With at least 3 prospects NHL ready, personnel & system issues, how Shero attacks blueline is top off-season storyline

Off-season Look ahead: Shakeup on the Blueline?

Penguins GM Ray Shero will meet with the media on Tuesday in his end of the season press conference and Shero has an interesting off-season ahead with the team having $60 million committed to 18 players and some talk in league circles that the salary cap will level off or even go down when a new CBA is in place.
Among the most pressing issues Shero has to address this summer is the blueline.
From the Penguins defensive system in place under Dan Bylsma to the personnel put in place by Shero, concerns on how the Penguins defend have been there for three years now since the 2009-2010 season.
Following the Penguins Cup run under Bylsma, where Bylsma stepped in at the right time making the Penguins an uptempo team that has a main emphasis on puck possession, Shero has become enamored with defensemen to fit that type of style, pursuing the likes of Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, and going away from Hal Gill, Nicklas Grossman type defensemen.
From a personnel standpoint, the primary issues for the Penguins defensively on how they’ve been built the past two years is struggles to defend the cycle, clear the front of the net and the inability to block shots.

With six defensemen under contract next season and at least three prospects ready to play in the NHL regularly, how the Penguins attack their blueline this off-season is among the fascinating storylines.
Does Shero finally believe it’s time to cut the cord with Paul Martin and actively seek a trade for the high priced veteran or even look to move Zbynek Michalek who has been nothing but a complimentary part and not an impact player by any means at $4 million per season.
Or does Shero believe some tweaks to the Penguins system is the primary issue not personnel, and isn’t ready to give up on Michalek and Martin who he dished out $45 million combined to in July 2010.
The most intriguing option though at Shero’s disposal would be taking a risk on the blueline and opening up spots for his up and coming defensemen in the system who are NHL ready, similar to the approach Philadelphia took last off-season but at the forward position.
A spot will be opened up for Simon Despres, that’s a no brainer, but Pittsburgh has two other intriguing options in Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo.
Despres has the ability next season to emerge into a top-2 pairing role, while Bortuzzo has size and provides a stay-at-home defensive presence with a nasty edge and the ability to clear front of net, something the Penguins desperately lack.
Strait has proven he’s not a defensive liability at the NHL level and is a great guy to have around as a No. 6, No. 7 defenseman and would be an upgrade over Ben Lovejoy.
Then, there’s 2011 first round pick Joe Morrow who some scouts I’ve spoken to believe could be NHL ready next season and believe Morrow playing a third pairing role with top or second unit power play time, wouldn’t hurt his development.

DEFENSEMEN

Paul Martin – Age 31
Cap Hit: $5 million | Signed Through: 2014-2015 | No movement clause, Limited No Trade Clause
Buzz: NHL sources I spoke with around the trade deadline all indicated Martin would be moveable if the Penguins went that route, but suitors would be limited because of Martin’s full no trade clause. Among teams to actively pursue Martin during the summer of 2010 was the Tampa Bay Lightning, LA Kings and New York Islanders who offered Martin a 6 year, $32.5 million deal.
Zbynek Michalek – Age 29
Cap Hit: $4 million | Signed Through: 2014-2015 | Limited No Trade Clause (Can supply 8-team no trade list)
Buzz: Has never emerged as an impact player during his two seasons in Pittsburgh and scouts feel he belongs in a trapping style like he played in Phoenix. From a trade standpoint, Michalek is two years younger than Martin and carries a $4 million cap hit but like Martin, moving him would open considerable cap space. The Penguins though internally, are said to be pleased with what Michalek has brought to the table.
Brooks Orpik – Age 31
Cap Hit: $3.75 million | Signed Through: 2013-2014 | No Trade Clause (Has to provide list of 8 teams he won’t accept a trade to)
Buzz: Orpik showed signs of his age during the playoff series and has played a bruising style in his career where he might start being on the downside of his career. Orpik though is still a productive top-2 pairing defenseman who won’t be under consideration to be moved. Has two years remaining on deal
Kris Letang – Age 24
Cap Hit: $3.5 million | Signed Through: 2013-2014
Buzz: Continues to emerge as a No. 1 defenseman but had a disappointing series against Philadelphia and still lacks consistency in the defensive zone. Is apart of the core and viewed as an untouchable. Eligible to sign a new extension on July 1, 2013. Only getting better
Deryk Engelland – Age 30
Cap Hit: $566,677 | Signed Through: 2013-2014 |
Buzz: Engelland is a perfect complimentary player as a No. 5 – No. 6 defenseman who can provide toughness and made great strides in his ability to join the Penguins offensive attack.
Ben Lovejoy – Age 28
Cap Hit: $525,000 | Signed Through: 2012-2013
Buzz: Had been a serviceable depth defenseman but fell out of favor and he’s reached the point where his spot deserves to go to a Strait or Bortuzzo.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Matt Niskanen – Age 25
2011-2012 Salary: $1.75 million
Buzz: Niskanen will be the Penguins most intriguing free agent. At just age 25, he emerged as a very good fit in Bylsma’s system but is getting pricey to be a third pairing defensemen on a cap strapped team. Look for this to be a long negotiation with no clarity until at least the draft as the Penguins might have to move a Michalek or Martin to make it reasonable to keep Niskanen around at a likely $2.5 million price tag.
Brian Strait – Age 24
2011-2012 Salary (NHL Level) – $670,000
Buzz: Emerged as a reliable No. 6, No. 7 defenseman who the Penguins have to think hard about opening up a spot for but doesn’t project to have the type of impact Simon Despres could.
Robert Bortuzzo – Age 23
2011-2012 Salary (NHL Level) – $550,000
Buzz: There is a strong consensus that Bortuzzo is ready to make an impact at the NHL level and he will somewhere in 2012-2013 as the impending restricted free agent is eligible for waivers next fall and the Penguins have a tough decision to make with him as trying to sneak him through waivers to start next season in Wilkes Barre is considered a longshot. Unlike Strait, Bortuzzo provides the type of defensive presence the Penguins currently lack. The upside is higher with Bortuzzo.
IN THE SYSTEM
Simon Despres – Age 20
Cap Hit: $840,000 | Signed Through: $2013-2014
Buzz: The Penguins have a great deal of confidence in the 20 year old defenseman and the team is fully expected to look to open a roster spot for Despres who scouts contend is one of those players who’s better equipped at this point in his development to play at the NHL level with better players than he is at the AHL level.
Joe Morrow – Age 19
Cap Hit: $925,000 | Three year entry level deal begins at the start of his first professional season with Penguins organization.
Buzz: A bit of a longshot to be regular at the start of next season but there are some evaluators out there who believe Morrow could be NHL ready by next fall and play a third pairing and power play role with the Penguins and have an impact without it being a detriment to his development.

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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