NHL Trade Talk: Kris Letang Injury Creates Need for Depth on Penguins Blue Line

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NHL Trade Talk: Kris Letang Injury Creates Need for Depth on Penguins Blue Line
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins strengthened their blue line by acquiring veteran Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks on Monday for two second-round picks, but with No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang suffering another injury, general manager Ray Shero will need to add more defensive depth to his roster before the April 3 NHL trade deadline.

According to Renaud Lavoie of RDS, Letang picked up a new injury in Tuesday's 1-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens, which was his first game back after being out of the lineup since March 17 with a lower-body injury.

The loss of Letang is a massive one for Pittsburgh. He leads all NHL defensemen with 25 assists and 28 points and ranks fourth on the Penguins in scoring. Letang and Paul Martin are the only Penguins blueliners who have tallied more than nine points this season.

The first move the Penguins will likely make is to recall 21-year-old defenseman Simon Despres from the AHL, who was sent down earlier this week to make room on the roster for Letang. If Despres rejoins the team, the Penguins' blue-line depth chart will look like this:

  • Paul Martin
  • Brooks Orpik
  • Douglas Murray
  • Matt Niskanen
  • Simon Despres
  • Deryk Engelland
  • Mark Eaton

This is not a terrible collection of defensemen by any means, and there is plenty of toughness, size, playoff experience and defensive skill in that group. But the lack of scoring production, puck-moving ability and speed that Letang normally provides is a problem.

While Despres is a good young player, he's not capable of making a huge impact offensively or playing 20-plus minutes against opposing teams' best forwards.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Simon Despres

 

Shero will have to look in the trade market for an offensive defenseman because Letang's history of injury problems should worry the Penguins going into the playoffs. Foot injuries are very difficult for hockey players to deal with, so there's no guarantee that the 25-year-old star will be 100 percent for the first round of the postseason.

Who should the Penguins target in the trade market? There are a couple of options for Shero to consider.

One player who the Penguins could target is Dallas Stars veteran Stephane Robidas, who has 10 points in 32 games this season. His playmaking ability would be a good addition to the Penguins blue line, and he could also play a role on the power play as a second-pairing defenseman.

Robidas has one more year remaining on his contract with a manageable $3.3 million salary cap hit.  The Dallas Stars traded captain Brenden Morrow to Pittsburgh in exchange for a prospect and a draft pick over the weekend, and it wouldn't be surprising if these two teams made another deal involving a defenseman.

Another target could be Joe Corvo of the Carolina Hurricanes, who is capable of playing 20-plus minutes each game against quality competition.

He is 36 years old and an upcoming UFA in the summer with a $2 million cap hit. Corvo is great on the power play because of his powerful point shot, vision and playmaking skills. Without Letang in the lineup, the Penguins will need a defenseman who can create scoring chances on the power play.

Corvo is also a good skater and can limit the effectiveness of the opposing team's forecheck by making a good first pass out of the defensive zone. Corvo has improved his points-per-game average from last season and has tallied 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 24 games this year.

The Hurricanes have lost six straight games and they are starting to fall out of the playoffs race. If Carolina becomes a seller at the trade deadline, Shero should see what the asking price is for Corvo.

Harry How/Getty Images
Ryan Whitney

 

If the Edmonton Oilers become sellers, which is likely, the Penguins should try to bring back Ryan Whitney, who enjoyed the three best years of his NHL career in Pittsburgh from 2005-06 through 2007-08.

Whitney has just 10 points in 24 games this season, but moving to Pittsburgh and having a chance to win the first Stanley Cup of his career would likely rejuvenate him, especially when you consider the fact that he'll be a UFA in the summer and has a new contract to play for. The 30-year-old veteran could also contribute on the power play and would be an ideal addition to Pittsburgh's third pairing, where he could partner with Matt Niskanen.

Acquiring Whitney makes a lot of sense for the Penguins because he is already familiar with the franchise and many of its players, and he would also give the team another offensive defenseman who can create scoring chances at even strength or on the power play.

Could the Penguins beat the Bruins and Canadiens in the playoffs without a healthy Letang?

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Shero has no choice but to add another offensive defenseman to his roster before the trade deadline because without Letang healthy and in the lineup consistently, Pittsburgh would not be able to defeat the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens in a seven-game playoff series.

The Penguins' salary-cap situation for 2013-14 and beyond will likely prevent them from trading for an expensive defenseman who is not a rental (Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks, for example), but there are plenty of veteran blueliners around the league for Shero to acquire who could add a much-needed offensive boost to his lineup.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.

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