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Insider Only Breaking down the Penguins deep blueline that could see changes in their top-7

Is the Penguins deep blueline built for the playoffs?
Defensively, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a big turnaround in 2010-2011, ranking 6th in the NHL, giving up just 2.39 goals per game. By comparison the team ranked 20th in 2009-2010, averaging 2.87 goals against per game.
The team has an excellent top-4 in Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang and Paul Martin – Zbynek Michalek that the Penguins feel can match up against any top line in the National Hockey League.
As good as the Penguins top-4 is, there are questions whether this type of defense is built to win a seven game series against a team that can crash the net effectively and be a force on the forecheck.
One overlooked fact from the Tampa Bay series was how well the Lightning were able to crash the net and that was a difference maker in the series, most notably from the standpoint of drawing penalties. The Lightning had 8 power play goals in the series.
Pittsburgh showed down the stretch and in the playoffs that they are vulnerable defensively against teams that can attack them that way.
Personnel wise they bring back the same top-7, including a questionable 3rd pairing group of Matt Niskanen – Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland.
The player to watch in camp will be Matt Niskanen who was a mess defensively and failed to make any kind of impact as a pointman on the No. 2 power play unit. He carries a hefty price tag for a No. 6 defenseman, $1.75 million salary in 2011-2012 and $1.5 million cap hit.
His career has had a steep decline since a rookie season in 2007-2008 where he had a plus/minus rating of +22. Niskanen though is just 24 years old and the Penguins feel he will benefit from a full training camp with the Penguins coaching staff.
Niskanen and possibly even Ben Lovejoy will be pushed by others in camp.
Early opportunities for the likes of Alexandre Picard, a top candidate to push Matt Niskanen for a roster spot, should be there early in camp and in the upcoming preseason games.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik coming off hernia surgery is expected to be limited at times during the early stages of camp and possibly the first week of preseason games as the Penguins look to be cautious with him.
Top blueline prospect Robert Bortuzzo is sidelined for the start of camp, which is a big blow to Bortuzzo and possibly the Penguins. He is viewed as the one defenseman near NHL ready who has the tools and physical presence to provide an element that the Penguins currently lack after Orpik.
Also sidelined for the start of camp is big rugged defenseman Boris Valabik who has a knee injury.
The Bortuzzo injury helps Brian Strait’s cause to work his way up the depth chart but the two players to watch will be Picard and top prospect Simon Despres.
Picard is a player the Penguins are said to be very intrigued about. Where he will look to make his mark is possibly as an option with the second power play unit. Picard scored 6 power-play goals for Ottawa in 2008-09 and the Penguins see his skill set and puck moving ability as a good fit in their system. He’s expected to get a lot of looks.
A lot of eyes will be Despres who enters his first professional season with the Penguins. Don’t be surprised if the Penguins flirt with the idea of him pushing for a roster spot like they did last year but indications are he will spend at least the first half of the season in Wilkes Barre, likely longer.

Player Updates

Paul Martin – Age 30
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 200 lbs
Contract Status ($5MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $5.5 million | 2012-2013: $4 million | 2013-2014: $5 million | 2014-2015: $5 million | 2015-2016: UFA
Buzz: Completed first season with Pittsburgh in 2010-11, paired for most of the season with Zbynek Michalek as the Penguins 2nd pairing.
Ranked 2nd on Penguins in blocked shots (129) and average ice time (23:21) in ‘10-11. Was a big factor in the Penguins statistical turnaround defensively last season but is among the lowest scoring defenseman in the NHL, for defenseman carrying a cap hit of $5 million per season or more. Martin has not scored more than 5 goals in a season since a career high 6 in 2003-2004. Don’t expect his offensive numbers to change much from last season.
2010-2011 Stat: Became 2nd defenseman in Penguins history to score 2 unassisted goals in 1 game Dec. 4, 2010 at Columbus (Ab DeMarco, Feb. 24, 1974 at Chicago).

