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Insider Only Inside The Penguins: Evaluating the Penguins Blueline

Penguins management believes their rebuilt defense ranks among the best in the league and more help will be on the way in the near future with the likes of top D-men prospects Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, and Brian Strait.
The Penguins top-5 includes Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski. It’s a strong mix of puck moving and defensive minded defensemen. However, there are question marks regarding their No. 6 and No. 7 spots.
As constructed, the group of players who will be in the mix during camp are inexperienced or are considered borderline NHL players.
With a little bit of wiggle room under the cap, are the Penguins looking to bring in a reliable veteran defensemen to battle for their No. 6 spot?
A few notable veterans still on the free agent market include Andres Lilja, Jay McKee and Paul Mara. Jay McKee remains under no consideration but one player seen by some inside the industry a perfect fit is veteran defenseman Andreas Lilja, formerly of the Detroit Red Wings.
Todd Diamond, the agent Lilja told me this regarding the possibility of Lilja joining the Penguins.

“They {Pittsburgh{ have shown no interest in Andreas to date, ” Diamond told Inside Pittsburgh Sports.com. “I don’t expect it to change, ” Diamond added. Diamond admitted to me that he would welcome a call from Pens GM Ray Shero but he’s not expecting one.
Similar responses have come from other agents of notable defenseman still on the market. Since the Penguins made their splash on day 1 of free agency, they have not been looking to add to their blueline with NHL defensemen (1-way contracts).
A team source told me bringing in a defenseman on a tryout basis remains a possibility but don’t expect an impact player to be brought in.
The mindset inside the organization is to let things play out during camp and go from there. Remember though, last year the Penguins signed veteran defenseman Martin Skoula just days before the regular season opener after the team became extremely disappointed with their defensive depth at the NHL level.
One player who appears popular among fans is physical defenseman Garnet Exelby. He plays with a physical edge which the Penguins lack on their backend but a scout I spoke with this week laughed at the suggestion of Exelby being able to play in Dan Bylsma’s system.
As things stand right now, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland are the front runners for the No. 6 spot. It will be an intriguing battle as both players play two totally different games.
Engelland brings a physical tough brand of hockey to the ice while Lovejoy is a steady two-way defenseman with some offensive capabilities.
Engelland fits the protocal of what the Penguins lack but struggles mightily with his puck moving abilities and decision making.
The Penguins coaching staff values players who can move the puck up quickly and find the open man. That puts Lovejoy as the early front runner but it remains to be seen if he will be the “best fit”. He’s the better player but that doesn’t mean he will necessarily be the best fit.
Others who will get a look include Steve Wagner and Andrew Hutchinson but both are borderline NHL players and extreme longshots. Wagner is another one of those skating defensemen the Penguins like but lacks adequate size and strength at the NHL level.
Prospect Simon Despres will get an opportunity to open up the season with the Penguins due to the nine-game window. Prospect Brian Strait is inching closer to being NHL ready but will begin the season in Wilkes Barre.
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What I’m intrigued to watch during camp is how the Penguins develop their D-Pairs. Will they stack up their top-4 (Orpik, Michalek, Letang, Martin) or spread all three pairs out.
I continue to hear mixed opinions on which direction they go. One source close to Paul Martin told me he’s under the assumption Martin will begin camp paired with Alex Goligoski.
Spreading all three pairs out will be a major mistake. The Penguins have the opportunity to have two dominant pairs.
A Brooks Orpik – Zbynek Michalek No. 1 pairing could do great things. One team contact believes Orpik not being paired with Sergei Gonchar will bring out the best in him and make Orpik even more of an impact defensemen and let him be more aggressive.
The two have the potential to play off of each other very well. Michalek is not a physical player by any means but is strong defensively, blocks shots, has great positioning and is very under-rated on the breakout.
This is a pair I envision that will frustrate the opposition on a nightly basis.
A No. 2 pairing I hope to see is Paul Martin – Kris Letang. Martin is one of those complete defenseman who brings a lot to the table at both ends of the ice. He’s the perfect kind of defenseman who can let Kris Letang become more aggressive in the offensive zone and breakout offensively.
If the Penguins keep their top-4 together, what I don’t want to see is a Martin- Michalek pairing. Splitting up Orpik and Letang gives a physical defenseman (Letang or Orpik) paired with Martin and Michalek at all times.
However, Orpik being paired with Letang will likely be looked at closely by the coaching staff as the staff was very high with the pairing near the end of last season.
The downfall of going with two No. 1 D-pairs is that it leaves some concerns with a third pairing of Alex Goligoski and likely Ben Lovejoy or Deryk Engelland. But, it’s something the Penguins are going to have to live with as it’s hard to come up with a strong argument to spread all three pairs out.

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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