Lacing Up: Eaton Parks In Pittsburgh
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Matt Paul: It’s no secret I’m a nostalgic guy when it comes to life in general and the Pittsburgh Penguins in specific. So when word broke earlier this week that Mark Eaton had signed a one-year contract to officially return to the Penguins, I was pretty excited. Obviously, though, my delight comes with little care of his performance on Long Island the last few seasons, which has left some to question what Penguins GM Ray Shero is thinking.
Josh, in our “planning discussion,” I got the sense that you’re not as excited about this signing as I am and that we could be in for a good old fashioned argument straight ahead. Are you embedded in the “what’s Shero smoking” camp?
Joshua Neal: No, I’m not excited by the move. Don’t get me wrong, I like Mark Eaton and think he did a lot of good things in a role player’s role with the Penguins on their way to the Cup. He actually scored a big goal or two in the Flyers’ series with the fabled Game 6 comeback from the 3-0 deficit, if my memory doesn’t fail me.
Here’s my beef with the issue: the Penguins are heavy on defense already. You won’t hear much argument that Martin, Orpik, Niskanen, and Letang (in no particular order) are every-night players. We lost Brian Strait to waivers because of the overload we had of defensemen. After that, we still felt comfortable enough with the play of Deryk Engelland, Robert Bortuzzo, and Simon Despres to trade away Ben Lovejoy. That’s nine defensemen I’ve mentioned already with NHL experience. Certainly some have more than others, and not all have as much as Eaton, perhaps even combined for the last 4 or 5 names there.
To me, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to bring another guy on, even with the vacated roster spot because of Malkin’s status on injured reserve. Besides a good will gesture, what could the motives be, Matt?
Matt: I get where you’re coming from: they had a logjam of defenseman, which they trimmed down to a serviceable number, only to once again add to it. It seems strange — but it’s not, and here’s why. Strait and Lovejoy were young extras whose careers were going nowhere admits the logjam. Rather than keeping them around and holding them back, Ray Shero offered greener pastures. Strait moved on to New York, where he was a top-pairing defender for the Islanders before injury and Lovejoy found a permanent top-six role in Anaheim.
In Eaton, the Penguins have a been-there-done-that veteran whose career won’t be jeopardized by not playing. He’s capable of being a healthy scratch for long stretches of games before getting some playing time, while not being a liability on the ice.
Josh, you mentioned Eaton’s important role on the Stanley Cup winning Penguin roster. He has played key minutes in hostile arenas against big-time opponents during high-pressure games. Last year in the playoffs we saw the Penguins turn to Lovejoy who was turned around by the Flyers’ forwards. It was a mess, and I can’t help but wonder if that would have been a non-issue if a player with games under his belt was on the ice.
Josh: I don’t doubt that the veteran presence that Eaton provides could be valuable in that sense. From a roster standpoint, though, I think that the move is still questionable. When Evgeni Malkin returns from the injured list, this Eaton signing could have ramifications on players like Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo.
I think that Despres and Bortuzzo have been pretty fantastic in their roles so far this year, all things considered. And Despres wouldn’t have to clear waivers to go back down to the Wilkes-Barre club, so it appears he will be the casualty in this situation. A young guy who has shown flashes of being very capable at both ends, and shown consistency more so than some of the other more veteran defensemen on the team at many times, gets sent back down to the AHL for a move like this. That’s what I don’t like.
Or is another roster move coming in kind? Could one of the bottom pairing or healthy scratch guys from the Penguins’ defensive roster be headed out soon?
Matt: I certainly don’t think roster tweaking is done, by any means. In fact, unlike most seasons, I think the roster this season could be in constant flux, seeing minor parts come and go via waivers and trade (as we’ve seen from day one thus far). That said, I’m not sure a defenseman will be the next to go. Instead, I think it will be Boychuk, who will be placed on waivers only to be reclaimed by Carolina, in my opinion.