Zbynek Michalek – Age 28
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 210
Contract Status ($4 million Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $4 million | 2012-2013: $4 million | 2013-2014: $4 million | 2014-2015: $4 million | 2015-2016: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 73GP – 5G – 14A – 19Pts – 0
Buzz: Strong defensive defenseman who was a valuable member of the NHL’s No. 1-ranked penalty killing unit in 2010-11, he led the Penguins with an average of 3:46 shorthanded minutes per game. He had somewhat of an up and down season with the Penguins, having some poor nights and some really strong ones. He should be more consistent in his second season in the Penguins system.
Blocked a team-high 149 shots in 1st season with Pittsburgh in ‘10-11. Led NHL with 271 blocked shots in 2008-09.
Durable blueliner has appeared in all 82 games of a season 3 times in career, and has played in at least 72 games each season since establishing himself in the NHL.
2010-2011 Stat: Finished the ‘10-11 season on a roll offensively with 8 points (5G-3A) and a plus-9 rating over his final 16 games.
Brooks Orpik – Age 30
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 220
Contract Status ($3.75 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $3.75 million | 2012-2013: $3.75 million | 2013-2014: $3.75 million
2010-2011 Stats: 63GP – 1G – 12A – 13Pts – +12
Buzz:The heart and soul of the Penguins defense, the soon to be 31 year old had off-season hernia surgery for the second straight summer. That has concerned some as the physically imposing defenseman plays a bruising style that takes a toll on a players body.
In 2010-2011, Orpik again had a strong season, leading the Penguins with 194 hits, despite missing 19 games. Orpik has recorded 200 hits or more in 5 of 7 NHL seasons.
Orpik was a key member of the NHL’s No. 1-ranked penalty killing unit in 2010-11 — ranking 2nd on the team with an average of 3:44 shorthanded minutes per game.
2010-2011 Stat: Became the 3rd defenseman in franchise history to appear in 500 career games Feb. 11, 2011 at NY Islanders.
Kris Letang – Age 24
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 202
Contract Status ($3.5MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $3.5 million | 2012-2013: $3.5 million | 2013-2014: $3.5 million | 2014-2015: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 82GP – 8G – 42A – 50Pts – +15
Buzz:The big question with Kris Letang is whether this is the year he emerges as a star defenseman. He showed those signs last season, garnering Norris Trophy talk during the first half of the season, collecting 40 points in his first 45 games. In the second half of the season, he struggled mightily with his consistency at both ends of the ice and had just 10 points in his final 37 games, including just 2 goals in his final 55 games (including playoffs).
Set new career highs in 2010-11 in several categories: games played (82); assists (42); points (50); plus-minus (+15); shots (236); and ice time per game (team-best 24:02)
2010-2011 Stat: Voted to 2011 All-Star Game via Fan Balloting with 477,960 votes, finishing 2nd overall.
Matt Niskanen – Age 24
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 210
Contract Status ($1.5MM Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $1.75 million | 2012-2013: RFA
2010-2011 Stats: 63GP – 1G – 9A – 10Pts – -3
Buzz:Regarding as a puck moving defenseman with power play ability, Niskanen provides little offensively from a numbers standpoint and is a liability in the defensive zone. The Penguins though believe that a full training camp for Niskanen will be extremely beneficial and help him return to the player who in his rookie season, 2007-2008 (+22), showed great potential.
Niskanen goes into camp as no sure lock to make the team.
Deryk Engelland – Age 28
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 202
Contract Status ($566,667 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $600,000 | 2012-2013: $525,000 | 2013-2014: $575,000 | 2014-2015: UFA
2010-2011 Stats:
Buzz: Roster spot is safe and goes into the season as the Penguins lone enforcer. After the addition of Matt Niskaken, Engelland did not see much playing time and was scratched for all seven playoff games. Plays a tough rugged game that the Penguins lack. One of the games best fighters.
Voted by Pittsburgh Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association as the team’s representative for the NHL Bill Masterton Award – the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey in 2010-11.
2010-2011 Stat: Scored 1st NHL goal Nov. 12, 2010 vs. Tampa Bay.
Ben Lovejoy – Age 27
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 215
Contract Status: ($525,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $525,000 | 2012-2013: $525,000 | 2013-2014: UFA
2010-2011 Stats: 47GP – 3G – 14A – 17Pts – +11
Buzz: Goes into camp as a front runner to hold onto a 3rd pairing spot. During the second half of the season, Lovejoy’s ability grew on the coaching staff and he emerged as a regular in the lineup down the stretch.
Finished the ‘10-11 season on a hot streak, posting 10 points (2G-8A) over his final 19 games.
His plus-11 rating in ‘10-11 ranked third among team D-men. He posted a plus-12 rating over his final 31 games.
2010-2011 Stat: Scored first career goal Dec. 22, 2010 vs. Florida.

