Meet the Pittsburgh Penguins' New Top-Six Defensemen
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been taken apart by injuries a third of the way through the 2013-14 NHL season. Their blue line has been hit particularly hard, with Kris Letang not playing until late October and various injuries since that point.
When healthy, Pittsburgh's defense pairings would probably look a little something like this:
Kris Letang - Rob Scuderi
Paul Martin - Brooks Orpik
Olli Maatta - Robert Bortuzzo/Deryk Engelland/Matt Niskanen
It's hard to know for sure what the Penguins would look like with a healthy blue line though, since they've had one for all of four periods so far this season. Martin, Orpik and Scuderi are all on the injured reserve right now, forcing three typical depth defenders to step up into top-four roles.
Meanwhile, the Penguins have had to cut all the way down to the second pairing in the AHL to find healthy bodies. Pittsburgh's blue line looked like this during its last contest on December 9:
Olli Maatta - Kris Letang
Deryk Engelland - Matt Niskanen
Simon Despres - Robert Bortuzzo
Not exactly what the Penguins had in mind at the beginning of the season. While the faces aren't new per say, they are filling in and playing new roles in Pittsburgh.
Was Penciled As: Borderline NHL defenseman, possible candidate to return to the OHL
What He is Now: Top-pairing defenseman alongside Kris Letang
At the beginning of the season, 19-year-old Olli Maatta was not a shoo-in to play even a single game for the Penguins. An early injury to Letang earned him a look in the NHL though, and he was impressive enough during his tryout that the Penguins decided to keep him around for the entire season.
That move has paid off in a big way due to the injury bug not stopping with just Letang. Maatta has gone from bottom-pairing guy just getting his feet wet to a minute-munching defender that is expected to be the defensive anchor of the top pairing.
While he's had a few rough outings, what Maatta has managed to do as a teenager is downright impressive. While Seth Jones is seeing his minutes cut with the Nashville Predators now that they're healthy on the blue line, Maatta continues to impress.
From the OHL to top-end defenseman and Olympic hopeful in a few short months. It's not a bad time to be Olli Maatta.
Was Penciled As: Depth defenseman, mainly used for toughness
What He is Now: Top-four defenseman, playing 20 minutes a night
In 212 career games, Deryk Engelland has nine goals and 278 PIMs. His role for Pittsburgh is a simple one: play hard, hit harder and stick up for teammates when the need arises.
That hasn't changed despite Engelland seeing a massive spike in ice time due to injuries. Through all of October, the defenseman played 59 minutes total. He appeared in seven contests in the opening month of action, seeing a high of 13:28 in the home opener and a low of 4:34 on October 19.
Engelland has laced up the skates for four games in December, and has already played 77:30.
That should illustrate how much extra responsibility has been heaped onto his plate. He's only finished as a minus player once since the middle of November though, and he's taken to dropping the gloves a lot less than usual too.
Was Penciled As: Top-end AHL defenseman or top-six defenseman in Pittsburgh
What He is Now: Top-six defenseman in Pittsburgh
Unlike Engelland, Simon Despres is a blue-chip prospect. The 22-year-old was Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2009, and he's been one of the top youngsters in the organization ever since. He made both his professional and NHL debut during the 2011-12 season, appearing in 18 games with the Penguins that year.
After spending a majority of the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign with Pittsburgh, it was believed that he'd be given a chance to make the team outright during training camp. The squad surprised some folks by demoting him to the AHL, but he had a chance to play some monster minutes with the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins instead of skating 10 minutes a night as a bottom-pairing guy in the NHL.
That extra playing time seems to be paying off for Despres now, who Pittsburgh is using with regularity on the second and third pairings. He's only finished with a minus rating once in seven contests in the NHL this year, and his offensive instincts should start to show up as he gets more comfortable with his current role.
Was Penciled As: Depth defenseman with a friendly cap hit
What He is Now: Top-six defenseman with a friendly cap hit
Robert Bortuzzo has spent the last two years plugging holes on Pittsburgh's blue line. He's been steady yet unimpressive, which leads to his outstanding cap hit. He's the best of both worlds for the Penguins. They can carry him on the roster as a depth guy without taking a major dent in their available funds.
He's still being used in that fashion, but he's getting into game action much more frequently than he would have been otherwise. The 24-year-old has already surpassed his games played count from a year ago, and within the next few weeks he will have doubled his NHL experience.
Bortuzzo will continue to slide in and out of the lineup while trading ice time with the likes of Matt Niskanen and maybe even Brian Dumoulin.
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