Saturday, April 28, 2007

Penguins By The Numbers - Part One the Defensemen

This will be the first in a series of blogs regarding the current Penguins roster. I have broken it down into Forwards, Defenseman and Goaltenders...we will give a player capsule, contract status and prospects of the individual being a Penguins next season. I will also look at possible free agent signings, trade options and prospects during this series.

Tonight we begin with the Defensemen. That seems to be where the most question marks linger and where we will most likely see some changes this off-season. With that in mind, let's get started!

Sergei Gonchar - signed through the '09-'10 season and brings a cap hit of $5.0 Mil. The Gonchar signing was lambasted across the league when he failed to live up to expectations during his first season with the team. That all changed in '06-'07, as Sarge found himself among the league's leading scoring defensemen. He actually finished second in the race with 67 pts and will be back next season. Sarge will most likely serve as Evgeni Malkin's landlord again and will be a big part of the Penguin power play. Unfortunately, he is not a huge defensive presence, although he was typically matched against the opposition’s top line this season. He would be best served as a number 2 or 3 defenseman.

Mark Eaton - signed through the '07-'08 season and brings a cap hit of $1.6 Mil. Mark Eaton was just what the doctor ordered through the first 2.5 weeks of the season and then he was derailed by a nasty wrist injury. Eaton missed 35 games then went on to miss another 12 late in the season with a knee injury. The Delaware native never seemed to fully bounce back and he just wasn't the same player. Mark Eaton is a quality stay at home defenseman, but is more of a 3,4,5 guy than a number 1. Eaton will be back but will most likely be used a bit differently after some off-season acquisitions are grafted onto the roster. He is a tenacious shot blocker and taught his teammates how to give up their bodies for the cause.

Brooks Orpik - signed through the '07-'08 season and brings a cap hit of $1.038 Mil. Orpik continued to evolve into the bruising physical presence the team was hoping for when they selected him 18th overall back in 2000. He didn't go for as many "big" hits as he had done in the past, but he improved his overall game and stayed physical. Orpik is improving and will be used on one of the Penguins top two pairings next season.

Ryan Whitney - Restricted Free Agent - Ryan Whitney took many steps forward during the last season. He became a huge part of the Penguins power play and improved upon his defense. His offense is top notch, but he does need to get better with the defensive aspect of the game. Some have mentioned him as a future Norris Trophy candidate, but he will not be considered until he begins to play a more complete game. He is a big kid who could probably play a more physical game, but will be relied upon to score in this line-up. Whitney will receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins who will look to get him signed to a 2 or 3-year deal.

Josef Melichar - Unrestricted Free Agent - Melichar was the lightning rod for much criticism this season on the Penguins blue line. However, was it all deserved? I don't think so, especially when you consider that he is at best a 5 or 6 defensemen and was being cast in a much different role. Michel Therrien used him to offset Sergei Gonchar was Mark Eaton was out of the line-up and was typically matched against the other team's top line. He was also among the team's ice time leaders night to night. Melichar was over matched at times, but did the best he could with his skill set. Look for the team to retain Melichar and use him as a 5 or 6 d-man or for depth.

Eric Cairns - Unrestricted Free Agent - Cairns, who missed most of the season with post concussion syndrome, will not be a Penguin next season. He is a slow skater and does not fit the Shero plan. To be effective he needs to hit and fight...something his ailment does not allow. He may catch on with some one, but it will be a depth position, possibly in the AHL.

Robert Scuderi - Unrestricted Free Agent - Scuderi is a tenacious penalty killer, and in that lies his value. I am not a fan of his five on five play, but he is one of the best the Penguins while playing short handed. I could see him being retained for depth and used in a 5 or 6 role game to game. I do not foresee the team keeping he and Josef Melichar...if one is signed; it's happy trails to the other. However, Michel Therrien is loyal to a fault and he will most likely lobby to have them both retained.

Alain Nasreddine - Unrestricted Free Agent - Nasreddine seemed to lose his place in the line-up after he missed several games due to the birth of a child. That was unfortunate, because he was leading the team in +/- and was very steady in the defensive zone. Being held out of the line-up seemed to put his game off and he wasn't the same player when he returned. Nasreddine will most likely be retained, if not on the parent club then for Wilkes Barre Scranton, where he has worn the C in the past.

Joel Kwiatkowski - Unrestricted Free Agent - Kwiatkowski made only one appearance for the Penguins after coming over at the trade deadline from the Florida Panthers. I do not foresee him coming back to the Penguins next season. He is mobile and moves the puck well, but he obviously did not fit the Therrien system.

Micki Dupont - Unrestricted Free Agent - Dupont seems to be made for the new look NHL, but he couldn't seem to hold a roster spot this season. Dupont, who played 3 games for the Penguins, went on to have a big year in Wilkes Barre Scranton. Dupont was actually named the team's captain and could sign a deal to stay in that role. He will not be on the parent club next season.

New Arrival:

Kris Letang - signed through the '08-'09 season. Letang looked good in a 9 game cameo with the Penguins, and then went on to tear up the QMJHL. Letang will definitely compete for a position on the Penguins blue line next season and will give the team a third dangerous point man on the power play. Letang also boasts the only right handed shot in the organization, something the team sorely lacked this season.

The Penguins defense was exposed during their opening round playoff series against Ottawa and it is an area that Ray Shero will have to address. The defense was not mobile enough and was beaten by Ottawa's quicker forwards on a regular basis. Changes will be made, but if we had to come up with the Penguins top 6 defensemen for opening night October '07 from the names listed, it would look like this:

Sergei Gonchar - Mark Eaton
Ryan Whitney - Brooks Orpik
Kris Letang - Josef Melichar

Extra: Rob Scuderi, Alain Nasreddine

I could live with the groupings listed above, but it would be the same story come playoff time. Look for Ray Shero to pick up a true number one defenseman, but he could settle for a good 2 or 3 type. The team is deep with offensively gifted defensemen, so the player could be a bit more one-dimensional the other way. One name that has been mentioned in several circles around Pittsburgh is Andy Sutton. Sutton's size and how he uses it against opposing forwards would suit the Penguins, however he does have a history of ankle injuries.

We will see what Ray Shero works out to upgrade this dimension of the team, if last year was any indication, he will do a great job of finding a gamer at the right price.

Stay Tuned tomorrow as we look at the Forwards.


Ryan Whitney had wrist surgery today to alleviate ongoing pain that had gotten progressively worse throughout the season. He will require 6 to 8 weeks of therapy on the wrist but is expected to be available for the start of training camp.


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