Training Camp Outlook; All About The Defense

It was brutal, demeaning, and downright pathetic. It was a four game beat down at the hands of the Boston Bruins that sent Pittsburgh packing to another relatively early exit.

The Pens had beefed up for the run, calling in ringers from around the league via trade. This caused the team to slow down drastically, reportedly in an attempt to be more difficult to play against. The result, however, was a drastic decline in speed and chemistry.

This season has the looks of something very different and the battles in camp should prove this to be true. Pittsburgh is staying in house this season and looking for a spark in terms of a youth movement.

Out with the old and in with the youth.

In Pittsburgh the future truly lies in the defense. They have arguably the best depth at this position in the entire league in terms of prospects and a few of them are sure to make some camp headlines.

Offensively gifted Derrick Pouliot is sure to manufacture some media attention. Many believe that the only thing holding him back is physical strength, but a good camp could give him a shot at a roster spot or at least a ten game try out.

The supremely well rounded talent of Olli Maatta has the entire town buzzing. His rapid growth in the North American game is promising and a solid camp could make Maatta one of the first call ups in case of injury. His poise in all areas of the game should improve this season with a top spot looming in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Then there are the shut down defenders. Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin top the list in terms of talent and pedigree. These two former second round selections have drawn praise throughout their respective careers for being heads up defenders who rarely are spotted out of position.  While these two are ranked quite highly in house, they have a relatively small chance of making the NHL roster.

Relatively quiet members of this shut down list include Philip Samuelsson (Son of former Penguin Ulf) and former Cornell product Nick D’Agostino. Samuelsson quickly became one of the Baby Penguins top defenders last season and even was named the most improved player on the roster. He will still need time to grow in the AHL, but his presence at camp should solidify his growth over the last season. D’Agostino is heading into his first ever pro season. The Penguins are quite high on the seventh round selection from 2008 and hope that his game continues to grow. Training camp should be a clear indication of whether or not he is ready to play at the professional level.

The Penguins, over the offseason, brought back former draft selection and Stanley Cup champion Rob Scuderi. Scuderi is a shut down defender that Pittsburgh feels confident can play a top pairing role with the explosive Kris Letang. The combination of the two styles should provide a dynamic element to the Penguins blue line that was missing last season.

The only other set pairing heading into camp is that of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. This possible bottom pairing for the upcoming Olympics was one of the NHL’s best pairings last season and that should not change for this upcoming season. They look to be the Penguin’s top pairing in all crucial moments once again.

The final pairing will most likely be decided between the final four defensemen left from the roster last season, barring a prolific performance from one of the top prospects. Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland, Simon Despres, and Robert Bortuzzo make up the final camp battle on defense.

From this grouping one thing becomes clear; there is a big logjam on defense. Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres are highly touted prospects who come in at a very reasonable price. They both stand at 6’4 and weigh in at 215 pounds. They both possess excellent skating ability and are tough defenders in the corners. The only question that pertains to these two is whether or not Dan Bylsma will trust them enough as a pairing. If it were up to many in Pittsburgh, sacrificing a few wins here and there to allow this pairing to develop is well worth it in the end run.

The final duo of Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland are two of Coach Bylsma’s favorites. This most likely will lead to more ice time, unless one is traded due to the Penguins being a million dollars over the salary cap. When it comes to trading one of the two the combination of youth and cap compliance gives way to Matt Niskanen playing this season elsewhere. Either way, if coach Bylsma gets his way, we will see enough of these two throughout the season.

When it comes down to it though, the Penguins have a much better defense this season than last. The addition of Rob Scuderi makes the Penguins top four defensemen as strong as it has been in recent seasons and with the continual growth of defensive prospects, this might actually be a difficult team to play against. One thing is certain this season though, Penguins fans are finally more comfortable and familiar with the defense than the new grouping of forwards.