That…that’s Mark Eaton’s music!
OK, yes, we know…the return of Mark Eaton to Pittsburgh is little more than a depth signing. At 35 years of age, Eaton is certainly no longer the top-four caliber defenseman who rode shotgun when Shero moved from Nashville to Pittsburgh to take over the Pens in 2006 (h/t to @demangone, who suggested he may have been Shero’s first UFA signing as Pens GM). This Mark Eaton isn’t even the defensemen who four years later parlayed a Cup win and some steady play with the Pens into that Last Sweet Free Agent Deal to play hockey in the seventh circle of hell. No, not Ottawa. He went to Long Island.
But that segues ever so nicely. Eaton’s contract was not renewed by the Islanders after last year. That’s fine. In fact, that’s more than fine. Why? Because we love us some Islanders castoffs…
Ruslan Fedotenko – signed with the Pens in summer of 2008 after New York Islanders decided to let him walk.
Miroslav Satan – signed with the Pens in summer of 2008 after the New York Islanders decided to let him walk.
Dan Bylsm...wait, Dan Bylsma? Yes, Dan Bylsma. NHL assistant coach in 2005-06 with New York Islanders under Steve Stirling & Brad Shaw. Wasn’t retained by Islanders after they decided to fire Shaw and bring in Ted Nolan.
And at the 2009 trade deadline, when Disco and Shero determined they needed a veteran forward who still had enough left to play top six and knock in a few goals, this is what a conditional draft pick can get you from the New York Islanders…
Islanders, we will always, always take your castoffs. OK, maybe not Matt Martin. Even we have standards. Just call us when you decide Grabner can’t cut it for you anymore.
But hey, this is about Mark Eaton. So let’s share some thoughts on this, dudes, and talk through how this impacts the defense.
Barring injury, the top four won’t change. Letang, Martin, Orpik and Niskanen are still going to eat up 20+ minutes per night. If Eaton finds his way into the lineup, it will be on the third pairing. What does this mean for the lower pairing, then?
It helps to view the handling of everyone associated with the lower pairing – Engelland, Despres and Bortuzzo – within the context of a lockout-shortened season and the playoffs.
Under a normal 82-game season, the Pens would’ve had the luxury of a full training camp, exhibition games and a cushion of about 20 games (or more) to see what they had with the younger players. But in an abbreviated season like this, there’s much more at stake each night and much less margin for error. Right or wrong, it’s a reason why more of a premium seems to be placed on NHL experience by Bylsma and Shero. But that's not an absolute, either, as credence was paid by club management to Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo elevating their respective games. They're largely the reasons why both Brian Strait and Ben Lovejoy were considered expendable.
It’s tough to believe, though, that Bylsma and Shero were planning on heading into the postseason with a third pairing made up of some combination of Deryk Engelland, Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo. Engelland saw 10 minutes a night in the playoff series last year with Philly, and he hasn’t done much this year to suggest he can be relied on for more than that this spring. If the coaches aren’t trusting Despres and Bortuzzo with more than that now, it won’t happen during the playoffs. Changes were going to happen to the defense heading into the playoffs.
So enter Mark Eaton.
As @PeteAbbate pointed out last night on Twitter, Eaton’s signingacquisition screams “Philippe Boucher” from 2009 – a veteran who can be trusted to play smart limited minutes on the third pairing or chip in when they elect to dress seven defensemen, as teams tend to do in the postseason. In the meantime, he’ll get a few games in the lineup here and there.
It’s not a huge move, but it’s a start. Eaton knows the system. He won’t be asked to do too much. He can move the puck and play reliable stay-at-home defense. And he's played in the frenzy that is a playoff game in Philly, Washington and New York.
It’s likely they make another move to shore up the defensive depth, probably by adding another veteran who can provide a bigger presence. Woo trade deadline! Woo sports!
And yes, obviously this impacts Despres and Bortuzzo. Despres can be sent back to WBS without being exposed to waivers, so that will likely happen at some point. That’s fine. Despres acquitted himself well in Pittsburgh so far this year, but 20-25 minutes a night in a playoff run in WBS will ultimately help him more than 12 minutes a night will here.
Bortuzzo? Well, this is one of those “context of the lockout” things and unfortunately, it sucks even more for a player like Bortuzzo. The lockout wiped out precious time earlier this season that could’ve been used to see where he really was at this level, including allowing him to make mistakes and learn from them in games that carries less relative importance.
He can’t go back down to WBS to play more because he’ll get claimed on waivers. Unlike the situation with Strait, that seems to be a gamble this franchise is unwilling to take with Bortuzzo. While Brian Strait’s ceiling was likely as a third-pairing defenseman, Bortuzzo’s combination of size (and willingness to use it), mobility and puck skills gives him top-four potential. He’s likely the closest thing the club has right now to a long-term, in-house replacement for Brooks Orpik.
Going forward, Bortuzzo will still likely get his 10-15 minutes a night when he does dress. He’ll still have his share of nights in the press box as well, depending on what happens with Despres. It’s not ideal, but at 23 years of age, he’s also young enough that it won’t cause his game to stagnate. Defensemen take a long time to develop and both he and Despres are just scratching the surface of their potential at the NHL level.
So welcome back Mark Eaton.
Stock up for Thursday night, as it'll be the Staal Brothers Drinking Game to end all Staal Brothers Drinking Games.
Former Head Coach Michel Therrien this weekend.
Happy Five Years Since Hossa.