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Friday, September 25, 2015

Assessing the Blue Line Options by @BrianK_PI

After being plagued by the lack of depth in the forward ranks the past few seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally have assembled a championship caliber roster up front. Led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens can roll four lines that can score and have the ability to play a solid possession game. After bottoming out at 2.65 goals/game last season (19th in the NHL), Pittsburgh is poised to get back to the high scoring ways they've been known for since Mario Lemieux first entered the league.

It'll be needed, as the team will only go as far as the defense takes them. Gone from the past few seasons are defensemen Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Simon Despres. While the losses hurt the Pens blue line to varying degrees, it's a large amount of turnover over a short time period, mostly of players who were trusted to play large minutes. While Kris Letang and Olli Maatta have effectively sewn up their spots as the top pairing, there are several options for the next four spots in the lineup. In addition, given the waiver status of the younger players in contention, it's not unrealistic to think that the team could carry 8 defensemen to start the season to avoid exposing players to waivers.

Derrick Pouliot

2014-15 Stats - 34 GP; 2g 5a; 51.5 FF% with Pittsburgh

When Ray Shero traded Jordan Staal to Carolina at the 2012 NHL, the ability to take Derrick Pouliot with the 8th overall pick was a key factor in the trade. Now three years removed from his draft, Pouliot has an opportunity to grab a stranglehold on a second pairing spot in the lineup. While showing flashes of his immense offensive talent last season, it'll be important for Pouliot to take another step forward in his development and turn those flashes into more consistent showings. Pouliot is a strong skater, a good possession player, and the type of defenseman who will help jump start the offense in transition and make a strong forward group even more dangerous.

2015-16 Expectation - Pouliot should solidify his standing in the Pens' top 4 and continue to show why he was a top 10 pick, and why the front office labelled him off limits during trade talks this past offseaon.

Ian Cole

2014-15 Stats - 74 GP; 5g 12a; 55.1 FF% with St Louis and Pittsburgh

Ian Cole was a victim of numbers in St Louis, and the Blues viewed him as expendable in his bottom pairing role to the point that they were willing to sacrifice value in order to bring in the intangibles that Robert Bortuzzo offered. He had a strong start to his time in Pittsburgh, posting 8 points and a 58.8 FF% in 20 regular season games playing predominantly with Rob Scuderi after managing only 9 points and a 53.3 FF% in 54 regular season games with the Blues. Cole struggled in the playoffs, and entering this season it will be important for Cole to show the end of the regular season wasn't a fluke and he's more than the third pairing defenseman he's been up to this point.

2015-16 Expectation - With the lack of depth on the blueline, Cole likely will be given the first crack at filling the final spot in the Pens' top 4. It remains to be seen how effective Cole can be in this role over an extended period of time, and his play will likely be scrutinized more than the rest of the defensemen as the front office assesses whether or not to reinforce the defensive depth during the season.

Ben Lovejoy

2014-15 Stats - 60 GP; 2g 10a; 53.1 FF% with Anaheim and Pittsburgh

Ben Lovejoy returned to Pittsburgh at the 2015 trade deadline and quickly became the whipping boy of Pens fans. Make no mistake about it - it was an awful trade, made for terrible reasons, that even Rutherford admitted was one that they expected to lose over time. It puts the Pens in a weaker position entering the season than it would have if they had kept Simon Despres. That being said, Lovejoy is a member of the Penguins, and it'll be important for him to show that he can bounce back after the end of last season and that his success wasn't a byproduct of having Cam Fowler as a partner.

2015-16 Expectation - Lovejoy is likely to begin the season on the bottom pairing, but if Mike Johnston decides to split up Pouliot and Cole then Lovejoy is the likely beneficiary of the top 4 minutes. He'll need to show that he isn't the same player the Pens traded away his first stint in Pittsburgh if he wants to continue to maintain a spot in the lineup. Ben Lovejoy is a dark horse candidate to be traded to open up space for some of the younger, non-waiver exempt players in the lineup, especially if the team keeps Rob Scuderi or Sergei Gonchar on the NHL roster.

