Defense wins championships is a common phrase in sports. You can have a great offense, but if you do not have a defense on the back end that can stop the opposition when needed, your chances of success are much lower. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had anchors on the blue line for years. They put it together to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
In determining who qualified for the all-decade team, players had to play at least 100 games, or be on the roster for two or more seasons. This excludes someone like Ron Hainsey, who only played 41 games for the Penguins. Success prior to 2010 does not factor into the team. Whether they played on the left or right also did not factor in determining who made the team. With that being said, let’s look at the six defensemen who made the Penguins’ 2010s All-Decade Team.
First Pair: Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
As part of the package the Penguins received from the Carolina Hurricanes for Jordan Staal, Brian Dumoulin was considered an afterthought, but he developed quickly in the Penguins organization and made his debut Dec. 14, 2013. He became a full time starter in the 2015-16 season and was immediately paired up with Kris Letang. A defensive defenseman, Dumoulin’s strong play and ability to play a lot of minutes has made him indispensable to the current makeup of the team.
Averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game the last four seasons, he is a big part of the penalty killing unit. During the 2018-19 season, he registered a plus/minus of plus-31, which was the fifth highest in the entire NHL. His offensive play has gotten better each season, including 20 assists in the 2018-19 season. With Dumoulin getting more involved in the offense, the Penguins will continue to throw minutes his way.
Games Played: 389, Goals: 10, Assists: 82, Points: 92
A five-time All-Star, Letang has been a mainstay in the Penguins defense this entire decade. As an offensive defenseman, he is known for his offensive play more than his defensive play. Generally the only defenseman in the top power-play unit, he is an assist machine and can also score goals when necessary, including the game-winning goal to clinch the 2016 Stanley Cup.
Averaging around 25 minutes per game this decade, he leads all Penguins’ skaters in ice time. Against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 19, 2018, he was on the ice for 32:22, a career-high for a non-overtime game. His ability to play so many minutes and be effective both on offense and defense has made him a six-time Norris Trophy finalist. At just 32 years of age, he will continue to anchor the defense for the foreseeable future.
Games Played: 610, Goals: 103, Assists: 369, Points: 472
Second Pair: Brooks Orpik – Justin Schultz
Before moving to the division rival Capitals for the 2014-15 season, Brooks Oprik was one of the best second pair defensemen in the NHL. Averaging around 21 minutes a night, he was another defender that had no problem playing a ton of minutes to get the job done. While offense was not a strength of his, he would find ways to contribute that did not always show up on the score sheet.
A heavy hitter, Oprik registered 793 hits as a Penguin this decade. It was not uncommon to see him wince in pain after he blocked one of his 490 blocked shots. He would go on to join the Capitals after not being able to reach an agreement on a new deal with the Penguins. His time in black and gold should not be forgotten, as he was a key defenseman for many seasons.
Games Played: 284, Goals: 7, Assists: 52, Points: 59
After being traded from the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 26, 2016, Justin Schultz revitalized his career as a Penguin. Known for a heavy slap shot and solid defensive play on the back end, he blossomed into a top-four defenseman after being traded. A crucial member to the 2017 championship team, he took on a larger role when Letang went down with a season ending injury. With 51 points in the regular season and another 13 in the playoffs, Schultz’s play was key to winning back-to-back championships.
With a devastating slap shot, Schultz is also an important piece on the power play. A heavy right-handed shot, something that is becoming rare in the NHL, he loves to play on the point and fire the puck toward the net. Averaging right around 20 minutes per night, he is a key piece to the current Penguins team and continues to improve his game on a nightly basis.
Games Played: 240, Goals: 25, Assists: 104, Points: 129
Third Pair: Matt Niskanen – Olli Maatta
Playing alongside Letang during his time as a Penguin, Matt Niskanen was an important piece to the defensive makeup of the team. As part of the James Neal trade from the Dallas Stars, he struggled to gain chemistry with the team. It would take a full two seasons before Niskanen found his game and had the best season of his career. In the 2013-14 season, he tallied 46 points and a plus-33.
The 2014 playoffs were no different as he had nine points in 13 games. When he wasn’t scoring, he was a physical presence alongside the smaller Letang. Signing with the Capitals in free agency rubbed some fans the wrong way, but Niskanen was a crucial part of the team from 2010 to 2014. He was a Norris Trophy finalist after the 2013-14 season and deserves to be on the All-Decade team.
Games Played: 253, Goals: 22, Assists: 78, Points: 100
Wrapping up the All-Decade Defense team is Olli Maatta. A first round pick for the Penguins, he was a top four defenseman during the team’s championship run. A fan favorite, his best seasons were the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. His strong play was crucial to their success those seasons, as he was a combined plus-44 over the two seasons.
With the ability to play 18-20 minutes a night, Maatta was perfectly positioned next to Schultz for most of his career in Pittsburgh. With the team needed salary cap relief and wanting to get younger, he was traded before the start of the 2019-20 season. His time as a Penguin should not be forgotten as without him, they may not have won two Stanley Cups.
Games Played: 431, Goals: 27, Assists: 101, Points: 129
Current All-Decade Team
Jake Guentzel- Sidney Crosby- Pascal Dupuis
Chris Kunitz- Evgeni Malkin- James Neal
Carl Hagelin- Nick Bonino- Phil Kessel
Bryan Rust- Jordan Staal- Patric Hornqvist
Brian Dumoulin- Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik- Justin Schultz
Matt Niskanen- Olli Maatta
Editor’s note: The third and final installment, featuring the goaltenders and head coach, will be out Dec. 16.