Penguins Season Preview: D-Men

t’s finally here, we are actually previewing the actual guys who will be donning the Pittsburgh Penguins sweater this year. Yesterday we previewed the goalies, today we move onto defense, and yet to come are wingers, and then the centers, before finally making our BOLD predictions for the year. We’ve attempted to look at each player from a point/counterpoint perspective–that’s not to say that we are going to totally disagree on each player, far from it, we want to examine both the statistical expectations for each guy AND express our “feel” or read of the player. We hope you enjoy and we would love for you to get back to us with your thoughts and feelings. If you haven’t read them yet, please check out our series on Advanced Hockey Statistics: Goals Versus ThresholdPoints per 60 Minutes, and Player Usage Charts (including Corsi numbers). Get the business after the jump.

If you don’t believe that defense wins championships you must be a Capitals fan. And if you are, then you must not know what it’s like to win a championship so you’re opinion doesn’t matter. Defense wins championships and the reigning Stanley Cup champion LA Kings are proof of that. Despite finishing 29th (next to last) in the league in scoring during the regular season they did limit opposing teams to 179 goals against, the second best mark in the league. That trend continued in the playoffs and the Kings became the first ever 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup.

If there is one area where we see a deficiency in the Pens roster it would be at defense. None of the pairings seem to be anywhere near finalized, and generally speaking there are legitimately 4 guys fighting for one starting position and one reserve position. We are really interested in who will distinguish himself in the top 4 and who can beat out the competition for the final starting spot. Stable d-play and possibly a trade deadline rental player could be the difference for this Pens team between a deep playoff run and another disappointing result. Come with us as we examine who is in, who is out, and how they should fare.

STARTERS: No question these guys are in the lineup on opening day barring any problems.

KRIS LETANG

KRIS LETANG

Andrew: No doubt Letang is the clear cut #1 defensemen for the Pens going into the season. It can be tough to remember how good Letang was last year and how many games he missed due to his own concussion problems. Overall Letang only played in 51 games, but over those 51 he produced 42 points. That means a simple average of .82 points per game, an ESP/60 of 1.54 and a PPP/60 of more than 4.5. Now it is true that his recent exploits, his horrible playoff series and his bizarre choice to go to Russia during the last week of the lockout, are perhaps more memorable, but there’s no doubt that Tanger has the talent and determination to be a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman.

Mike: It’s hard to argue with the fact that Kris Letang is a good defenseman. (Coffey – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAP2A2-H41A, Letang – on the goal vs. COL http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsL3j950sVc). I’d like to point out that some of his skating reminds me of that black and gold 77 from a few years ago. I’m not saying that Kris Letang is Paul Coffey reincarnated, but they both gave you a great feeling when carrying the puck: security, speed, and smart passing. That’s what we want to see out of him. The tap in against PHI is another dimension that makes 58 dangerous: his ability to join the rush and make a smart play. Ask anyone about off puck movement in the offensive zone on the rush and they’ll tell you back-post. Letang heads there, stick down, gets rewarded with the goal. He’s got a good, hard shot from the point as well. I think his only possible downside is his offensive possession decision making. I’ve seen him make a number of mistakes in pinching at terrible times in the offensive zone. Lucky for him, 58 is fast enough to catch up and backcheck effectively. I want to see better decisions there, but overall Andrew is right in saying he’s the Pens #1 D-Man, and rightfully so.

BROOKS ORPIK

BROOKS ORPIK

A: For as much as I like Brooks, he is really hard to place on the spectrum of defensive skill. He’s not as good at shutting down opponents as traditional “shutdown” defensemen, in fact he posted a -8.9 Corsi score, the worst of any Penguin player last year, and he definitely isn’t an offensive defenseman. But that doesn’t make Brooks a bad player, he eats ice time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and was the second biggest hitter among all defensemen in the league last year. Brooks turns 32 this year and although he’s kept his game at a high level so far, I would be interested to see if he changes his approach at all in his senior years in the league.

M: I’ll echo Andrew here by saying that Brooksie is different. Much like Letang, Orpik usually is good for a life via a big hit on a rush. I would hope to see him fit more into that shutdown role if nothing else than to continue to play effectively with a Letang-like D-Man.

