How a Makeshift Blue Line Is Thriving for the Red-Hot Pittsburgh Penguins

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How a Makeshift Blue Line Is Thriving for the Red-Hot Pittsburgh Penguins
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the NHL, having won five straight and 11 of 12. That's not surprising for a team of their caliber and talent.

What's surprising is how they've done it.

The Penguins' blue line has been decimated by injuries, leaving the club with a group of inexperienced and unheralded defensemen who are currently being led by a player who wasn't sure if he was long for the league as little as two years ago.

Matt Niskanen is well aware of the fact that he was nothing more than an afterthought when the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired James Neal from the Dallas Stars for Alex Goligoski in February 2011.

“I was a throw-in guy in that deal,” Niskanen said Wednesday as the Penguins prepared to face the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “At that point in my career, I was thinking I have to battle to stay in the league.”

Almost two years since that trade, he is far from a fringe player. The combination of his improved play along with an avalanche of injuries to the Penguins’ top-four defensemen have Niskanen serving as the team’s No. 1 defenseman for the immediate future, and everyone has been OK with it.

Well, everyone except Niskanen.

“I’m the No. 1 'D' by default at the moment,” Niskanen said. “I’ll take it for now.

“It’s not ideal, obviously, having your top-four guys out. But when it happens, guys get opportunities, whether it be a more important role or an opportunity for young guys to play. For me, I get those tough matchups, more minutes, more time on the power play. That’s an exciting opportunity…for the time being.

“I hope it doesn’t last all season.”

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta has two goals and nine points this season.

The Penguins have been besieged by injuries along the blue line since the puck dropped on the 2013-14 season, but it’d be almost impossible to discern that by looking at the standings and defensive numbers. After beating the Rangers 4-3 in a shootout, the Penguins are 25-10-1 and holding opponents to 2.17 goals per game and 27.0 shots per game, the fourth-best marks in the league.

The only other regular defenseman on the Penguins to escape injury this season is 19-year-old Olli Maatta. With 36 career games under his belt, he has been the fourth-most experienced blueliner in the lineup with the top-four regulars on the sideline. He has seen his minutes rise from the mid-teens in the early part of the season to about 20 minutes a game since mid-November.

He played a career-high 28:06 against the Rangers on Wednesday.

That’s not too shabby for a teenager who wasn’t sure if he’d make the team out of training camp.

“I feel like it tells you a lot about organization, how good of a job they’ve done,” Maatta said. “All the guys that come in from the minors, even me with the juniors, I already know what the system was like. The veterans have done a really good job teaching us.”

Kris Letang, the team’s usual leader in minutes and points among defensemen, missed the first nine games of the season with a lower-body injury and the past three with an upper-body malady. The Penguins have gone 10-2-0 in his absence.

Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, who frequently serve as the team’s No. 1 pairing and generally face the opposition’s most lethal scorers, have been out of the lineup for a combined 18 games and counting.

The Penguins are 10-3 without Martin, who won’t return from a broken tibia for at least another two weeks. Orpik suffered a concussion at the hands of Shawn Thornton’s rage attack in Boston last week and has missed five games and is out indefinitely.

With Orpik out, the Penguins have yet to lose. 

How the Penguins Have Performed Without...
Player Gms missed Shots/game Goals/game Record
Kris Letang 12 26.1 2.25 10-2-0
Brooks Orpik 5 31.8 1.60 5-0-0
Paul Martin 13 29.7 1.92 10-3-0
Rob Scuderi 25 26.5 2.00 18-6-1
Scuderi/Martin/Orpik 5 31.8 1.60 5-0-0
Scuderi/Martin/Orpik/Letang 3 29.0 1.66 3-0-0

NHL.com

Rob Scuderi was signed in the offseason to provide a steady defensive presence along the blue line, something he delivered for five years in Pittsburgh while helping the club win a Stanley Cup in 2009. But he has been out since Oct. 26 with a broken ankle and has just begun skating with the team.

In Scuderi’s absence, the Penguins are 18-6-1 and allowing two goals per game.

The Penguins have played five games without Scuderi, Martin and Orpik and are 5-0-0. In three games without any of their top-four defensemen, they are 3-0-0.

“I don’t think we’re looking at this as a woe is us or what’s going to happen next,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “The good thing for us is we have depth at the defensive position.”

Penguins general manager Ray Shero has made more calls to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the first two months of this season than he probably would have liked, but he has been able to tap into the team’s considerable depth on defense. Twenty-two-year-olds Philip Samuelsson and Brian Dumoulin are in the NHL ahead of schedule, but both are second-round picks proving they can hold their own in this brief taste of the show.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Kris Letang was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2013, yet the Penguins are 10-2-0 with him out of the lineup this season.

Simon Despres, also 22, didn’t make the team out of training camp but has held his own in 11 games this season after showing flashes of first-round skill in 33 games last season.

Robert Bortuzzo has been a healthy scratch 16 times this year, but he has provided steady play with an increased role. The same can be said for Deryk Engelland, whose usual workload is about 10 minutes per night but has played more than 20 minutes on three occasions.

Engelland missed the first of five games Wednesday as he was slapped with a five-game suspension for a hit to the head of Detroit's Justin Abdelkader on Saturday.

Everyone has been asked to do more, but perhaps no one has done more with the opportunity than Niskanen. He played a career-high 29:26 in a 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, then achieved in a new mark in that category by playing 29:44 on Wednesday. He has a goal, 12 assists and has been one of the best possession players this season on a team that's loaded with them.

Niskanen has come a long way since the trade that sent him from Dallas, when he fell out of favor with coach Marc Crawford and wondered how much longer he’d be in the league.

“My confidence was gone,” Niskanen said. “That’s hard to come out of. It takes a little time. The trade was the best thing to happen for me. I came here and they gave me a shot to dig myself out of it. I started playing a lot again and it’s gone well.

“At this point, I think I’m a responsible every day player. I can play top-four minutes if needed, but I don’t think I’m the top guy on many clubs.”

Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images
Brooks Orpik, left, and Paul Martin have been absent from the Penguins lineup for five and 13 games, respectively.

Bylsma was quick to point out that while Niskanen is suddenly the go-to guy on the blue line with everyone in the infirmary, the 27-year-old has been nothing but excellent throughout the season. 

“He’s getting a lot of attention right now because he’s the veteran back there and played his most minutes ever by a considerable margin against Detroit,” Bylsma said. “But the first 10 games of the season, he was plus-10 and one of the leaders for points among defensemen. So he’s been a big part for our team right from the start of the season.”

With the improved Niskanen serving as the anchor, the Penguins aren’t just surviving without their best defensemen—they’re thriving.

“There’s good depth at the position in our organization,” Bylsma said, “and it’s showing right now.”

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