Projecting Pittsburgh Penguins' Defensive Pairings in 2014-15 NHL Season
With all the commotion surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins on and off the ice this offseason, the future of this organization is shrouded in mystery.
The Pens have a lot of areas to improve in the coming months, but who will be playing along the blue line next season is the least of their worries.
The team’s defense is in good condition, and while one or two moves could be made to strengthen it, I believe the front office must focus on the best possible pairings by the beginning of the preseason to set the tone for the rest of the year.
The Penguins have three unrestricted free agents (Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland) and one restricted free agent (Simon Despres) this offseason.
Before any changes to the pairings can be made, the organization must decide who stays and who goes. I don’t believe there is any sense in acquiring new defensemen in free agency, since most of the attention must be focused on the current group.
With all the turmoil that is taking place within the organization, let’s take a break and look at what the Penguins’ defensive pairings could look like come October.
No. 1 Pairing: Kris Letang and Olli Maatta
I think it’s fair to say the Penguins are going to let Brooks Orpik walk in free agency. The club has a lot of money tied into its superstars and can't afford to re-sign a struggling, mid-30s defenseman.
With Orpik moving on, a new look will soon come to the Pens' first defensive pair, which will consist of Kris Letang and 19-year-old Finn Olli Maatta.
Letang had a rough year after suffering a stroke in late January. His mental mistakes late in the season and early in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs contributed to his struggles as well.
Despite his shortcomings this year, the 27-year-old has proven he can be a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman when he is healthy, which makes me skeptical that the Pens would consider shipping him off to another team, as Pensburgh has speculated.
The Pens trust Letang. If not, they wouldn’t have given him a $58 million contract extension that includes a no-trade clause and begins next year.
Pairing Letang with soon-to-be second-year defenseman Maatta on the blue line would lead to a vicious threat on both sides of the puck.
Maatta proved himself last season at the young age of 19 by participating in 78 games and posting nine goals and 20 assists.
Providing him the opportunity to play alongside one of the top offensive defensemen in the league would give him a valuable role model, which would lead to an even better individual performance than last year.
While Maatta is still young, I think he is mature enough to begin the season on the first defensive pair.
No. 2 Pairing: Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen
Niskanen is one of three defensemen set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
I think it’s safe to say Niskanen must be re-signed over the others not only because of the effort he put in last season, but also because he happens to be the youngest of the three. At 27 years old, he still has a good upside.
Niskanen, who was acquired along with James Neal in the brilliant 2011 trade made by ex-general manager Ray Shero, led the league last season in the plus/minus category for a good chunk of the year. He finished ranked sixth with a plus-33 rating.
He has shown his coaches and fans that he has a knack for being on he ice at the right time. That is undoubtedly a great skill to have.
2014 Olympian Paul Martin has one year left on his contract and served the team well when he was paired with Letang last year in the wake of Orpik’s injury in Game 4 of the Columbus series.
While those two played well together, I still believe Martin should be sent down to the second pair with Niskanen for a new look next season. If the chemistry isn’t there, then the coaching staff can always switch things back.
Martin and Niskanen would provide the Penguins with a veteran second unit that could easily be a top defensive pairing on many other clubs. It would be a nice complement to the dangerous first pair of Maatta and Letang.
No. 3 Pairing: Rob Scuderi/Derrick Pouliot and Robert Bortuzzo
The bottom defensive pair will see a plethora of changes early in the 2014-15 season. It may also be home to the Penguins’ 2012 first-round pick (eighth overall) Derrick Pouliot.
Hockey's Future views Pouliot as one of the top defensive prospects in the world, and he even earned the honor of being named the CHL Defenseman of the Year for the 2013-14 season.
According to the Hockey News, Pouliot “displays a very aggressive nature which serves him well in both offensive and defensive situations". He also “can be an effective asset with the man advantage."
As we saw with Maatta, young defensemen can thrive at the highest level of professional hockey. At 20 years old, Pouliot is ready to begin his professional career.
I don’t expect him to start right away, especially since he is recovering from shoulder surgery. I do expect to see him in a black and gold sweater before December, however.
Before Pouliot makes his entrance to the NHL, I expect the bottom [airing to consist of Scuderi and Bortuzzo, which is what the Pens finished last season with.
Scuderi is a liability. If the Pens can find absolutely any takers on the trade market, I suggest they ship him out immediately because he is signed through 2017 and is long past his glory days.
After this year, I don’t think any club will want the 35-year-old. However, if he is still on the squad by October, I think he can perform well enough until he is replaced by Pouliot.
Bortuzzo is on the rise and I can see him playing one more year on the third pair. This will be a breakout year for the 25-year-old. Pairing him with Pouliot gives the Pens a young third unit that would undoubtedly make mistakes, but would learn from them.