The Pittsburgh Penguins have an enviable amount of depth on the blue line.
After stockpiling impressive young talent from a few excellent drafts and shrewd trades, the next challenge for the Penguins is to determine which blue line prospects are capable of playing at the NHL level right now and who needs more developing.
With veterans Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin no longer playing at an elite level defensively, and not signed long-term, giving some of their top defensive prospects some valuable NHL experience would be a smart move by general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma.
Let's take a look at the Penguins defensive prospects with the best chance to make the NHL roster for the start of the 2013-14 season.
Scott Harrington is a defensive defenseman who projects to be a top-four player at the NHL level. The 20-year-old has spent the last four seasons playing junior hockey for the OHL's London Knights, with whom he averaged 20.25 points per year.
The likely situation for Harrington is playing a full season in the AHL for Wilkes-Barre Scranton before making his Penguins debut, but he does offer the defensive intelligence and puck-moving skills to warrant a spot on the NHL roster at the beginning of the year. His offensive skills are still raw and need more development, but from a defensive standpoint, he's NHL-ready.
As a responsible and composed player, adjusting to the NHL shouldn't be a difficult challenge for Harrington. His ability to win puck battles and play a physical game would make him a valuable addition to the Penguins blue line as soon as this season.
Dumoulin isn't the highest-rated blue line prospect in the Penguins organization, but there's a good chance he becomes one of the team's top-four defensemen in the near future.
The 21-year-old was one of the best NCAA players in America as a star on the Boston College blue line during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. During the Eagles' championship campaign in 2012, Dumoulin tallied 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 44 games.
Not only does Dumoulin possess impressive playmaking skills and skating ability, he excels in his own end with incredible defensive awareness and imposing size (6'4" and 219 pounds). He can also be trusted in late-game situations against the opposing team's best forwards and on special teams.
Pittsburgh lacked physical defenseman last season, and this was one weakness that hurt the team in its embarrassing four-game defeat to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.
Shero signed veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi in the summer to give the blue line additional toughness and defensive skill, but it would be wise to give a younger player with the same skill set, such as Dumoulin, a chance to make his mark this season.
This kid has the potential to be Pittsburgh's best defenseman in five years.
Olli Maatta is an elite two-way defensive prospect with the ability to shut down the opponent's top scorers and quarterback the power play with impressive playmaking skills.
He tallied a total of 70 points for the OHL's London Knights over the past two seasons and will be expected to play a significant role on the Wilkes-Barre Scranton blue line in 2013-14.
Maatta's readiness for the NHL is based on two things: his ability to excel against top competition in high-pressure situations and his international experience. He's played for Finland in three World Junior Championships, where he excelled against the top players in his age group.
At 6'2" and 205 pounds, Maatta has the size and defensive skill needed to dominate in his own end. Even when he gets in trouble in the defensive zone, Maatta has the skating and puck-handling ability to avoid turnovers and clear the puck.
This skill set should give him a great opportunity to earn a top-six spot on the NHL roster for next season.
Pouliot is the most exciting prospect on the Penguins blue line. The former No. 8 overall draft pick has an impressive combination of size, puck-moving ability and defensive skill. He's a complete player with high-end offensive talent capable of excelling on special teams, especially as a power-play quarterback.
His offensive instincts are fantastic, and even though he likes to join the rush, the 19-year-old rarely puts his team in a bad position defensively by being too aggressive in the attacking zone. In his own end, the Saskatchewan native isn't afraid to go the corners and win possession of the puck. He's also willing to block shots and clear traffic from the front of the net.
Pouliot's consistently strong play in all three zones was a major reason why the Portland Winterhawks won the WHL title in 2013. He tallied 45 points (nine goals, 36 assists) in 44 regular season games last year.
Expect the young defenseman to compete for a roster spot during the rookie and training camps over the next month. Of all the Penguins' defensive prospects who have yet to make their NHL debuts, Pouliot has the most pro-ready skill set and size to make a positive impact right now.
It's time for Simon Despres to play a meaningful role at the NHL level. The 22-year-old played in 33 games last year and tallied seven points (two goals, five assists). It was the first time that he played in more than half of the Penguins' regular season games.
As a confident player with the puck who makes good decisions, Despres is ready for a top-four role in Pittsburgh. He has a powerful shot from the point and the playmaking skills needed to contribute consistent scoring from the blue line.
His excellent vision and skating ability would also make him a quality addition to the Penguins' already potent power play.
Despres averaged 15:06 of ice time per game last year, but with the Penguins' need for more toughness and penalty-killing ability on the blue line, expect the the Quebec native to earn more responsibilities from Bylsma this season. Don't be surprised if he also plays a major role on special teams.
This is going to be an important year for Despres, a former first-round pick who will be eager to prove himself on a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.