WHO’S ON THE MOVE?
After trading Zbynek Michalek on draft day and failing to land a No. 1 defenseman via free agency or trade, the Penguins blueline situation is still evolving with 9 waiver eligible defenseman and Simon Despres in the mix.
With that said there are several movable parts at play which could have GM Ray Shero active on the trade front this week and into next week as he attempts to stabilize his blueline.
A team source said things can always change, but the Penguins internally are planning to open the season with six of their seven defensemen being Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo. Where that other spot goes will likely be in-house but could come from elsewhere.
Speculation surrounding the Penguins trading for Sergei Gonchar is only likely to mount as the Penguins have discussed Gonchar internally in the past couple months but it’s not clear if any serious talks between the Penguins and Senators will surface in the coming weeks.
For a group defensively that struggled last season, the Penguins have several question marks from their depth to even their top-4 as the team is banking on a rebound season from Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen possibly moving up to a No. 2 pairing role.
BREAKING DOWN PENGUINS DEPTH CHART ON DEFENSE
1. Kris Letang
Buzz: Letang will anchor a No. 1 pairing but who becomes a fit with him remains to be seen. It’s no secret the Penguins have been interested in breaking up Brooks Orpik and Letang, which has many believing Paul Martin will get the first look with Letang. However, there’s some chatter Matt Niskanen could also get an early opportunity with Letang. Letang is playing for a big contract as the Penguins can open long-term negotiations in the summer. He ranked second in the NHL among defensemen, averaging 0.83 points per game last season.
2. Brooks Orpik
Buzz: Orpik’s rugged style is taking a small toll on him and he’s more of a No. 3 defenseman than a top pairing defenseman, which isn’t a knock on him. However, he’s probably the best option to still play with Kris Letang at the end of the day. Had 259 hits and was a +19 last season.
3. Paul Martin
Buzz: The Penguins are hoping Martin has a rebound season in him and he’s entering a critical year in the organization. The Penguins see some intrigue of a Martin – Letang pairing and the pressure is going to be on Martin to perform at a high level. If Niskanen were to be a fit with Letang, then Orpik and Martin could see time together. The good thing for the Penguins is that there was enough trade interest in Martin during the draft where if he continues to struggle in Bylsma’s system, there should be suitors out there. A big, big year for him.
4. Matt Niskanen
Buzz: Niskanen flourished in Pittsburgh in his first full season in Dan Bylsma’s system. His play earned him a two year contract but questions remain if he can hold up playing a No. 2 pairing role. There’s been talk of him opening the season with Brooks Orpik.
5. Deryk Engelland
Buzz: He’s a perfect type of depth defenseman who is cheap and plays a tough, physical system, and not to mention is an elite fighter. But with young guys ready to play, it remains to be seen if he still has a regular top-6 spot.
6. Ben Lovejoy
Buzz: I only have Ben Lovejoy at No. 6 for now because he’s on a one-way contract. He fell out of favor with the staff last year after being the Penguins No. 5 defenseman during the 2010-2011 season and last post-season was leaped on the depth chart by Simon Despres and Brian Strait. He’s a prime trade candidate to be moved to open a spot and has an uphill battle for regular playing time if he sticks around. A league source believed Lovejoy would be worth a 5th round pick on the trade market.
7. Robert Bortuzzo
Buzz: He’s been impressive again this season playing a shutdown role in Wilkes Barre and he brings a physical edge the Penguins lack. It’s time for the Penguins to give him a look and indications are the Penguins plan to open a spot for him. He’s unlikely to clear waivers based on trade interest from other teams during summer, so if the team doesn’t open a spot for him, they will need to try to get something for him and the same for Brian Strait.
8. Simon Despres
Buzz: The Penguins feel Despres is ready to compete for a full-time NHL spot but the numbers might dictate him staying in the AHL to start the season. A lot might depend on other factors as the Penguins don’t want Despres here as a seventh defenseman. The sense I get with Despres is the same I was hearing weeks ago; The Penguins feel he will likely stay in Wilkes Barre to start the NHL season but no decision has been made at this point. His play has not been strong of late but he’s NHL ready.
9. Brian Strait
Buzz: The Penguins entered the summer believing Strait showed he can compete at the NHL level but the team feels the upside is higher with Bortuzzo. Strait though has struggled in Wilkes Barre and like Lovejoy, he’s a possible movable player with him being waiver eligible.
10. Dylan Reese
Buzz: Fits the Penguins system well and he’s a player the coaching staff feels they can trust. Was told about four weeks ago, Reese made an early impression on head coach Dan Bylsma during his scouting trips but Reese’s play has tailed off of late. Reese is on the bubble for an invite.
Tidbits: Top prospect Joe Morrow has had some growing pains defensively in Wilkes Barre and is not expected to be in the mix on the blueline this season…..