by Tony on 09/20/13 at 12:59 PM ET
Penguins' General Manager Ray Shero, or as we affectionately call him GMRS, has taken some heat in recent drafts for stockpiling defensive prospects and thereby bypassing forwards. It's not an inaccurate criticism: It's pretty clear to anyone who takes a look at the Penguins' minor league affiliates. Their strength, without a doubt, is their plethora of defensive prospects.
However, a couple are not just your typical prospects. A couple of these young men, still kids in fact, are quickly developing into bonafide studs on the blue line. So much so that while it's not likely that Shero/Dan Bylsma leadership would keep 19 year-olds Derrick Pouliot nor Olli Maatta on their NHL roster this upcoming season, their play has certainly caused a few established veteran defensemen to start looking in their rearview mirror, and often.
Pouliot and Maatta are included in the group of promising defensive prospects that will inevitably start replacing the Penguins D-corps as we know it.
As I mentioned, I just don't see Shero nor Bylsma offering Pouliot nor Maatta permanent roster spots. I don't see them as GM/Coach that would take that sort of developmental risk with them, just not their style. At the very most, maybe have them up with the team for a few games, then back to Juniors, just as they did with Kris Letang several years ago now.
But while Pouliot and Maatta are certainly the most celebrated prospects, and for good reason, they are definitely not the only ones pushing for roster spots on the Pens' blue line.
For even if you assume, like I do, that Pouliot and Maatta will indeed be sent back to Juniors, that still leaves several legitimate questions in terms of how this Pens' defensive corps will end up being constructed by opening night:
In my feeble mind, there are only four bonafide locks on the blue line, and those are Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin and Kris Letang. No, I do not include Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen nor Robert Bortuzzo in that group. All of them could be on the roster, but there are "issues" will all of them.
- Let's not forget that the Penguins are still approximately $1.1 million over the salary cap, although reportedly the Pens' bean counters dispute that figure. Somebody, or bodies, has to go. Does that still mean Niskanen is a goner, as it's been widely speculated?
- Inexplicably, Despres, all 22 years of him, came to NHL training camp out of shape. How in the sam hell does that happen? Moreover, Despres doesn't have to clear waivers to be sent down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton if need be.
- Engelland, fisticuffs aside, noticeably struggled defensively last season.
- Bortuzzo is the most questionable of this group, although reportedly he's had a good camp/preseason thus far. This might be the year his spot becomes quasi-permanent.
- All this talk about Pouliot and Maatta, I didn't even mention two other strong candidates for roster spots. Those could very well be Brian Dumoulin, acquired in the Jordan Staal trade on 2012 draft day, and Scott Harrington. Harrington, still only 20 years old, is likely still a reach, but Pens beat writers have speculated that Dumoulin is NHL-ready right now. The question becomes whether Penguins management have the cojones to actually pull the trigger on making a move such as trading or releasing an Engelland or Niskanen in lieu of a roster spot for one of these youngsters.
The wealth of defensive prospects in the Penguins organ-i-zation gave GMRS the flexibility prior to last season's trade deadline to trade offensive defenseman Joe Morrow to Dallas in the Brenden Morrow dea;. Now of course, in hindsight, maybe that deal didn't pan out like we envisioned, but the fact of the matter remains that Morrow, whose defensive attributes were not progressing, was made expendable because of the hightly touted defensive prospects right behind him in the system.
Overall though, it's not very far away now that we as fans can start envisioning a Penguins blue line that includes names like Letang, Pouliot, Maatta, Harrington and Dumoulin, not to mention Despres if he hangs around. And yes, I do think one of these years Orpik is gonna get dealt way, as might Martin eventually.
Yeah, that'll work.
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