MATT NISKANEN

MATT NISKANEN

A: Words fail to encapsulate how important Matt Niskanen came to be for the Pens last year. With Letang out for more than a third of the season, Niskanen came from literal obscurity to be the Pens most effective offensive defenseman. As such he earned himself a new contract worth $2.3 million/season. Nisky had the best relative Corsi (7.7) of any defenseman on the Pens. My only concern for Niskanen is that for as well as he played, he did it over limited minutes (17:56 TOI/game). If Martin and Michalek’s ice time numbers from last year are any indication of what Niskanen will need to do this year, he’ll be averaging five more minutes on the ice per game, that’s a lot.

M: I think Niskanen has it in him to cowboy up and make a really solid challenge for first pair D-Man (whether that becomes a pairing with Martin, or perhaps a 2/44 or 2/58 combo). When Niskanen came to the Burgh from Dallas in the Goligosky/Neal trade, he sub-mediocre in the Bylsma system. I think after his impressive play last year, we’ve seen that Niskanen can excel in the system given the right condition. I don’t think he played anywhere during the lockout (if anyone knows, please correct me!) and it will be interesting to see how he does getting back into the flow of the game. Could be a stud in an already young and talented defensive corps, or could be a flop. I think he’ll turn out to be a bigger asset than anyone had realized when he came to Pittsburgh.

PAUL MARTIN

PAUL MARTIN

A: Ah, Paul Martin, where do we begin? Well lets look at Martin’s GVT stats: his OGVT of 3.2 is actually the second best mark for defensemen, even better than Niskanen’s and in fact his .84 ESP/60 is more than respectable. What is perhaps far more surprising is that his DGVT of 5.8 was also the second best on the team, and in fact he beat the departed Zbynek Michalek by 2.5 points. Perhaps unsurprisingly his net GVT is second best behind only Norris Trophy hopeful Kris Letang. But what does that mean? Well it basically confirms all the times that I’ve defended Martin as being better than he looks. But does it make him a good player? I don’t know, suffice it to say that Martin is going to have to play his balls off this season if he doesn’t want to get bought out in the coming offseason.

Now I’m going to go on a tangent about Zbynek Michalek. Statistically speaking, he was the worst of the Penguins’ top 6 defensemen from last year. His GVT of 4.0 trails Niskanen, Engelland, Orpik, Martin, and Letang respectively. His net 0 plus/minus trails Niskanen, Martin, and Orpik by 9 points and Engelland and Letang by considerably more. Further, Michalek had a nasty habit of attracting hits without garnering penalties (he TOOK 6 hits/game against Philly in the playoffs last year). And as I’ve spent a lot of time explaining in the past, he’s actually not very good at anything except blocking shots, and even at that Paul Martin out-blocked him by 33 shots last year. You can be as sour about the Pens keeping Martin and dumping Michalek as you like, but hopefully the last two paragraphs have made you see the error of your ways.

M: Thanks for saying everything I wanted to, Andrew…I like Paul Martin. He’s got to be better than he was last year. He knows it, and I know it. I want to see the Paul Martin that chips in offensively, but also plays sound defence (two things he really failed to do at least in major statistical categories last year). He’s a toss up at this point. In either way, his fate in Pittsburgh will be sealed after this year.

DERYK ENGELLAND

DERYK ENGELLAND

A: Did not see this coming but Engelland is probably the most underrated member of the Penguins. As a late-bloomer (he was 27 before he played his first game in the NHL) and as a notorious career minor-league brawler I have never really regarded Engelland as anything more than a stopgap in the Penguins lineup. In reality he actually outperformed the more high profile Niskanen and the above mentioned Michalek. His 6.3 net GVT proves that he is more than adequate as a third pairing defensemen. Perhaps most impressive is Engelland’s .94 ESP/60, which is even better than Paul Martin’s (which is pretty good)! Depending on who gains the upper-hand in the open battle for the team’s sixth starting defenseman position, I could even see a situation where Engelland gets paired with Martin and Niskanen could serve as mentor to Simon Despres. Mind you, any of the other options: Lovejoy, Bortuzzo, or Strait, would probably perform better with Engelland, but as far as number 5 defensemen go, Engelland is as good as they get.

