A conundrum, if you will...
If the Penguins have one major question mark heading into this season, it’s what the team brings back on the blueline. Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Oprik were 1-2-3 in terms of minutes per game among Pens defensemen last year and they all return. The trade of Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix bumps Matt Niskanen into the top four.
Beyond that, well…things get dicey.
Ben Lovejoy and Derek Engelland are back & depending on what part of the season you choose to remember, you’re either OK with that, or you just ran from the room shrieking in terror.
Engelland made strides in his game last year, improving his skating & puck skills considerably and putting up decent statistical numbers (4 goals, 13 assists, +10 rating) in relatively limited minutes (16 minutes per night). Lovejoy battled injuries that limited him to 34 games, but was about all you’d reasonably expect from a lower-pairing defenseman when healthy. Until the playoffs. And that’s the problem.
Improvements aside, Engelland isn’t well-rounded enough to be a reliable lower-pairing guy in big moments. His ice time dipped to 11:30 a night in the Flyers series and he seemed overwhelmed by the playoff pace. If Engelland was overwhelmed in the playoffs, Lovejoy was drunk and projectile vomiting. He had an absolutely miserable playoff series, one mostly marred with giveaways that cost the Pens directly on a few occasions.
Oh hey it's another Lovejoy cross-ice pass...
Joining the incumbents in this mix is the trio from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait and Simon Despres.
Despres was the Pens’ first-round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. Of the Wilkes-Barre Three, he’s got the most natural offensive skill and he's the best puck-mover. But with this being just his second professional season, he is also shortest on pro experience. His play at WBS has been inconsistent all year as he is still adjusting to the speed of the pro game. There are also reports that the Pens are unhappy with his conditioning levels this season. Some regional sports writers may even argue that Simon Despres does not “get it”.
Brian Strait is 6’1”, 200 and was a 3rd-round pick in 2006. His developmental path has been very similar to that of a defensemen he may compare most favorably to – former Penguin Rob Scuderi. Strait spent three years at Boston University and is now in his fourth season as a pro, though he battled some injuries last year that cost him about 30 games. Not saying he’s Scuds right now…it’s just that he plays that same type of no-nonsense, stay-at-home game that Scuderi excelled at playing. He’s not incredibly physical but relies on a very sound positional game.
If Strait may be the next generation’s Piece, then Robert Bortuzzo may be the closest thing the system has right now to the U.S.S. Hal Gill. Bortuzzo was a 3rd-round pick in 2007 and, again in fairness, he’s not Hal Gill. But at 6’4”, 219, he has learned how to play that same style of rangy, rugged defense, taking advantage of a long reach and good mobility to cover a lot of space. He also possesses a nasty disposition. If the Pens are looking for someone to play 15 minutes a night and indiscriminately beat the hell out of any opposing forward who tries to create traffic in front of Fluery or Vokoun, Bortuzzo is a good place to start. And yes, I’m a fan.
So what happens here?
Well, waivers and contracts play a role here. Engelland and Lovejoy are on one-way deals and NHL teams typically don’t like to pay their AHL guys NHL money. However, Strait and Bortuzzo would have to clear waivers if they’re sent back to Wilkes-Barre, and chances are neither would make it without being claimed by another team. After investing more than three years developing each directly, Shero may not want to risk that.
Despres can be sent back without waivers and would probably stand to benefit the most by going back to Wilkes-Barre to play 24 minutes a night. To that end, it wouldn't be surprising if the Pens elect to start the season with eight defensemen and send Despres back to Wilkes-Barre.
Should they elect to keep Despres up, they’ll have some decisions to make with the other four. If Despres sticks, they may elect to trade either Engelland or Lovejoy rather than send them down. It would be similar to the Pens moving Mark Letestu last year, freeing up space on the depth chart for graduating talent with greater potential.
There should be nothing wrong with starting the season with three or four of the aforementioned names on the big club so they can see what they have. It may still be too much to ask some combination of Engelland, Lovejoy and three youngsters to hold down the bottom pairing in the playoffs, so there could be moves made during the season to shore this group up prior to the postseason.
There is a noticeable lack of physical presence with this entire blueline corps, particularly when it comes to protection in front of the net. During the last quarter of the 2011-12 season, too many opposing forwards were allowed to just walk right into the slot or camp out near the net. This carried over into the playoffs and we saw what happened then.
It’s a good bet Shero won’t let history repeat itself.
Three more days.