When defenseman Rob Scuderi left Pittsburgh as a free agent following an epic playoff performance for the Penguins in 2009, he garnered the nickname “The Piece,” presumably because he was a cornerstone piece to the Stanley Cup puzzle.

His loss was lamented by Penguin management and scorned by the team’s fanbase.

How could general manager Ray Shero lose one half of the defensive pair that was successful in shutting down the likes of Alexander Ovechkin en route to the ultimate goal?

The answer, which is overlooked to this day, is simple. The Penguins didn’t have the cap space at the time to give Scuderi the pay raise he earned. With plenty of other holes to fill in Pittsburgh, and with free agency driving up the asking price from Scuderi, the Penguins had little (read: no) chance to retain him.

But that didn’t mean his days with the Penguins were over.

Scuderi has fond memories of his time with the Penguins, his first NHL team, and Shero continues to view Scuderi as an integral “piece” in the Stanley Cup puzzle.

So, when Los Angeles failed to re-sign Scuderi, the defenseman knew he was heading East, closer to home. Pittsburgh wasn’t on his short list of destinations, but only because he didn’t perceive them to have the cap space to make a strong pitch.

So, when they came calling, it was a pleasant surprise to Scuderi, who chose to return “home” to the Penguins around 1:00 this afternoon.

With a new four-year contract paying him $3.375 million annually, the 34-year-old Scuderi might be considered a luxury the Penguins can’t afford. Has his play suffered over the years? Will it decline as he approaches the “wrong side” of his thirties?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no.

Scuderi plays a style of game that didn’t project to much of an NHL career. He spent many years patrolling the blueline for the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before becoming a number-seven defenseman in Pittsburgh.

That’s where I figured he’d peak, given that his skating is poor and his puck-skills are atrocious. But what I — and many others, for that matter — underestimated were Scuderi’s hockey IQ and his work ethic.

Not content with being a career number-seven, Scuderi pushed himself in practice, in the video room, and in the weight room — and his hard work paid off, leading him to play significant roles on two different Stanley Cup Champion teams.

To make a long story short, Scuderi’s game isn’t built on speed, his hands, or a physical prowess, three areas that tend to decline with age. Instead, it’s built on strong positioning, anticipation, and an uncanny hockey sense.

There’s no reason to believe he’ll slow down now, and he might just improve as he continues to tweak his game to focus on his strengths.

Today is just the first day of free agency and there is plenty of time for Shero to make additional roster moves, so it’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly Scuderi will be paired with.

Given his contract, however, it’s easy to assume that he’ll play a significant role, presumably in the top-four.

If I had to guess at this point, I would think he’ll be paired with Kris Letang, with an eye for baby sitting the back end, allowing Letang to take risks without fear.

Another option would be to pair him with the young Simon Despres, providing him with a reliable mentor to help him develop into a quality NHL defenseman.

One thing is for sure, with a plethora of high-end young defensemen in the system, Scuderi’s calm demeanor will provide a good model, while his hockey knowledge will help him to serve in a player/coach capacity.

This is a good signing, one I had hoped might happen, and one I think Penguins fans will come to love before long.