Penguins Defense Deeper than Expected; How Current Call Ups Change Pittsburgh’s Defensive Game Plan

Over the past 4 seasons, Ray Shero has had a niche for finding quality defensemen in the draft and via trade. This pursuit of Ray’s had been criticized over the years, stating that Shero has neglected the winger position and the goaltender position, but those critics are tasting the sweet meat of crow right about now.

In 2009, the Penguins drafted two defensemen with their first two selections. First round selection Simon Despres has played sparingly over the course of two years and was recalled from WBS Baby Penguins nine games ago. The Penguins second selection in 2009 was defenseman Phillip Samuelsson. Samuelsson will make his NHL debut on Monday, December 16 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 In nine games since being called up to the NHL, Despres has 3 assists and a plus five plus-minus ratio. His play has dramatically increased in the defensive zone and so much so that a former power play point man is now one of the organizations top penalty killing defenders.

His rugged side to hockey has also come to the forefront this season. In nine games at the NHL level he has registered 15 hits and 17 blocked shots while playing roughly 18 minutes per game. It seems that his recent stint in the AHL was one last fine tuning before returning to the NHL.

Despres will pair up with former AHL partner Phillip Samuelsson. Samuelsson, son of Ulf, has been touted as one of the Penguins most improved prospects over the past season. Just two years ago many thought he would be a permanent AHL’er with call up ability; however, better focus to his skating ability and on ice awareness has given the former ECHL player a well deserved call up.

The call up to Samuelsson was still a surprise to many, as Scott Harrington was considered the next one in line, but with Samuelsson’s chemistry with Despres, his call up was thought of as the more practical situation. Harrington’s time to join the NHL will come in time, but as of now he is expected to take about two years at the AHL level in order to develop.

The Penguins also chose to call up Brian Dumoulin late last week, a second round selection acquired in the Jordan Staal trade in 2012.

 Dumoulin is a big defender, standing 6’4 and weighing 220lbs, but plays a style of hockey more similar to Duncan Keith of Chicago than say a Shea Weber of Nashville.

He possesses a strong shot from the point, as well as the ability to quarterback a power play, and has a heads up skating style that aids in the transition game well. His defending style is more positional, using his size and reach to keep defenders at bay, rather than knocking them on their wallets.

In his first NHL game at Detroit this past Saturday Dumoulin played 18 minutes, of which two and a half minutes were on the penalty kill. He had two blocked shots and showed that his game was ready for the NHL. As he becomes more comfortable in his role, the offensive production should follow.

These three call ups join last season’s call up Robert Bortuzzo, third year Penguin Matt Niskanen, and rookie stand out Olli Maatta to make the Penguins current top six on defense. While injuries forced a few of these defenders to make their debut earlier than anticipated, their pedigree thorough their respective careers has earned their right to play at this level.

Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen have now firmly placed themselves as a legitimate top four defensive pairing with their respective play of late. Niskanen played 29 minutes in Detroit on Saturday and 25 minutes against Toronto at home on Monday. He finished with a combined plus one rating, nine shots, three hits, and three blocked shots.

His partner, Olli Maatta, played over 22 minutes in Detroit and over 24 minutes against Toronto in Pittsburgh. Maatta’s combined totals for the two games were one goal, a plus two rating, 2 hits, and 5 blocked shots. The Finnish rookie has taken Pittsburgh by storm, proving to be a true franchise player in just his first season.

So how does all of this information equate to Pittsburgh changing their future plans?

It means that Simon Despres, Olli Maatta, and Brian Dumoulin are NHL ready. All three of these players skill sets are NHL quality, but mentally these players are more than capable of playing in the NHL. With team friendly contracts and plenty of room to grow, they eliminate the need for free agent signings.

It also means that some UFA’s could be shown the door. Deryk Engelland has become an expendable asset as of late thanks to the play of younger, faster, and equally tough Robert Bortuzzo. Both players are similar in role, tough defenseman and occasional brawler, with Bortuzzo being the better skater and younger body.

Other UFA’s include lifelong Penguin Brooks Orpik and third year Penguin Matt Niskanen. Orpik is considered a mainstay in Pittsburgh and will be given a contract based on what he has earned and will continue to do for this organization; however, Niskanen presents a very different situation.

Niskanen is 27, plays a good two way game, capable of being a top four defender and power play QB. He is a good skater that keeps his head on a swivel, think Matt Carle, but shorter. His play is good enough to land him a deal worth at least four million on the open market.

With this, Pittsburgh has to decide to keep him long term, or trade him. They cannot let him walk in free agency. If he is signed, then Orpik is most likely heading to free agency and leaving Pittsburgh.

The only other option would be trading Kris Letang. He is locked up for eight seasons at a superstar rate and is settling into his prime. The return for such player could too good to turn down.

With no option currently taking precedent over the other, Penguin fans just have to enjoy what is happening before them.