenseman. I mean, just take a look at his atrocious advanced metrics.

I would argue that none of the teams in the Conference Finals have any defensemen that fit the “physical enforcer” role. When it comes to defensemen, I believe the casual fan gets willingness to play physical and having a shutdown role, confused with being a “tough guy”. Defense is physical by nature in the NHL.

What the Ducks, Blackhawks, Rangers and Lightning defensemen all have in common is their ability to skate and move the puck, which is necessary to play hockey at its fastest, highest level. For example, look at Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. They certainly aren’t the best on their teams because of their intimidating physical prowess. If you look at the Norris Trophy candidates this season in Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson, these guys don’t fit that description either. Even Letang, who is also one of the best defensemen in the NHL, doesn’t fit that description.

The Penguins are in a good spot when it comes to their young defense. There will be growing pains, but young players learning from their mistakes is the best teaching tool. These defensemen could potentially be around for years to come.

Could the Penguins possibly try to add another defenseman in free agency this offseason? Perhaps. Don’t look for it to be a big name free agent like Ehrhoff was last summer. I would imagine, if they did add someone, it would be a veteran puck moving defenseman that they could sign for cheap. This free agency class is certainly much better in terms of available defensemen than forwards.

Would this be a smart move?

Meh. I don’t like it.

There is a lot of capable talent within the defensive corps currently under contract, so why not use it? The time has come for the Pittsburgh Penguins to use that stockpiled talent and let them play at a low cap hit to allow the team more financial flexibility at forward to pursue scoring depth that this team sorely lacks.

Next: Pens Offseason Game Plan - Building a Roster Around Youth

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