Brian Dumoulin

2014-15 Stats - 8 GP; 1g 0a; 42.0 FF% with Pittsburgh

The third piece of the Jordan Staal trade, Dumoulin has bided his time in the Penguins organization and finds himself in a position to make the NHL roster to start the season. Fresh off signing a new 2 year, $800k per season contract extension, Dumoulin is no longer waiver exempt and would be a risk to send down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

2015-16 Expectation - Dumoulin is in the mix for the 6th/7th defenseman, but given that Adam Clendening and Tim Erixon also are waiver eligible he will need to earn his spot on the roster in training camp. His experience in the organization, and Johnston's system, will likely help him gain an advantage from the start.

Sergei Gonchar

2014-15 Stats - 48 GP; 1g 13a; 46.5 FF% with Dallas and Montreal

Sergei Gonchar left Pittsburgh during the 2010 offseaon as a fan favorite after Ray Shero chose to extend Kris Letang's ELC instead of Gonchar. Time has shown that to have been (easily) the best decision, and time has brought Gonchar back to Pittsburgh on a PTO tryout for a final curtain call on his career. Gonchar still has the ability to quarterback a powerplay that he has been known for his whole career, but the rest of his game has fallen off to the point where he's not a viable option in the NHL.

2015-16 Expectation - Despite the feel good nature of the story, Gonchar should see his NHL career come to an end following training camp. His play has fallen off too far and the team has too many young players who are waiver eligible. Giving Gonchar a spot on the NHL roster could very well cost the organization one of those young players. If Gonchar is insistent on continuing his career, the KHL might be his best option.

Rob Scuderi

2014-15 Stats - 82 GP; 1g 9a; 51.3 FF% with Pittsburgh

Rob Scuderi has embodied all that is wrong with the Penguins blue line since his return to Pittsburgh, and for good reason. Not only has he failed to play at the level he displayed in his first stint with the Penguins, he has failed to play at even an NHL caliber level. His contract has become an albatross that has prevented the team from extending Matt Niskanen the offseason before his contract expired and making a serious run at a top 4 caliber defenseman the team needs this offseason. After using his NTC to nix a potential trade to Toronto as part of the Phil Kessel deal, Scuderi remains in the organization with two more years left on his sentence contract.

2015-16 Expectation - The team failed to buyout Scuderi's contract this offseason, instead deciding to gamble that they could trade the contract instead. It didn't work, and now they have to decide how to move forward. The prudent move would be to send him to the AHL and take the $950k savings on the salary cap, and based on defensive pairings in camp and the players the team needs to protect it's a feasible option. If not, he's likely an unmovable contract who will threaten to steal ice time as the 6th defensemen based on his veteran status instead of spending games in the press box where his talent would dictate.

Adam Clendening

2014-15 Stats - 21 GP; 1g 3a; 50.6 FF% with Chicago and Vancouver

An early 2nd round draft pick in 2011, Clendening got his first taste of NHL action last year after two very strong AHL seasons, posting 46 points in 2012-13 and 59 points in 2013-14. Getting Clendening included in on a trade that already saw the Penguins dump a bloated contract (Sutter) for a cheaper option who brings more to the table (Bonino) while improving their draft position in a swap of draft picks is icing on the cake of what should be a trade the team wins easily. Clendening is waiver eligible, so sending him down the AHL carries risk, but he has an offensive game that would seem to be NHL ready.

2015-16 Expectation - Clendening will be in the mix for a roster spot coming out of training camp, and his ice time will be dependent on how he performs relative to the other young defensemen he's battling with.

Tim Erixon

2014-15 Stats- 42 GP; 2g 5a; 48.1% with Columbus, Chicago, and Toronto

It wasn't all that long ago that Tim Erixon was a well-regarded prospect that was included by the Rangers to help bring Rick Nash to New York. Despite strong showings in the AHL, Erixon hasn't been able to put it together at the NHL level, and Pittsburgh marks the 5th stop in his young career, including his 4th organization since the start of the season last year. Thrown in as part of the Kessel trade to help Toronto keep down their number of professional contracts, Erixon is running out of time to recognize his potential, although at 24 there's still a chance that he can turn into a serviceable NHL defenseman.

2015-16 Expectation - There's a good chance that Erixon finds himself among the first cuts to head back to Wilkes/Barre/Scranton. At this point of his career he would need a very strong camp to make the NHL roster, and it's unlikely the Penguins would risk exposing more promising prospects to waivers to keep Erixon in Pittsburgh

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