An NHL lineup generally consists of 12 forwards and 6 defensemen, with three healthy scratches. It might seem logical to keep two extra forwards and one extra defenseman to keep the ratio the same. But, really, on offense, there is much more room for cushion in case of injury. If two of the 12 go down, just shift things around. On defense, if two go down, 1/3 of the group is on the shelf.
It’s that line of thinking that leads me to believe that, once Malkin returns, Boychuk will be waived, Jeffrey will return to the press box, and the defense will remain as is, with Depres and Bortuzzo splitting time on the third pairing, while Eaton gets the nod occasionally. Long story short, Eaton, to me, is pure depth. He’s number eight on the depth chart and won’t negatively impact either Despres or Bortuzzo. Whatever happens with them, in my opinion, would have happened with or without Eaton.
Josh: So, as I read this, Mark Eaton is an insurance policy. Bylsma said that he didn’t expect Eaton to be on-call to play anytime soon in a presser the day following the signing. But beyond Mark Eaton, I think that there is an overarching question here that emerges from this, with your point that Boychuk will probably be placed back on the waiver wire.
Before Geno went down, the question was “who will play with Malkin and Neal?” Since then, there’s been some necessary line juggling. The first answer was Eric Tangradi, who now dons a Winnipeg Jets sweater. Dustin Jeffrey got a shot and didn’t look bad, but was ousted in favor of Boychuk. Now Boychuk might be the next guy on the waiver wire.
So when you say whatever happens with Despres and Bortuzzo would have happened anyway, does that mean that there is something perhaps larger than a roster-to-waiver adjustment? This is pure speculation on my part, but the 8th defenseman seems to be like a 5th or 6th wheel on a bicycle. So my question isn’t one about the possibility of trading Despres or Bortuzzo, but one that springs from it.
Given that the Penguins will still need to presumably address the second-line winger situation, would you feel comfortable moving either Despres or Bortuzzo, while holding onto Eaton and pushing him into that 7th defenseman, healthy scratch but next-guy-up role?
Matt: Josh, we’ll consider this overtime, as we’ve both gotten our three “periods” of say in on the conversation. I’m not suggesting that Despres or Bortuzzo gets dealt, just that Eaton provides insurance for the defense. Maybe one of those guys (or someone else) gets dealt, maybe not. Regardless of what happens, I think it was part of the plans all along and is not something that was spawn of the Eaton signing.
To answer your question directly, I think Bortuzzo has more value in Pittsburgh than he does in a trade. He has physical, top-four written all over his future. Despres seems untouchable, but might become available given the depth at young defense behind him. I only trade him if the return is significant. Would I be comfortable with Eaton as a 7? No. I like him as a practice veteran to skate occasionally in games.
Ultimately, what I see happening is Engelland (trade) or Despres (trade or demotion) leaving the roster with a PK specialist defenseman coming to Pittsburgh in a trade to round out the top six. If we learned anything in the playoffs last year (other than he ramifications of throwing an inexperienced, cold player to the wolves) it’s that the coaching staff doesn’t trust Engelland enough to put him on the ice when it matters. If he isn’t trusted when it counts, let’s replace him with someone who will be. Final words, Josh?
Josh: I’d have to agree that Engelland is a guy who is in a somewhat similar position to Lovejoy, though Engelland is significantly older and brings some different things to the ice. Much like Lovejoy, though, he hasn’t been and probably never will be trusted with the big minutes. Then again, we didn’t trust Niskanen with those kind of minutes in 2010 against the Lightning, but he worked his way into being arguably the best defenseman Pittsburgh had in the Philly series the following year, which in that series is about like being the best smelling bag of garbage.
Shero has made big moves, and he’s made subtle ones. The Eaton move is perhaps one of the most subtle he’s done, but one that has drawn some questioning. And being that the questioning is on a player who we’ve already seen play in Pittsburgh, I think it’s only natural to speculate that this subtle move might mean some bigger ones in the not-so-distant future.