Greetings, hockey fans.
Matt Niskanen, anyone? Hear me out.
This is what we know about the Penguins’ current defensive unit.
= Kris Letang is coming off a fairly strong postseason. His best hockey of the season actually came after he sustained a stroke in January. Good for him. Still, during the past eight months, Letang has endured a stroke, an elbow infection, a significant knee injury, a broken hand and an injured foot that, according to his agent, isn’t broken. His new contract kicks in on July 1 and with it comes a pretty heavy no-movement agreement. Is Letang’s value, because of the injury, strong enough to make him legitimate trade bait? No, not at $7.25 million for the next eight years. And really, don’t you have to wonder how healthy he’ll be able to stay? Letang has also endured numerous concussions in his career, among many other minor injuries. Do you trust him to stay healthy?
= Paul Martin is coming off a magnificent season. What a hockey player. He was easily the Penguins’ finest defensemen during the 2013-14 season. So, what else do you need to know? Well, he’ll be 34 before the next postseason arrives and he’ll be a free agent in about 13 months. Those are two pretty significant items. Oh, he also sustained a broken leg and broken hand during last season. Do you trust him to stay healthy?
= Rob Scuderi is coming off a dreadful season. You all know this. He’ll be 36 in December and still has three years left on his contract. Also, the Penguins can’t use an amnesty buyout on him because his most recent contract was signed following the latest CBA. Ouch.
= Brooks Orpik, among the finer warriors in Penguins history, probably isn’t coming back. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and will be 34 in December. Also, he suffered a pretty serious knee injury in Game 4 against the Rangers. His body is starting to break down.
= Olli Maatta enjoyed a wonderful rookie season. He’s also scheduled to have shoulder surgery this week. The Penguins aren’t going to make a timetable for Maatta until following the operation, but it sounds fairly serious. Shoulder surgeries aren’t easy for hockey players to return from. Maatta is young, of course, and the odds say he’ll be fine. But still, you wonder if he’ll be ready for the beginning of next season and you wonder about his form next season.
= Deryk Engelland is an unrestricted free agent. You know, he’s not a great player by any stretch, but he’s perfectly serviceable, adds a physical edge and can help on the fourth line. Someone is going to give Engelland a decent contract this summer. I doubt it will be the Penguins.
= Robert Bortuzzo enjoyed a nice season. He’s limited offensively, but if you like your defensemen physical and sound defensively, he’s your guy.
= Simon Despres’ confidence level is always in question. The coaching staff never figured out how to handle Despres at the NHL level. Is this Despres’ fault or the fault of the coaching staff? I don’t know, honestly. There’s probably plenty of blame to go around. Would you trust him at the NHL level next season? Probably not.
= Brian Dumoulin is playing really well for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton right now and has an NHL future. But his NHL experience is so, so limited.
= Scott Harrington is another guy having a really good year in Wlkes-Barre. He has an NHL future too. But how many rookies do you want on next season’s roster?
= Derrick Pouliot? He just had shoulder surgery and probably won’t be ready for action when the season begins. Even if he improves quickly, Pouliot was probably set to start the season at the AHL level anyway.
What’s my point, you ask? My point is, specifically regarding the 2014-15 season, the Penguins could be in a world of trouble if they don’t re-sign unrestricted free agent defenseman Matt Niskanen.
He is going to command plenty of cash, and understandably so. He’s a hot commodity. Niskanen isn’t a great player, but he’s a good one. There’s something to be said for having a right-handed, mobile, strong two-way, 27-year-old defenseman who is one of the truly good people in the game on your team.
Letang and Martin are both wonderful players, but very little data suggests that either will come close to playing 82 games next season. Letang, in particular, has dealt with serious health problems. Martin is older than you think.
Orpik? He’s almost certainly gone. Engelland? Same thing.
Scuderi was brought here to be a top-four defenseman and to play with Letang. He might not even be a top-six defenseman any longer.
Bortuzzo is a legitimate NHL defenseman but still in the 5-6 mold as opposed to a clear top-four guy.
Maatta’s injury sounds serious. Pouliot’s, too. Harrington might not be ready yet. The same thing goes for Dumoulin, and really, do you want multiple rookie defensemen on the blue line at the same time if you’re interested in winning a championship next season?
For that matter, do you trust Despres?
All of this brings us back to Matt Niskanen. Or, as I prefer to label him, Matt Ni$kanen.
Once such an extraordinary strength on paper, the Penguins’ blue line is in shambles long before next season begins.
Niskanen can make things better. He’s not a guy you want to overpay. Those who fall in the “good but not great” category often make more money than they should at the NHL level. But Niskanen brings much to the table. He’s legitimately good, he’s durable, he’s young, but he isn’t too young. Although Niskanen will never be a top-two defenseman, I believe he is a reasonable answer as a top-four defenseman. He’s good on the power play too, which is no small thing, since the Penguins rely heavily on special teams.
What has become disturbingly clear during the past couple of days is that the Penguins, for all of their organizational depth on defense, might not have many answers on the blue line next fall.
Signing Niskanen soon – even if you have to overpay him slightly – would solve a lot of defensive problems, especially in the short term.
I realize that the Penguins are oozing with young defensemen, but you can’t bring all those guys up at the same time. You don’t want multiple rookies on your blue line, especially near playoff time. The NHL just doesn’t work that way.
Niskanen can be a bridge from the Orpik era on the blue line to the Maatta era.
And judging by so many things – health, free agency, bad luck, youth, old age – Niskanen is starting to look like a necessary bridge.