Since the Penguins ouster in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers, the biggest storyline this off-season was going to be how GM Ray Shero attacked his blueline this off-season, as the team has six defensemen under one-way contracts, three RFA’s in Matt Niskanen, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait who would beÂ qualified, giving the Penguins nine defensemen eligible for waivers next season, in addition to prospect Simon Despres who the PenguinsÂ have felt is ready for a jump to be a top-6 defenseman.
Nearly two months later, it remains Pittsburgh most pressing off-season question, not Jordan Staal.
With strong indications that Penguin management feels Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo are ready for full-time roles, the Penguins appear ready to move some bodies on the blueline and GM Ray Shero tells Dave Molinari of the Post-Gazette that he expects to trade a defensemen or two before next season.
Who is most likely out the door?
*The one no brainer is Ben Lovejoy who has one year left on his contract, carrying a $525,000 cap. Internally he’s likely fallen to at least 10th on the organizational depth chart. Lovejoy is a very good bet to be moved. After Lovejoy, the Penguins have a lot of options and question marks on how to reshape the blueline: as the Penguins are getting calls on a number of defensemen.
Paul Martin, 31 years old – The word on Martin over the weekend is that while the team is willing to move him, they are looking for a hockey trade not a salary dump, seeking to add an asset to their NHL roster or to their system, through prospects or draft picks, if they were to move him. Martin has three years remaining on his deal with a $5 million cap hit. The intrigue with Martin is that several teams are in the trade market seeking a top-4 defenseman and willing to add salary. Teams still like Martin who just two years ago was among the most highly sought out defenseman in free agency. Martin has a no movement clause and a limited no trade clause.
*Zbynek Michalek, 29 years old – Like Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek does not have a great contract and hasn’t met expectations, carrying a $4 million hit and has three years remaining on his deal. He also has a no tradeÂ clause. Â He’s viewed by scouts as a system defenseman who fits better in a trapping style, but Pittsburgh is said to remain very high on him evolving into a shutdown defenseman in Dan Bylsma’s system. Note – Michalek had off-season hip surgery.
*Brooks Orpik, 31 years old – Turns 32 in September and has played a physical type of style that puts a draining on his body. He’s entering the stage of his career where he’s best suited as a No. 3 – No. 4 defensemen moving forward, not a top-pairing guy. Orpik though is the heart and soul of this Penguins team and one of their lone physical presences, therefore, it’s hard to imagine Shero would have any interest in parting with him. Orpik has a no trade clause (can reject trade to 8 teams).
*Kris Letang, 25 years old – He’s viewed to be close to an untouchable and there’s no indication the Penguins are considering the possibility of trading Letang. However, whileÂ trading Letang may sound crazy, GM’s who are coming off a three straight disappointing playoff runs, sometimes look for a major shakeup and there’s not a player on the roster who would net a bigger return than Letang as just about every GM would be stomping down the door.
What enhances Letang’s trade value even more is that he has two years remaining on his deal, carrying a $3.5 million cap hit and doesn’t have a no trade clause. His next contract will surely be in the $6 to $7 million per season range and the Penguins have top prospect Joe Morrow who brings similar attributes to the table, about a year away from a full time role. I’m not saying the Penguins should consider moving Letang, but that’s the view point I got from more than a few NHL types this week when I asked around about Letang.
*Matt Niskanen, 25 years old – Has received a $1.75 million qualifying offer and there’s been some preliminary discussions about a two to three year deal, but going into this weekend Niskanen is still not a sure bet to still be around as he could be trade bait. As I reported yesterday, both sides intend to scale back talks until after the draft to see what the Penguins do, sources confirmed.
*Deryk Engelland, 30 years old – A valuable No. 6, No. 7 type defenseman type whose game really progressed last season in the puck moving department to go with his toughness. GM Ray Shero has called him the perfect kind of tough guy to have on your hockey club. Engelland has two years remaining on his deal and is cheap with a $566,667 cap hit.
IN THE SYSTEM
*Simon Despres , 20 years old – One of the organization’s top prospects, Despres is viewed as being ready to make the jump to a full-time role next season and also viewed as an untouchable. Despres carries a $840,000 cap hit at the NHL level.
*Robert Bortuzzo, 23 years old – Like Despres the Penguins feel Bortuzzo is ready for an NHL role. The question mark has been whether the Penguins intend to go through with it and open him up a spot. If not, he could be moved.Â What Bortuzzo provides is a presence that the Penguins lack,as he has size, clears the net well and has a nasty edge to his game. Bortuzzo a pending restricted free agent has received a $577,500 qualifying offer and is waiver eligible next season.
*Brian Strait, 24 years old – Doesn’t have the upside that Bortuzzo has and is mostly viewed as a No. 6/ No. 7 defenseman at the NHL level. Strait though proved last season that he belongs in the NHL and he is also waiver eligible next season. Strait has received a $605,000 qualifying offer.