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Yohe: A look at the blue line, goaltenders

Greetings, hockey fans.

If you thought the Penguins faced difficult decisions at forward, which we discussed yesterday, wait until you take a look at the situation on the blue line. Let’s take a look at the goaltending situation, also.

Here’s what faces the Penguins:

The Defensemen

STILL UNDER CONTRACT

Kris Letang

Age: 27

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2022. His annual cap hit is $7.25 million. His contract includes a no-trade clause that is triggered on July 1, 2014.

The bottom line: Well, here’s an interesting situation. What in the world is one to do with Kris Letang? There is no right or wrong answer. Just lots of questions. Will Letang ever develop into a Drew Doughty type player? Before you laugh at this notion, know that Letang possesses all the physical talent in the world to play like Doughty. But he isn’t there yet and, at 27, one has to assume he is close to peaking. The bigger question is whether Letang can stay healthy. He has missed 89 games during the past three seasons. Last season alone, he sustained a stroke, a broken hand, an elbow infection and a knee injury that caused him to miss the season’s first month. There are members of the organization, past and present, that would have preferred to have traded Letang before he was locked up to a $58 million deal last summer. But would trading him now make sense? Given his recent health ailments and monster contract, there’s no way Letang’s trade value is terribly high. Still, his no-movement clause kicks in on July 1, so, in theory, if you’re going to trade him, now is the time. Interesting situation, eh? I actually thought Letang played really well in the playoffs. I’ve long been a fan of his work and think he is underrated in some areas. However, he is not a good power play guy, which makes his future salary pretty difficult to justify. The guess here is that the Penguins keep Letang, but then, we don’t even know who will be running the team in a few days, so it’s a guess and nothing else.

Paul Martin

Age: 33

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His annual cap hit is $5 million.

The bottom line: What a hockey player. The Penguins, and this includes former GM Ray Shero, deserve immense credit for showing such patience with Martin in the summer of 2012. It would have been easy to ditch him after those first two seasons. Instead, the Penguins trusted that Martin would rebound, and he is currently one of the NHL’s best defensemen. But, much like Letang, there is no easy answer in terms of Martin’s future. He’s 33. Next summer, when he’s due to hit the market, he’ll be 34. He will want another long term deal and will assuredly get one. If you’re the Penguins – all of these young defensemen have to play sooner rather than later – do you extend a 34-year-old defenseman? Do you trade him this summer, knowing his value is fairly strong despite only having one year left on his deal? Do you keep him for this season and risk letting him walk for no return? This isn’t an easy situation for the new GM. I think it’s worth keeping him around for a few more years, so long as he doesn’t require a no-trade clause. You still need a veteran presence on the blue line, and given Martin’s style, I think he could still be an elite player for about three more years.

Olli Maatta

Age: 19

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2016. His annual cap hit is $894,167.

The bottom line: I can’t manufacture any words that haven’t been written about this kid. He is special, will play in multiple all-star games and was among the most impressive rookies in team history. Maatta is also uncommonly mature, smart and motivated. How the Penguins landed his kid at No. 22 remains quite the mystery. His shoulder surgery in May might slow Maatta at bit when next season begins, but don’t lose any sleep over this. The kid is special and will be Penguins’ property for a long, long time.

Robert Bortuzzo

Age: 25

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His annual cap hit is $600,000.

The bottom line: I’m a Robert Bortuzzo guy. This is a sturdy, physical NHL defenseman who absolutely should have been in the lineup in each postseason game. He’s going to have a lengthy, successful career. Bortuzzo has a lot of sandpaper in his game, which is something the Penguins badly need. He isn’t blessed with great offensive skills, but he doesn’t hurt the Penguins in terms of puck movement. Given his impressive reach and commitment to physical play, this guy should be a fixture on the Penguins blue line for many years to come. Is he a top-four guy? Maybe not. But he’s a very strong No. 5 or No. 6 defenseman at the NHL level, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And he might take that step into top-four territory at some point. Good player.

Rob Scuderi

Age: 35

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017. His annual cap hit is $3.375 million.

The bottom line: The fan base quickly became disenchanted with Scuderi, a veteran who helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009. In general, the criticism was fair. He clearly has lost a step and never looked the same after breaking his ankle in October. Scuderi is not a candidate for a compliance buyout. So, what to do? I have two quick thoughts on this: If you can trade Scuderi, this probably would be wise. He makes a lot of money, is almost 36, and clearly isn’t the player he once was. However, I don’t think he’s completely finished. Scuderi looked bad in Dan Bylsma’s puck-retrieval system, which puts a premium on players being able to skate fluidly. This was not the system that was in place when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Maybe Scuderi was just a rotten fit for this system – Martin and Zbynek Michalek didn’t exactly look good in their first year in the system, either – and maybe, assuming Bylsma is relieved from his duties and a more conventional approach is implemented, Scuderi can still be effective.

 RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Simon Despres

Age: 22

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2014.

