By Mark Madden
The most intriguing battle for a position on the Penguins’ roster is for the final defensive spot – the No. 6 defenseman.
The best choice, right now, is Simon Despres, the Pens’ first-round draft pick in 2009. Of those competing for the job, he’s the only one who has put together an impressive camp. All others have disappointed.
But it’s not an easy decision. Despres still has Jr. ‘A’ eligibility. He can’t go to the American Hockey League, so it’s NHL or bust for the 6-foot-4, 205 pounder. If Despres plays 10 or more NHL games, a year of his contract gets burned.
The Penguins need Despres to be a dominant defenseman in the long run. What currently serves as a better means to that end: Skating 8-10 minutes as a No. 6 at the NHL level, or getting lots of minutes, and in every conceivable situation, at the Jr. ‘A’ level?
At camp’s start, the Penguins planned to give Despres an exhibition game or two, then send him back to Saint John, his junior squad.
Despres has earned his lengthier stay. But it’s not like when 18-year-old Jordan Staal barged his way onto the Pens in 2006. Staal was overwhelming. Despres has merely been very good. Staal was carving out a significant niche. Despres can do no better than No. 6.
The Penguins should send Despres back to juniors. Settle for second-best, play Zbynek Michalek more, whatever. But see the big picture with this kid.
My choice for No. 6 is Deryk Engelland. Ben Lovejoy has been tepid. Andrew Hutchinson hasn’t done well enough for a darkhorse. If you only need a guy for 8-10 minutes, make them 8-10 nasty minutes. It’s an element the Penguins’ defense corps lacks, and Engelland provides.
That said, those present at the Pens’ final exhibition game at Detroit say Lovejoy may have captured the job with a strong performance. It’s also reported that Arron Asham’s injury has temporarily opened up space for Eric Tangradi.
One thing needs understood about the sixth defenseman, the 12th forward, players like that: It almost never matters who they are. They’re disposable. The debate over those positions is idle chatter, nothing more.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).