The Pittsburgh Penguins Defensive Depth: A Quality Problem

I am writing this under a somewhat-delusional optimism that a portion of the 2012-13 season will be played. Recent progress in Labor Negotiations seems to indicate that both the Owners and the Players are keen to get a 60-70 game season in for 2012-13. I do not want to display the careless hope I did the last time the two sides had a productive meeting, but tentatively, things seem to be looking up. Ok, let’s talk Hockey:

Full marks to Big Dick Player/General Manager “Showtime” Ray Shero for taking advantage of the current NHL Player-Asset Market, as Showtime shrewdly observed that puck-moving Defensemen were the biggest commodity in the Market and began hoarding them like ammo and canned goods during the Zombie Apocalypse. Every Spring and Summer as teams look to rebuild themselves, 90% of the contending teams in the League indicate that a Puck-Moving Defenseman is the top priority; Showtime took it upon himself to build a Defensive Prospect Farm over in Wilkes-Barre, and now the crops are starting to yield fruit.

While most Pittsburgh Penguins fans are sharp enough at this point to stop second-guessing Showtime and his All-Boston Player Development Team, a semi-common criticism are the groans many naive fans have made every time Showtime and crew selected another defensive prospect. Uneducated fans would look at the glaring hole on Sid’s Left Wing and wonder why the Penguins were not investing high-round draft picks in goal-scoring prospects (Beau Bennett excluded).

The 2012 Draft was the apex of this condition, in which the Pens shipped out an All-Star caliber forward in Jordan Staal, and used not only the compensatory 8th Overall Pick to take Defenseman Derrick Pouliot, but also the 20th Overall Pick to take Defenseman Olli Maatta.

I do not need to defend those choices in any way, but for the uninformed: the Penguins have had a great look at Pouliot, as he frequently paired with the team’s top prospect Joe Morrow on the Portland Winterhawks. They know exactly what type of player they are acquiring. While Derrick was not 8th Overall on many prognosticators’ Draft Boards, his selection by the Pens now has many teams wondering if they evaluated him improperly. Meanwhile, Olli was a steal at 20th overall, falling to the Penguins because of some wacky off-the-board picks by rival teams in earlier rounds.

(Note: Ducks’ prospect Hampus Lindholm might be a great pro. He apparently tore up the Draft Combine with his fitness testing. I am just pointing out that Olli Maatta was likely taken below the slot his talent-level would dictate. Great news for Pittsburgh.)

The additions of Pouliot and Maatta via draft, plus the acquisition of NHL-ready Brian Dumoulin, has left the team with an embarrassment of riches on Defense. By my count, the Penguins currently employ Thirteen Defensemen capable of competent play at the NHL level. This total does not include the team’s high-round draft picks presently stationed in the Junior A ranks, including 2012 1st-Round Picks Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot and 2011 2nd-Round Pick Scott Harrington. I am only including players currently on the Penguins’ roster or playing professionally for Wilkes-Barre or (gasp) Wheeling.

You may recall the Penguins dealt Zbynek Michalek at the tail-end of the First Round of the Draft, almost trying to fly under the radar. While some saw this as an indictment of two years of off-and-on play from Big Z, more-learned observers thought that the team was trying to clear enough Salary Cap space to sign Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, or both. Whether signing these players was Showtime’s goal or whether he just realized Big Z was not part of the solution in Pittsburgh, he also moved a big Cap Salary and a potential road-block for the future NHL defensemen the team now had at Wilkes-Barre.

Knowing now what the League’s Salary Cap is likely to be effective Fall 2013, Showtime looks like even more of a visionary and a genius. Getting Big Z’s four-million dollar annual salary off-the-books was great business, regardless of how he planned to reconstitute the Penguins’ defense after the first-round flame-out against Philadelphia. In a year, Penguins’ fans will likely be calling it a Blessing in Disguise that the team was not able to lure Parise or Suter into the fold, as it will likely be icing a bounty of exceptional young talent on Defense that will need forth-coming Contract Extensions.

You can look at a fairly recent (and telling) Depth Chart courtesy of The Hockey News here. My educated guess is that this was the team’s official Depth Chart heading into Training Camp, had the Camp launched in September as scheduled.

Looking at that Chart, two things stick out:

One, Paul Martin remains on the roster. Multiple reports circulating the internet seem to indicate that the team at least sent out feelings on moving Paul, or possibly had a trade in-place in the event the Penguins were able to sign Ryan Suter. I cannot find the link, but I read one rumor in which the team was ready to send Paul Martin to Nashville for spare change in the event Suter chose to sign in Pittsburgh. That could have been something a random “expert” made up, or there could have been some legitimacy to it. It is a moot point now.

