The Pittsburgh Penguins have a pair of really good defenders, Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff, who are about to hit unrestricted free agency in a few short weeks.
Ehrhoff was the newest addition to the Penguins blue line as he signed a one-year/$4 million dollar contract last offseason and his one season will probably be his only in Pittsburgh. He was not a good player, he was not a bad player, injuries ruined what could have been a solid year for Ehrhoff.
Martin has been a steady hand on the blue line since signing a five-year/$25 million dollar contract. His tenure was rocky, and he dealt with a fair amount of injuries, but he has been invaluable over the last two seasons. The case for keeping Martin is simple, Kris Letang plays like a Norris candidate alongside him.
If you’re looking for some quantifiable analysis on how Letang and Martin play together, look right here on PensBurgh.
However, despite Martin’s stellar play with Letang, he and Ehrhoff are almost guaranteed to walk as free agents.
Pittsburgh wants to get young, and more importantly, cheaper on the blue line and allowing these two to leave will free up $9 million in salary cap space.
Penguins Current Status On Defense
Here’s a snapshot of the Penguins defenders who are under contract for next season as well as their respective salary cap hits – from the folks at GeneralFanager.
*Note the Penguins did demote Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney to the AHL so their cap hits are not accounted for in this calculation*
Kris Letang, who was concussed and missed the end of the season, has begun working out again and looks to be ready for the start of the season.
Olli Maatta also was sidelined with an injured shoulder for much of the season and will be ready for training camp.
General manager Jim Rutherford has already stated he believes that Letang and Maatta will be the top pairing next season.
It’s been reported that Rob Scuderi will not be on the roster, be it by a trade or a buyout, his tenure in Pittsburgh is finished.
Given the constraints and outlook, let’s look at how the Penguins defensive pairs should work out.
Letang – Maatta
Pouliot – Ian Cole
Ben Lovejoy – Dumoulin
While the Penguins are getting much younger and cheaper on the blueline, they need to prepare a contingency plan.
The Concerning Injury History of Maatta and Letang
Within just two seasons, Maatta had to endure two shoulder surgeries and had a tumor removed.
Letang has suffered countless lower-body injuries throughout his career, four (known) concussions and a stroke.
There is no such thing as being an injury-prone player, but it seems these two (like most of the Penguins) have been extremely unlucky when it comes to injuries.
The rest of the blue line all have had their own injury issues, Cole experienced some injuries in St. Louis, Lovejoy has been around the block and missed some time and Pouliot also had a shoulder operation. Granted, Pouliot did not miss any time for the Penguins because of it, but it’s still worth noting.
Injuries are going to happen to professional hockey players, it happens, but the Penguins need to be aware of it and prepare accordingly.
As of right now, a top-four of Letang, Maatta, Pouliot and Cole does not seem like a unit that is capable of going far into the playoffs.
However, if Cole was on the bottom pairing, the blue line seems more promising.
I’ll be diving into the exact options that the Penguins could pursue more in-depth at a later date, but here are some players that could be useful within the top four.
If the Pens are looking to sign an unrestricted free agent this offseason, three names that could play big minutes are Mike Green, Andrej Sekera and Cody Franson.
Green is coming off of a contract that pays him a hair over $6 million and Franson is coming off of around $3.3 million ($1 million on Nashville’s payroll) and Sekera made $2.75 million.
Given that Jeff Petry just signed a six-year/$33 million dollar contract, the Penguins are going have to commit some serious money if they want a top-four defender.
Sekera and Franson are guaranteed to get a significant raise on their current contracts, but Green might actually not. He’s regarded as a skilled offensive defender, who has had some issues within his own zone. The NHL has perceived him as being overpaid for quite some time and with the emergence of John Carlson, Green will almost certainly walk as a free agent.
These three, all should have money thrown at them by most of the league and the Penguins would be wise to avoid a bidding war, but if any of them could be signed at a reasonable rate, it’s definitely worth considering.
There’s also the avenue of acquiring a top-four defender via trade. One name that I think would fit perfectly with the Penguins is Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago is going to be in a cap crunch this offseason and will have to part with some high priced veteran players. Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have all been mentioned as players who could be traded this offseason to ensure the Blackhawks have the cap space to keep their young talent.
Seabrook would be a perfect fit on the Penguins blue line, he’s generally a stay-at-home defender and throughout his career has been remarkably durable.
If the Penguins want a top-four defender, they should seriously contract Chicago and see what the price for Seabrook would be.
Regardless of who they would pursue, the Penguins should seriously look into acquiring a veteran defender.