Players projected to be in the mix on 2-Way Contracts

Alexandre Picard – Age 26
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 215
Contract Status ($600,000 Cap Hit): 2011-2012: $600,000 (2-way deal) | 2012-2013: RFA
2010-2011 Stats: 43GP – 3G – 5A – 8Pts – 0
Buzz:Picard is a top candidate to push for a top-7 spot on the blueline. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman appeared in 43 games last season with the Montreal Canadiens and look for him to push Matt Niskanen for a spot in the top-7. Most intrigue surrounding Picard is his ability to run a second power play unit. He has a good hard shot from the point and can move the puck well. Scored 6 power-play goals for Ottawa in 2008-09.
Stats of Interest: Recorded 5 assists Feb. 1, 2007 vs. New Jersey — becoming only the 2nd defenseman in NHL history to record at least 5 assists in. First career NHL games was against Pittsburgh on 1/23/06.
Simone Despres – Age 20
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 220
Contract Status ($840,000 Cap Hit, 2-way deal): 2011-2012: $840,000 | 2012-2013: $840,000 | 2013-2014: $840,000 | 2014-2015: RFA
2010-2011 Stats Saint John: 47GP – 13G – 28A – 41Pts – +29
Buzz: The organization’s No. 1 prospect enters his first professional season with the Penguins. All signs point to the Penguins wanting Despres to spend most of this season in Wilkes Barre to get top-pairing minutes but Despres has the ability to make some noise in camp and create discussions whether he should be in the NHL. Has excellent size and two-way ability. One area of need for improvement is his lateral skating.
Played in 260 career games in QMJHL, totaling 134 points (25G-109A) and 39 playoff
points (6G-33A) in 58 postseason contests. In last 2 years, scored 88 points (22G-66A) and posted a plus-55 rating in 110 contests.
Brian Strait – Age 23
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 200
Contract Status ($861,000 Cap Hit, 2-way deal): 2011-2012: $861,000 | 2012-2013: RFA
2010-2011 Stats (WBS): 75GP – 2G – 8A – 10Pts – +22
Buzz:Defensive sound defenseman with a good first pass and is effective on the penalty kill and a strong leader in the room. Smart player with good intangibles. Ceiling though is not very high, projects as a bottom pairing defenseman at the most. Appeared in 3 games for Pittsburgh in 2010-11. Made NHL debut Feb. 21, 2011 vs. Washington.
Robert Bortuzzo – Age 22
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 200
Contract Status ($535,000 Cap Hit, 2-way deal): 2011-2012: $535,000 | 2012-2013: RFA
2010-2011 Stats: 79GP – 4G – 22A – 26Pts – +28
Buzz:Disappointing news that Bortuzzo will begin camp sidelined due to an undisclosed injury. Bortuzzo has excellent size and a lot of tools that the Penguins current group of blueliners lack. Has developed a nasty edge to his game, which has fueled his development. Underrated part of his game is his ability on the breakout, something that is a must in the Penguins system. Boasted a plus-28 rating and 26 points (4G-22A) in 79 games in 2010-11.
Boris Valabik – Age 25
Height: 6-7 | Weight: 255
Contract Status ($550,000 Cap Hit, 2-way deal): 2011-2012: $550,000 | 2012-2013: RFA
Buzz: Valabik will begin camp sidelined due to a knee injury. The big tough defenseman has appeared in 80 career NHL games over parts of 3 seasons with Atlanta, posting 200-plus penalty minutes. Did not play in the NHL last season. Had 189 penalty minutes in 59 AHL games in 2010-2011. Originally drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 1st round (10th overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Totaled 623 penalty minutes in 178 career American Hockey League games with Chicago and Providence.

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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