The Pittsburgh Penguins are still missing major parts on defense. With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen signing contracts with the Washington Capitals, the Penguins have to replace a plus-minus rating of +33 (Niskanen) and 221 hits (Orpik). Niskanen may be missed more than Orpik given the 46 points Niskanen collected in the regular season. But for a team that’s never been overly physical on defense, the Penguins will notice the loss of their hit leader. Orpik’s departure makes the Penguins’ defense softer heading into the Mike Johnston era.
General manager Jim Rutherford brought in some muscle up front to protect the stars on offense, but he should concentrate on reshaping his defensive corps before the playoffs. The Penguins should start by finding a physical presence on their blue-line if they want to compete for a Stanley Cup. The Penguins don’t have to find players who dish out hits left and right, but they need to find tree trunks that disrupt the offensive flow of an opponent. They need defensemen who play a grittier game.
The Penguins lacked positional discipline inside of their own zone. Under Dan Bylsma, the team was preoccupied with what they’d do with possession of the puck rather than correctly defending without it. There were countless times over the past few seasons when opposing teams would cycle the puck in the Penguins’ defensive-zone eating up large chunks of time. Based on personnel, there is no indication that this will change any time soon. The roster is still made up of players who are much better with the puck than defending without it.
Currently, the Penguins are overloaded with puck-moving defensemen. Christian Ehrhoff is another puck-mover added to the roster. The team should’ve sought exceptional defenders without the puck. The Penguins never seem to seek that type of defenseman. The closest the Penguins come to shutdown defensemen are Robert Bortuzzo and Rob Scuderi.
If last season is any indication, Scuderi is near the end of his career. He experienced some injuries that hampered his performance, but even if Scuderi improves this season, his best days appear to be behind him. Bortuzzo must develop if he wants to transform into an efficient shutdown defenseman, but that may never materialize. This isn’t to say that Bortuzzo can’t be a quality blue-liner for the Penguins in the years to come. There’s nothing wrong with being a solid 4th or 5th defenseman, but the best teams have a premiere guy who can excel in any type of role.
Look at the two best defensive teams in the league. The Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty and the Boston Bruins have Zdeno Chara. Doughty and Chara possess the offensive, defensive or physical ability to be the most influential player on the ice at any time. They’ll beat an opponent at any style of game.
The Kings are also the perfect example of a team that Rutherford should clone the Penguins after. The average weight of the Stanley Cup Champions was 213.7 pounds. The Kings weren’t a team that led the league in hits, but they were the best team at positional defense inside of their own zone. The Kings’ took up a lot of space with big-body defensemen. By doing so, opposing teams had nightmares trying to find scoring chances in the Kings’ defensive zone.
A balanced make-up is another key to the Kings’ defensive unit. Their defensive corps has variety. It consists of a few offensive-oriented guys, some shutdown players and some bruisers.
There is still a long way to go in the season ahead, but the Penguins had an opportunity to rebuild their defense and didn’t take advantage in the offseason. There’s time to sure up loose ends as the season progresses, but the Penguins took a step back in the physicality department once Orpik went to the Capitals. His loss is by no means the entire problem. But going into yet another season, the Penguins appear infatuated with puck-moving defenseman rather than constructing a well-rounded defensive unit.
Penguins Projected Defense
Kris Letang – An offensive weapon, and one of the best conditioned defensemen in the league. Must work on minimalizing his giveaways and improve defensive-zone coverage. Has the ability to be the best all-around defenseman in the league.
Paul Martin – The best puck distributor on the team. Great stick on puck defense. Lacks a physical element and is sometimes slow in the foot when taken wide by an opposing forward. Must improve velocity on his shot.
Christian Ehrhoff – Has a rocket of a shot from the point. Great skater. Lacks intensity and a physicality at times. Should help the power play with the loss of Niskanen.
Olli Maatta – Must avoid a sophomore slump and adjust to a new coaching staff. Ran out of gas towards the end of the regular season. Quality puck-mover. Quality all-around defenseman. High hockey IQ with great vision.
Rob Scuderi – Good at clearing pucks away from the front of his own net. Efficient shot blocker. Lacks speed and physicality. Panics with the puck and has a tendency to blindly rim the puck up the boards when a pass is available. Must improve passing.
Robert Bortuzzo – Best hitter on the roster. Great intensity and grit. Must work on tape-to-tape passing and finding a defensive partner that he’s comfortable playing alongside this season. Improve offensive finish.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.