Penguins' Joe Morrow Signs, Stengthens Pittsburgh's Elite Defensive Depth

James ConleyContributor IIIAugust 3, 2011

ST PAUL, MN - JUNE 24:  23rd overall pick Joe Morrow of the Pittsburgh Penguins poses for a photo portrait during day one of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Pittsburgh's 2011 first-round pick (23rd overall) Joe Morrow signed a three-year entry level deal with the Penguins Wednesday morning.

The 18-year-old defenseman spent the last three seasons with the AHL's Portland Winterhawks, scoring 87 points (16 goals, 71 assists) in 165 games, though 49 of his 87 points (56 percent) came last season, leading all Portland defensemen in scoring.

Morrow was a player to watch in mid-July when the Penguins held their prospect development camp.

“I’ve always been kind of the stronger kid growing up,” Morrow said of the camp. “You come out here and I’m not the stronger kid anymore at all. There are some big guys out here ... I’m going to get stronger, get faster, shoot harder, pass harder.”

Morrow was a bit of a surprise selection at draft time. He was the first of two defensemen taken in the first two rounds by Pittsburgh (D Scott Harrington taken in the second round, 54th overall) when the perceived weaknesses on the Penguins' roster were the wings.

However, players drafted now likely won't crack the pro roster for two or three years, and General Manager Ray Shero has made a policy of stocking up on defense and acquiring forwards through trades and free agency.

Simon Depres, the last blueliner to be taken in the first round by Pittsburgh, has the look of top-pairing NHL defenseman. 2011-12 will be his first season at the pro level.
Simon Depres, the last blueliner to be taken in the first round by Pittsburgh, has the look of top-pairing NHL defenseman. 2011-12 will be his first season at the pro level.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Since drafting Jordan Staal second overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (Staal was the Penguins' first draft selection with Shero as GM), the Penguins have taken 15 defensemen with 35 picks over six draft classes.

That's just over 43 percent of their picks spent on defensemen. Blueliners typically account for six or seven spots of the 23 roster spots.

Of Pittsburgh's current crop of wingers, only Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey were drafted by the Penguins. Mark Letestu was signed by the team as an undrafted free agent.

The theme of defense-first doesn't end there. In three of his six draft classes, Shero has taken at least two defensemen with his first three picks, twice acquiring a pair of defensemen with the first two picks (Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson in 2009, Morrow and Harrington in 2011).

Morrow's selection is par for the course under the Shero administration and his signing only helps add to the outrageous defensive depth the Penguins have built throughout their system.

At the NHL level, the Penguins already field one of hockey's best top-four defensive corps' with the pairing of Kris Letang-Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek-Paul Martin.

Of the seven defensemen on Pittsburgh's NHL roster, only Michalek and Martin were acquired via free agency. Matt Niskanen was acquired via the trade that sent Alex Goligoski, another Shero draft pick, to Dallas.

Orpik, Letang, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland all arrived in Pittsburgh by way of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The depth at the AHL level is even more impressive. Despres is the Penguins' best prospect at any position and will challenge for a spot in training camp, while Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait, WBS' best defensive pairing last year, will get their crack at an NHL roster sooner or later.

The team also has Samuelsson and Carl Sneep waiting in the wings, not to mention free agent depth signings Alexandre Picard and Boris Valabik.

If the defensive depth looks like overkill, remember that Shero has been able to trade away his blueliners for excellent forwards with no fear of losing defensive depth.

Ryan Whitney was traded to Anaheim and brought a return of Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. Alex Goligoski brought James Neal and Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh.

In each of those instances the Penguins acquired more players than they lost while being able to fill the holes on defense with players of equal or better caliber.

With Morrow's signing, the team's depth at defense continues to grow. Shero's plan is working to full effect, and as the current crop of defensemen is lost to retirement, trade or free agency, Shero and the Penguins appear to have the next generation already waiting in the wings.

Get your Penguins offseason fix at Slew Footers, or banter with James @slewfooters.