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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Random Defensive Musing by @ExcitedBobErrey

With 5 of the 8 defensemen that made the Penguins opening night roster currently out with injuries or suspensions, the young players have gotten a chance to not only see the ice in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey, but also to play big minutes in important situations. Also, they've given a glimpse of the future and have done an incredible job for a group that young and inexperienced. Most importantly, they've given Ray Shero a chance to see where they're at in their developments, and their success gives him more options moving forward. A few thoughts and observations on the play of the defensemen and how that might affect the team going forward:

Matt Niskanen has been good -- Really good. With all the uncertainty surrounding the cap situation in the offseason, it had appeared that Ray Shero had no choice other than to trade Matt Niskanen, although he has claimed that the team would have been able to fit a healthy roster under the salary cap without making any trades. Not only did he remain a Penguin for opening night, but he's been the team's most improved player. Niskanen has shown the ability to elevate his game with more responsibility in the past, and with the constant injuries on the blueline he's been given the opportunity to play big minutes and he's made the most of it.

In fact, his play has been so good that it's no longer inconceivable to imagine Shero signing him to another contract instead of letting him walk this summer in free agency. While there are still many things working against that happening, the combination of Niskanen's strong play and the large increase expected in next season's salary cap could make a deal happen. However he should have plenty of attention if he makes it to free agency, and it's possible that the price tag rises above what Shero would be willing to pay, especially considering the depth at the position in the organization.

Starting the season in Wilkes-Barre might have been the best thing to happen to Simon Despres. After an up and down rookie season last year that saw flashes of great potential sandwiched around stretches as a healthy scratch, big things were expected of Simon Despres at the onset of training camp. Dan Bylsma had publicly proclaimed Despres to be a top 4 defenseman after the playoffs, and while the addition of Rob Scuderi made that unlikely many expected him to claim a spot on the bottom pairing. However, the combination of questionable conditioning, a camp that wasn't overly impressive, and standout performances by younger prospects earned him the demotion to start the season, and a challenge to earn his way back into the NHL.

A demotion for a 22 year old defensemen shouldn't label them a lost cause, especially for a team as deep on defense as Pittsburgh, yet it was undeniable that Despres found himself at a crossroad concerning his standing in the organization. Luckily he found the positive in the situation and used his time in Wilkes-Barre work on his play in his own end. Despres, an offensively gifted defenseman, was kept off the powerplay early in the season and leaned on to kill penalities, and his growth as a complete player has been evident since he was recalled to Pittsburgh.

The young defensemen look more polished than anyone could have imagined. As surprising as it was that Olli Maatta made the roster out of training camp, possibly the biggest surprise is how little he looks out of place jumping to the NHL as a 19 year old defenseman. Maatta has gotten stronger with every game he's played, and it's his high hockey IQ and simple game that show glimpses of a future top 4 defenseman for years to come. Dan Bylsma has said that Brian Dumoulin's injury during the preseason opened up the door for Maatta to claim that spot, and through 3 NHL games (during which he's average 18:42 TOI) Dumoulin has shown himself to be NHL ready, if only the Penguins were ready to have him in the NHL.

Along with Simon Despres, the Penguins have seen their young defensemen not only meet the challenge of performing under the rigors of the NHL, but exceed what has been expected of them. Pittsburgh currently ranks 4th in goals allowed at 2.17 goals/game and 3rd in penalty killing at 86.9%, and those numbers haven't fallen despite having so many Wilkes-Barre players on the blue line. As impressive as their play has been at the NHL level, the defensive prospect with arguable the highest ceiling of the group, Derrick Pouliot, has been biding his time in the WHL and adds even more talent to an already talented young group.

The emergence of the young talent is making some of the veterans expendable. Heading into this season it appeared likely that this could be the last year Brooks Orpik spends with the team, and even without taking his injury into account it seems more practical to let him walk in free agency and open up another spot on the roster to the younger, and much cheaper, players in the system. The combination of his age and style of play makes it too risky to bring Orpik back, and while it will be difficult to watch a career Penguin who has meant so much to the organization suit up in a different uniform, eventually nostalgia needs to be set aside for what's best for the team, regardless of how difficult a decision it might be.

While Matt Niskanen also remains a candidate to be on his way out of town, Orpik and Nisky aren't the only veterans who could see their status threatened by the talent in the pipelines. Kris Letang had a rough start to the season, beginning with missing the first 9 games due to injury and continuing with some poor play when he did return to the lineup. He had been playing better before being forced out of the lineup again due to injury, but it's beginning to appear as thought his contract could become a major albatross. His level of play is fine for a defenseman making $3.5 million per year, but a lot more is expected making $7.25 million.

Simply put, the return from a Letang trade would benefit the Penguins much more than having him in the lineup. Last offseason teams were hesitant to offer a blockbuster deal because Letang only had a year left on his contract, but now he's locked in long term. He has a modified NMC, but that doesn't start until the next league year begins on July 1st. While the younger players in Pittsburgh make Letang a luxury, he's still a 26 year old defenseman who is one of the best skaters in the league with very good offensive talent that many teams around the league would love to have in their lineup, contract extension and all. If Shero explored a trade before the draft, this time around he could potentially get a 1st round draft pick, young roster player, and a highly regarded forward prospect. With the cap going up and by shedding Letang's salary, Shero would be able to completely revamp the 3rd and 4th lines, get pieces at forward to build for the future, and have the team in an even better position to compete for championships.

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