The bottom line: Wow. Now things get interesting. What do the Penguins do with Simon Despres? Your guess is as good as mine. Me? I’d sign him. Despres is an impressive physical talent, a big man who can skate and who has good offensive awareness. Bylsma never liked the guy. He thought he was lazy and that he had a questionable attitude. These are probably fair criticisms on Bylsma’s part, but perhaps the coach should have worked with Despres to improve these problems instead of simply dismissing him. We’ve learned that Despres is too good to be playing in the AHL. He’s definitely an NHL player. Will the Penguins ultimately send Despres to another organization? Yeah, I’d say that’s likely, and maybe it’s the best thing for him. But this man has serious talent and is still capable of becoming a top-four guy on a good team. Another team will always be interested in a defenseman with this kind of talent. Sign him. You can always trade him and get value in return.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Matt Niskanen

Age: 27

The bottom line: This name should get your attention. Niskanen is a good hockey player and one of the finer human beings I’ve dealt with, professionally or personally speaking. The Penguins would do well to bring him back and stitch an ‘A’ on his chest. He’s that kind of person, that kind of leader. He also was one of the NHL’s better defensemen during the past season and seemingly gets better every year. Here’s the problem for the Penguins: Niskanen is probably going to receive offers that range between $5-6 million per season on the open market. Is he that good? Is he worth that kind of money? Unlikely. But he’s a hot commodity in a relatively unimpressive free agent field. The Wild, Niskanen’s hometown team, will make a run for him. Niskanen wants to stay in Pittsburgh, loves the city and the franchise, and feels a sense of loyalty to the coaching staff that has so thoroughly revitalized his game. But that coaching staff might not be here in a few days. The same could be said of Niskanen, whose departure could badly damage the Penguins in the short term, on and off the ice.

Brooks Orpik

Age: 33

The bottom line: It appears unlikely that Orpik will return. While the Penguins would like to have him on their blue line for a couple of more seasons, the fact remains that young players are on their way to Pittsburgh soon and need to play. Orpik could almost certainly receive more money, and a longer deal, on the open market. He’s not a kid anymore and certainly has dealt with some injuries. Orpik, though, remains a physical presence, is steady defensively and is one of the fine leaders in Penguins history. Saying goodbye to Orpik wouldn’t have been easy for Shero, who has immense respect for the veteran. A new GM probably won’t feel the same emotional connection. Orpik is one of the fine warriors in Penguins history, a good man off the ice who will be missed. But it appears quite likely that the final game he ever plays in a Penguins sweater will be Game 4 against the Rangers.

Deryk Engelland

Age: 32

The bottom line: Engelland has almost certainly played his final game with the Penguins. He has an opportunity to sign the biggest contract of his career, but it won’t be with the Penguins. Engelland is a physical defenseman who is probably a better player than he receives credit for. He has limited physical talent but is rarely out of position. He’s also pretty good in front of his net and played surprisingly well in a role on the fourth line this season. The Penguins won’t re-sign him because of the young talent in their system on defense. Engelland should receive a multi-year offer from an NHL team. He is from Edmonton, and that sounds like a perfect destination for him.

 

The Goaltenders

STILL UNDER CONTRACT

Marc-Andre Fleury

Age: 29

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His cap hit will be $5 million next season.

The bottom line: We all know his story. We just don’t know how his story – with the Penguins, at least – will end. Fleury is coming off a terrific season that saw him prove a lot of people wrong. He was one of hockey’s 10 best goaltenders this season and played well in the playoffs. Is he the reason the Penguins lost to the Rangers in seven games? Absolutely not. In fact, he’s become one of the most stable forces in what appears to be a crumbling organization. Fleury will want a contract extension with a raise this summer. He probably should get it, all things considered. I wouldn’t be quick to give him a no-trade agreement, but goalies who win 40 games per season don’t grow on trees. Still, this is an interesting situation. Perhaps a new GM won’t think highly of Fleury and will want to trade him? Could it happen? I suppose a lot of things could happen this summer. But Fleury proved a lot of people wrong last season. My hunch is that he stays for quite some time.

Jeff Zatkoff

Age: 26

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2016. His annual cap hit will be $600,000.

The bottom line: Speaking of proving people wrong, so too did Jeff Zatkoff. His first couple of NHL starts weren’t good, but Zatkoff quickly proved himself a worthy NHL goaltender. He also has the perfect personality to be a backup goalie at the NHL level. Everyone likes Zatkoff, and I mean everyone. He’s always chirping, always laughing, and always making people laugh. This is exactly who you want backing up the star goalie. Plus, the guy can play.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

Tomas Vokoun

Age: 37

The bottom line: Vokoun won’t be back with the Penguins, but here’s hoping he receives another NHL job. What a goaltender he’s been. And how about the character of this man? He easily could have retired last season when he was forced to deal with more blood clot problems. But he carried on, doing everything in his power to play again. Vokoun also easily could have complained about the Penguins not letting him play late in the regular season, when their effort indicated that the games were even more meaningless than they actually were. But he never complained. Vokoun should be remembered for his performance in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Great stuff.

 

THE YOUNG GUNS

Young players such as Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin could all be playing for the Penguins at some point next season. All appear ready for NHL action and all remain under Penguins control. Pouliot recently had shoulder surgery and might not be ready for training camp, but he isn’t far from being a big-time NHL contributor. When he is ready, his path to the NHL will not be blocked.

Harrington and Dumoulin clearly have the look of NHL players.

It will be interesting to see how much confidence a new regime has in playing in the young guys.

 

 CONCLUSION

The Penguins still showcase plenty of talent, but they have reached a crossroads. Whoever takes over as GM has enormous decisions to make this summer.

Do you trade Neal? Fleury? Letang? Martin? None of the above. Do you move Kunitz while his value remains high?

Do you let the young guys play on defense now? Do you try to keep Niskanen? Do you throw a curve ball and keep one of your free agents that everyone is assuming will leave? Do you make a splash on July 1, or do you use the money remaining under the salary cap to keep your own?

Are your superstars happy? How do you find the grit and character that Mario Lemieux wants? How do you make your third and fourth lines better? How do you make your team younger?

Just what was wrong with Sidney Crosby? Is he ok now?

How do you keep the increasingly annoyed fan base happy?

How do you win a Stanley Cup again?

There are probably a few more questions that need answered, but that’s a healthy list. This promises to be an off-season we won’t forget anytime soon. And it’s just getting started.

Stay tuned, everyone.

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