If the team elects to do so (and it might), there should be multiple options for clearing out Paul and his hefty salary should the team opt to. Talks of an Amnesty Clause have returned in the latest CBA Negotiations, should the team fall into a situation in which they absolutely need to get his Cap Salary off the books. More likely, a Cap Floor team that will no longer be allowed to use Bonuses as a way to inflate their Cap Expenditure might be interested in adding a puck-moving veteran defenseman with a slightly-high Cap number.

As I have written before, Paul Martin is a very capable NHL Defenseman. He is just slightly-overpaid on a Cap Ceiling team, and there are nearly-ready young prospects who play very similar roles on an NHL team. Moving him out just seems to make both business and on-ice sense.

The second striking thing about the team’s Preseason Depth Chart is how far out of favor Ben Lovejoy has fallen. The team had him below both Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo, two stay-at-home types who got a taste of action in Pittsburgh last year. I like both Bort and Strait, but I am surprised the team’s confidence in Lovejoy has dipped this low.

I am bullish on Lovejoy, as he annually was an integral part of my Xbox NHL Dynasty, and in watching him I see a great athlete and skater who sometimes makes questionable decisions; however, I see his mistakes being those of ambition rather than sloth, meaning that he sometimes gets caught being overly-aggressive in pinching or trying to make a play. As a fan, those type of mistakes are completely acceptable to me, but I am sure an NHL Coaching Staff views the matter differently.

I am not a professional scout and maybe the team sees deficiencies that I do not, but I thought Reverend Lovejoy was a very capable bottom-pairing defenseman, given his relative inexperience. He is certainly not expensive, and the team should have little problem finding a taker for him should they want to move him, but until recently I thought the team was planning on getting more mileage out of him. I am quite sure he would be claimed if the team waived him following Training Camp.

At least Benny is doing all he can to remain a focal member of the team, as he has regularly been part of Sid’s training squad:

Whether Martin or Lovejoy start or finish the 2012-13 season for Pittsburgh is immaterial. The team can easily accommodate both for this season, after which Lovejoy’s contract expires and by which point Martin will presumably be moved. The more-interesting question is if the play from the horde at Wilkes-Barre forces the team to move someone out prematurely.

Let’s start at the top and work out way down:

The locks for the 2012-13 team are of course Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Matty Niskanen, and Deryk Engellend.

I want to acknowledge Engellend in particular for forcing the Coaching Staff to play him and proving to the world that he is more than just a patrolman. While his play is no frills and he perhaps lacks the explosiveness or touch that someone like Tanger demonstrates, Engel has proven that he is a legitimate Top-6 NHL Defenseman capable of logging 15-18 minutes per game and contributing a healthy dose of physicality and snark.

Now mind you, I watched the Pens-Flyers’ 2012 Playoff Series like it was Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down Mount Sinai. While I thought Engel acquitted himself very well, I repeatedly thought to myself things like, “Engel is being exposed playing Top-4 minutes.” I want him on the team because of the unique package of skills he brings, but he is probably a bottom-pairing defenseman at the NHL level.

Kris Letang is the Truth, and his presence in the lineup has a night-and-day type of effect on the team’s fortunes. He will win a Norris Trophy relatively soon. I am very bullish on Brooks Orpik, also known as The Candyman, and while I consider Candy a Top-Pairing guy, I think it would be better for both he and Tang if the two could be separated. While Tang likes to jump offensively (as he should), Candy obviously likes to jump up in the Neutral Zone to Kill Chances Against. In my view, both guys would benefit from playing with a stay-at-home guy like Brian Strait or Brian Dumoulin.

Equally fascinating is the idea of putting Tang with Simon Despres. Aside from the inherent comedy of those two shouting at each other in French, the gross athleticism on that pairing would be staggering. Despres is so athletic that the Penguins cannot even decide internally what to do with him; should they have him use his 6’4 frame to lean on people, or should they have him use his fluid skating to carry the puck? Does he have a higher offensive upside at the NHL level? The team does not even know.

Regardless, one would think the team would like to start 2012-13 with Despres on the big club. The stumbling block remains Paul Martin, who essentially occupies the slot that Simon would fill. You could have both, but it would seem to be a waste of Simon’s abilities to have him on the bottom-pair.

Matty Niskanen played exceptionally-well during the Pens-Flyers series and has solidified a spot in the Top-4. In my opinion, he did much of what Paul Martin had been advertised to do, which was move the puck effectively and take some of the offensive pressure off Tanger. His work on the 2nd Power Play Unit would have been a boon if the team had kept the Goals Against below 5.00 for the series. He will be paired with a left-shot, which as of now will be Paul Martin. Nisky is versatile enough to play with Candy or Despres, although he has not seen extensive work with either.

