The off-season dilemma facing the Penguins is whether to make upgrading their blueline a number 1 priority or the winger position.
With anywhere between $11-$12 million in cap space, Pittsburgh won’t be able to significantly upgrade both positions.
Both positions need improvement but upgrading their defensive group for the short-term and long-term will be a much easier process for the organization than upgrading the winger position.
Improving the Penguins play defensively will first start with a commitment to playing a more defensive structure.
As for personnel moves, should the Penguins focus be on adding stop-gap defensemen not long-term contracts that will hinder their ability to upgrade the top-2 lines.?
There is a serious need to add a physical defenseman or two but not the extent to break the bank and sign an Anton Volchenkov or Dan Hamuis to a contract worth upwards of $4 million per season.
What needs to be taking into account is the development of top prospects Simon Despres (2009 1st round pick) and Robert Bortuzzo (2007, 3rd round pick). 2006 3rd round pick Brian Strait can also be added to the discussion.
Strait and Bortuzzo won’t push for a roster spot out of training camp but both players bring defensive qualities that the Penguins lack and are about a year away or less from being NHL ready.
Bortuzzo, 21, (6-4, 212) has made great strides in his development and is regarded as the No. 2 defenseman in the Penguins system. Bortuzzo had a strong 2009-2010 campaign in Wilkes Barre with a plus-minus rating of plus-13 and added 109 penalty minutes in 75 games played.
Bortuzzo is a physical defenseman with great length and a strong skating ability for a player his size.
He has tremendous upside and potential.
Strait, 22, (6-1, 200 lbs) plays a Rob Scuderi type of game. He was among Wilkes Barre’s most consistent defensemen and had a team leading plus-22 rating in 78 games played. Strait is an extremely hard worker and very good on the penalty kill.
Simon Despres (6-4, 218), the Penguins 2009 1st round pick is just 18 years old but is on the cusp of being NHL ready. A strong two way defenseman who has star potential.
Despres had 48 points in 63 games and a plus-26 rating for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL
In the playoffs Despres play was dominant according to evaluators, scoring 19 points in 21 games and had a team leading plus-18 rating.
Despres is expected to push for a roster spot out of camp, although he’s likely to spend another season in juniors but Despres appears to be a lock to open the 2011-2012 season with the Penguins.
2006 2nd round pick Carl Sneep (6-4, 202) signed a two year contract in April and should also push for a roster spot by the 2011-2012 season, after spending a year in Wilkes Barre.
Multiple team sources continue to indicate that Sergei Gonchar remains a top priority but his future as a Penguin remains very much up in the air.
At this moment the Penguins have three defensemen signed to one way contracts and all three players are considered core players by the organization.
1. Brooks Orpik ( signed through 2013-2014 season with cap hit of $3.75 million)
2. Alex Goligoski ( Signed through 2011-2012 season with cap hit of $1.83 million)
3. Kris Letang (Signed through 2013-2014 season with cap hit of $3.5 million)
Pittsburgh has Goligoski’s rights through the 2012-2013 season and the Penguins like his abilities to push for 50+ points next season. Defensively though Goligoski is still a work in progress.
Kris Letang has the potential to be a budding star if he can play with the kind of consistency offensively that he showed in the playoffs.
Brooks Orpik is the Penguins only punishing rugged type of defenseman and the key for the Penguins is finding the right personnel to retain or bring in to surround their current group of three defensemen
Last year they made the mistake of being too finesse.