Lacing Up: Dearth of Healthy Defenseman
The late Ashley Gallant was the originator of “Lacing Up,” and its reincarnation is in her honor. Each week, Matt Paul, Zach Boslett, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF.
This week, the great Matt Paulmakes his triumphant return to discuss the dire lack of defenseman the Pittsburgh Penguins have at their disposal.
Zach Boslett: Matt welcome back. We started another “Lacing Up” segment earlier this season when Brian Strait was first recalled and I mused that the Penguins were only a few injuries away from calling up AHL rookie Simon Despres and the disappointing Alex Picard. Well that day is here and the Penguins are set to play 3 AHL defenders (Despres, Picard, and Robert Bortuzzo) this evening against the red hot Boston Bruins.
Despres has played well in his two games so far as has Bortuzzo but they are only playing 10 and 12 minutes respectively. If Deryk Engelland is out for a few games as well as Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek, Brian Strait, and Ben Lovejoy, who is your choice to receive the ~20 min TOI Engelland has been getting recently?
Can the Penguins really win with Despres, Picard and Bortuzzo as defenseman 4, 5, and 6? Can they win with Niskanen as #3?
Matt Paul: It’s nice to be back, even if a more limited role than what I’m used to! It’s interesting that we decided to give “Lacing Up” another try at a time that seems to be surrounded by parallel circumstances to the last time we attempted. Same topic, same discussion.
My opinion remains the same. This team is built to withstand injuries to their star players without suffering any kind of major setback. Of course, it’s never easy or fun to go long stretches without top players, but that might have to be the case with Letang and Michalek, both of whom have concussions, per the Penguins Twitter feed.
So, to answer your question of who is best suited to step up, Picard is the logical answer, as he’s looked well during his time in Pittsburgh and he has a significant NHL resume. That being said, I have a hunch Despres is going to assert himself in a way that will put him in a positive light with Penguins fans (if he hasn’t already). He’s showing a willingness to initiative contact, step up to make plays, and play average defense. He’s not a stud yet, but he can handle himself — and I think he will.
Can they win with Niskanen as the #3? Let me answer that question with a question of my own: Did the Penguins win with Letestu and Staal as the top two centers last year?
Zach: Niskanen certainly did not look great on the third goal against the Bruins but outside that he has been quite impressive this year. Last season before coming to Pittsburgh, he was booed routinely in Dallas. Now he has regained some of his confidence and really rejuvenated a career that was in jeopardy of spiraling out of control.
But Niskanen is not a top pairing defenseman and having him play against top line forwards like Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin the other night is just asking for trouble. I would rather see Despres in that situation eventually since that will be his role in the future.
While the Penguins did win with Letestu and Staal last season, I think it was more of a defensive game last spring that led to success rather than their play in the absence of Crosby and Malkin. The Penguins had a real focus on puck possession, quick breakouts and 60/40 play. With Letang, Orpik, Martin, Michalek, Lovejoy and Niskanen that quick transition game was difficult to stop.
But can this group of defenseman play the same system without the skating ability of Letang, the physicality of Engelland or the defensive positioning of Michalek?
Can Orpik (26:46 @CAR) and Martin (29:43 vs. BOS) continue to play these minutes
Matt: Really, Niskanen was booed following his trade to Pittsburgh, as well. Like Neal, though, he seems to have adjusted to the Penguins’ system and has settled in quite nicely. I don’t disagree that Niskanen isn’t a top-pair defenseman, but the reality is, it’s better to utilize a veteran in a key situation than it is to utilize a rookie. If Despres continues to prove himself, he might earn that opportunity — but for now, he’ll have to stick with second or third pairing minutes.
I get what you are saying about the team’s play sans Crosby and Malkin — but you’re missing my point. If the Penguins were capable of finding a way to win without their two best forwards last season, they can, without a doubt, find a way to win without one defenseman from each pairing. You bring up a good point, though. The Penguins aren’t just missing Letang and Michalek, but Engelland, as well. Last year, you’ll remember, Engelland was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. Now, he’s considered a legitimate player on this team. Has he really improved to the point that losing him is a big loss, or has his play simply improved enough to make fans remember him when he’s out of the lineup?
Zach: To be honest, I was never much of an Engelland fan. I thought he was just another journeyman AHL defender who found himself a niche on a relatively soft Penguin defense by being physical and willing to fight anyone.
This season, I feel that he has become a legitimate NHL defender – one that the coaching staff trusts to matchup against Ovechkin and Backstrom during the Penguins’ 2-1 win on Dec. 1. He had great gap control on Ovechkin, was very physical (3 hits), and blocked four shots. The coaching staff played him a career high 22 minutes in that game and that was only the second time in his career he was over 20 minutes.
He was stepping up into a shut down role that had been left open by the injury to Michalek. He will likely not get such a good chance to play big minutes again so, I can’t believe I am saying this, let’s hope he can return to the lineup to improve the Penguin defense.
It only took two games but Despres’ ice time against Boston was higher than Bortuzzo’s. Which one of those guys do you see sticking around longer once the D corp heals up a bit?
Matt: Off-topic, but it’s interesting I mentioned to Penguins playing without Crosby for much of last season and now he’s back on the shelf. Back on topic — Engelland has been trusted much more of late. Then again, it could be a simple result of necessity. With two key defenders injured, he was one of the more experienced guys to step in and play big minutes. That being said, he played well and impressed me quite a bit. With Letang and Michalek out, it would be nice to have him lacing up.
Anyway, to answer your question, I think both Bortuzzo and Despres have played well. At the current moment, I would keep Despres, as he provides just a bit more offensive potential for a defense that is pretty void of it. Long-term, both appear to be NHL-capable defenders, with Despres having a much higher ceiling than the likely third-pairing Bortuzzo. Then again, many (myself included) called Rob Scuderi a career 7th defenseman, and look where he is now…
It’s been nice getting back on the bandwagon, Zach. Thanks for asking me to get involved, and I look forward to future editions of “Lacing Up” int he coming weeks!