At the bottom are rookies Strait and Bortuzzo, along with Lovejoy. Strait and Bort have been a very-effective shutdown pairing for the Baby Pens for several years now, and need no more work at the AHL level. Strait tries to play an error-free style ala old friend Rob Scuderi, while Bortuzzo brings a slightly-bigger body, physical presence, and a bit more upside. Both are certified Pittsburgh Penguins Defensemen, meaning that they can play a two-way game and speak “Puck Retrieval” fluently.

Assuming that the team starts the season with Paul Martin, the Top-4 is Tang/Candy and Martin/Matty Niskanen. Engel goes back to his proper slot on the third-pairing, presumably with Despres or Brian Strait. The team then has to choose whether to send Simon Despres to the AHL or risk exposing Brian Strait to Waivers. Finally, the team needs to decide what to do with Lovejoy and Bortuzzo, two right-shots who can both be Claimed if the team tries to sneak either to Wilkes-Barre. My opinion is that both would be Claimed if the team tried to Waive either.

That’s a very full boat, and that does not account for any of the team’s younger prospects or less-talented AHL veterans. Here is a brief summary of what is coming behind the current logjam in Pittsburgh:

* At Wilkes-Barre, the team has several veterans who could be pressed into NHL duty if needed. Most notably, Upper St. Clair’s Dylan Reese has the most NHL experience and has been playing well for the Baby Pens. Signing him was a great move by Showtime in a “Rich Get Richer” sort of way, as he could come to Pittsburgh and provide competent play for an extended stretch if injuries were to mount.

* Do not sleep on Brian Dumoulin. He was far from a “throw-in” to the Jordan Staal trade. You are going to look up one day and notice that he played 22 minutes and finished +3 in a game for Pittsburgh. Then he will stay and play for the team for 10 years. Just wait and watch.

* The bulk of the AHL playing time has gone to Despres, Strait, Bortuzzo, Reese, Dumoulin, and 2011 1st-Round Pick Joe Morrow. That is an absurd AHL Defensive Corps, which is one of the reasons the Baby Pens have won 4 of their last 5 after starting 1-5. Expect all six of those players to see varying amounts of NHL action this season, hopefully all for Pittsburgh.

* Morrow is an AHL rookie, and there has been an adjustment period. This, this guy almost made the Penguins out of Training Camp in 2011-12. He is an ideal Pittsburgh Penguins Defenseman, meaning he skates beautifully, runs the system well, shows poise, and provides a terrific two-way element. However, with all the bodies in front of him, he would have to be absolutely lights-out at both Training Camp and Wilkes-Barre to be pressed into duty in 2012-13. He will likely get a few games, but I would not expect to see him as a regular until 2013-14, but with his talent anything is possible.

* The team also has AHL veterans Carl Sneep (currently staying sharp in Wheeling), Alex Grant, Ulfie’s kid Phillip Samuelsson, and AHL veteran Joey Mormina. All four can or have played at the NHL level for brief periods of time. Grant, in particular, really played well in 2011-12 after incurring a significant injury in the prior season. While you will likely see none of these guys in Pittsburgh in 2012-13, they will be getting plenty of work in Wilkes-Barre after the herd is thinned a bit, and as I wrote they are all NHL-playable. It’s great to know that the team runs this deep defensively.

* But wait, there’s more: do not forget about Pouliot, Maatta, and Harrington at Junior A. Any or all of those guys could be in Pittsburgh in two years. Harrington, who has the ignominy of “only” being a 2nd-round pick, was a destructive force for the London Knights last year before appearing for Canada at the World Junior Championships, where he was also a destructive force. He is again playing for London with Maatta while Pouliot remains at Portland, where he is being, predictably, an offensive destructive force.

In short, the Penguins have puck-moving defensemen coming out of their ears, which at the moment is a bit of a logistical problem. Guys like Carl Sneep and Reid McNeil are being demoted to Wheeling to keep sharp, while others are relegated to the press box for long stretches. The bulk of the Pittsburgh roster is forced to play in glorified pick-up games organized by Sid (when he isn’t being the ethical voice of the NHLPA).

When the season does finally get rolling, expect the Pens to be in a bit of a roster-jumble as they try to get all their defensive ducks in a row. Regardless of how the final CBA reads, the Penguins are going to need to jettison a body or two from the back-end, hopefully in a brutally one-sided trade for some NHL help at forward (no disrespect to Gogo, but that’s a Two-Player Swing). Too much of a good thing is a Quality Problem, and one you can expect the team to resolve as soon as the League gets up and running.

Jack

About sfarrell11000
All over the place

One Response to The Pittsburgh Penguins Defensive Depth: A Quality Problem

  1. Pingback: Time for Ray Shero to Cash In and Go Sarging « Jack_Has_Spoken

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