Greetings, hockey fans. Happy New Year! Hope your celebrations were fun and safe.
You know what isn’t fun or safe? Being Jim Rutherford in the next couple of months. There is a lot of pressure on GMJR to deliver a couple of impact wingers before the trade deadline. It is widely assumed by the fan base that trading a couple of defensemen is the simple solution to acquiring forwards. This makes perfect sense to me.
However, we must take into account the salary cap situation, some injury issues that could disrupt Rutherford’s plans and the reality that the Penguins don’t want to trade away all of their young players.
I’ve ranked the organization’s top 10 defensemen. Here’s a look at where each stands, who is a candidate to be traded, and some other nuggets.
No. 1 Kris Letang
He’s having arguably his finest season and is a legitimate star. Letang isn’t going anywhere, of course. For the Penguins to compete for a championship, Letang needs to stay healthy and play even better, particularly on the power play. He’s in his prime and looks terrific.
No. 2 Paul Martin
Assessing Martin’s season has been difficult. He’s been perfectly fine, though I don’t think he’s played at last season’s level. Granted, that would be difficult. Martin was arguably the Penguins’ best player in the 2014 postseason. It was just an awesome performance. He hasn’t been bad this year, but I feel like his level of play has slipped slightly. That said, Martin and Letang are so good together. It will be tempting to keep Martin through the season simply to let those two play together for the duration. That said, Martin is an unrestricted free agent this summer and seems quite unlikely to return to the Penguins. Will they trade him? Perhaps, though I’d be careful. If you’re going to trade a player of Martin’s caliber, you better be getting a big return. Still, it remains very possible.
No. 3 Christian Ehrhoff
I didn’t like his game in October. Or maybe I just needed a month to fully appreciate Christian Ehrhoff. What a good player. He’s very economical with the puck, makes excellent decisions, owns a booming shot and remains, at 32, an above average skater. He isn’t the least bit physical and isn’t what I’d consider a shutdown guy. Interestingly, the Penguins haven’t displayed any interest in putting him on their top power play. I don’t see the Penguins trading Ehrhoff, even though you could receive something decent in return. GM Jim Rutherford really, really likes this guy. It’s more likely he receives an extension or walks this summer. A trade is unlikely. He’s just an unassuming, quality top-four defenseman. Those guys don’t grow on trees.
No. 4 Olli Maatta
Here’s where things get interesting. Will Maatta be healthy for the second half of the season and the playoffs? You tell me. Maatta visited one doctor and was told he needed surgery to repair his balky shoulder and that his season could be finished. So, he sought a second opinion and was told that he merely required a month of rehabilitation. I’ll respect the doctor’s opinion here. I’m no doctor, after all. But it sounds like the kind of injury that could linger. Maatta has been through so much already this year, it really wouldn’t be fair for him to sustain another shoulder surgery. Still, it’s impossible to predict how his shoulder will respond and whether he can play top-four minutes in the playoffs. He could find himself as Letang’s defense partner if he is healthy, especially if Martin is moved. I can’t imagine the Penguins trading him, certainly not now, as his health has become an issue because of the shoulder problem.
No. 5 Simon Despres
How about this guy? Simon Despres has suddenly given the Penguins a ton of flexibility. Is he a top-four defenseman? Yes, yes he is. Despres has been magnificent all season, a physical force who still possesses plenty of untapped offensive ability. You can see the offense methodically starting to come in Despres’ game. The physical play has been stunning. He’s a beast. And he’s also a fine puck-moving player, the kind of guy who usually makes a good first pass. There isn’t much to dislike here. Despres isn’t perfect – he has a bizarre habit of falling down for no reason and does occasionally make glaring mistakes – but he’s been really, really good. I believe Despres’ emergence allows the Penguins to trade someone like Martin, should they choose to. I wouldn’t have said that three months ago. But Despres is a different player now. Would I trade Despres? Heck no. You’ve got him for cheap this season and next. Take advantage of it.
No. 6 Rob Scuderi
The advanced stats community isn’t a big Scuderi fan, and it’s no secret that the 2013-14 campaign was a total disaster for the veteran. But give Scuderi credit. He has been much better this season and has been a fine defense partner for the developing Despres. In fact, Scuderi has been good enough this season that I suspect the Penguins could trade him to get rid of his contract. But perhaps they don’t want to. With the possibility that the Penguins could lose Martin and Ehrhoff this summer, the Penguins could be extremely young on the blue line next season. Yes, the young guys are great talents. But keeping one veteran around isn’t a bad idea. And like I said, this guy is playing much better this season.
No. 7 Robert Bortuzzo
I’m a Bortuzzo fan. He’s perfect solid. If he’s your No. 6 defenseman, you’re doing fine. He works relatively cheap and wouldn’t fetch a huge return in a trade, so I don’t know that dealing him makes sense, unless he’s part of a package deal. He’s one of those guys who just needs to stay healthy and play every night. He’ll keep getting better. He’s never going to be a star, but he should have a perfectly long NHL career.
No. 8 Derrick Pouliot
What a talent. I’ve talked with about 10 different people in the organization regarding Pouliot in the last two weeks. Everybody is smitten with this kid. Everyone. People in the front office, Penguins coaching staff and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff all think he is going to be a star. By all accounts, drafting him with the No. 8 pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft was a wise move by the Penguins. Is there a chance Pouliot could be traded? Well, sure. If the Penguins intend on making a blockbuster trade in the next few months – we know they’re going to be active, just not to what extent – Pouliot’s name will pop up. He’s by far their best prospect. Most believe he is a can’t miss, future NHL all-star defenseman. Those guys don’t come around often. Pouliot isn’t untouchable. For the right deal, the Penguins would consider trading him. But the only way the Penguins would trade Pouliot is if they receive an overwhelming offer. They don’t want to trade this kid and the odds of them doing so are small. I suspect he’ll be back in Wilkes-Barre soon, and that’s fine. Look at the depth chart and the number of impending free agents next summer. Starting in October, Pouliot will have played his final AHL game. Heck, if a couple of guys are traded away or injured during the rest of this season, Pouliot could be in Pittsburgh to stay. He’s not a great defensive player, but he’s an offensive wizard. The likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin thoroughly enjoy playing with him, and you can see why.
No. 9 Scott Harrington
He’s going to be a very, very solid NHL defenseman. You can just tell. Harrington doesn’t possess Brian Dumoulin’s size, and probably isn’t as slick a skater. But the organization likes him a lot. Harrington has wonderful defensive instincts and is remarkably comfortable in his own skin. He knows he’s a defensive defenseman, albeit one with perfectly decent puck skills, and he’s OK with that. Harrington projects as a Rob Scuderi type, but will be much better with the puck and is a better skater. Is he going to be a top-four guy? Yeah, I think so. Worst case scenario, Harrington turns into a very reliable No. 5 or No. 6 guy. Nothing wrong with that. But I think he’ll be even better. Is he attractive trade bait for other teams? Absolutely. Do the Penguins want to part ways with him? Absolutely not. He isn’t untouchable, but the return would have to be significant.
No. 10 Brian Dumoulin
The Penguins still view him as a very attractive prospect, even though his miserable night at Madison Square Garden last month was somewhat memorable. This guy doesn’t project as a star, but he definitely is an NHL-ready player who simply needs to see more game action. Will the Penguins trade him? It certainly wouldn’t surprise me. They like him, but they like Harrington more. I don’t know that Dumoulin could fetch a significant return, but he could be part of a package. Of course, if they want to keep him, there’s nothing wrong with that. He’ll be a solid enough pro.