M: I remember going to a game in January two years ago against New Jersey when the Pens were so depleted due to injury, that Deryk Engyelland Played 3rd line right wing (it was the game where that pregnant lady got pushed down the stairs and her husband, rightfully so, went bananas on the two drunk dudes who pushed her…and the Pens were soundly routed. yeah….good times…). that’s about all I have to say about Deryk Engelland.

THE BATTLE FOR 6TH: Coming into this season there only seems to be two open positions: there seems to be one winger position (either on the second or third line), and the final starting defensive position. At this point we have literally no idea who is going to win it. Listed below are the four defensemen in Pens camp who seem to still be in the running.

BEN LOVEJOY

BEN LOVEJOY

A: At first glance the sixth defense position seems to be Lovejoy’s to lose. His 1.38 ESP/60 was one of the best marks in the league last year and it wasn’t anywhere near as good as his 2010-11 mark. Health has hampered Lovejoy over his career, but again going back to the ‘10-11 season he posted a net GVT of 6.8, and he even split his skills evenly earning an OGVT of 3.4 and a DGVT of 3.4. There are two things that could seriously keep Lovejoy from being the #6 defenseman in Pittsburgh this year. The first is persistent trade rumors. The Minnesota Wild, who may have won the Ryan Suter sweepstakes but lost their soul in the process, desperately need defensive help, and they seem to have zeroed in on Lovejoy as a trade target. Secondly, Lovejoy’s rigorous off-ice conditioning makes him an ideal 7th defenseman for the Penguins. When he wasn’t battling health problems of his own last year Lovejoy was able to step in without even a moment’s notice and deliver quality play. I could see a situation where Lovejoy is kept around, however, primarily as backup, only time will tell.

M: I think that Lovejoy’s biggest downside is that right now, there’s really nothing that would want me to skate him over any of the other three guys (Despres, Strait, Bortuzzo). In Despres, we get (loosely stated) another possible Kris Letang. He smart, skates well with his head up, has an offensive touch, and makes bad decisions when pinching. With Bortuzzo and Strait, you get walls you have to skate through, willingness to be real tough when need be, and a head for the 2PK unit. The Rev is a solid #7 that’s for sure, but I don’t know that I ever see him breaking into anything else for the Penguins with the upsides of guys they have waiting for the call. Keep in mind that if the Pen’s draft choices pan out, things will get nothing but tougher for the Rev from here on out.

SIMON DESPRES

SIMON DESPRES

A: The player with the most career upside in the running for this job is clearly Despres. As a former first round-pick and still only 21 years old, I know I’m not alone in hoping that he can someday soon become part of the Penguins top-4 defense. According to a lot of people far more experienced than me at this sort of thing, Despres’ development is almost perfectly in line with Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, which is good and bad. Both of those guys needed to go through a fairly extended AHL career, and then some incredibly sheltered NHL minutes, but on the plus side, as has been mentioned a lot so far, Letang is working his way into Norris consideration and Goligoski was so appealing to Dallas that they gave us a 40 goal scorer AND a skilled puck-moving defenseman for him. What could set Despres apart from those guys however is his god-given size, at 6’4” 214 lbs. he literally towers over Letang and Gogo, yet shows the same puck-handling ability. As will be examined with Eric Tangradi, Despres is perhaps the kind of guy who is most deserving of the opportunity, but also has, so far, done the least to prove it.

M: I really do agree with what Andrew has laid down here. Again, I’ll reiterate what I said about Kris Letang: I want better decisions. In the Bigs, we saw him turn the puck over waaayyy too many times coming out of his own zone for him to be considered close to ready. Thus, I echo the part about the slow development. That said, his size is great. I want to see this dude be able to do this in the offensive zone (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9EnbI0j6ok) and then come back next shift and pound a winger into the boards on a rush. He’s got a ton of upside, but the development is going to be key.

ROBERT BORTUZZO

ROBERT BORTUZZO

A: According to everyone who has been able to follow WB/S closely, Bortuzzo has begun to distinguish himself from his chief competition at the AHL level. By almost every metric he is just a little better than Brian Strait: he’s bigger, he’s more physical, his AHL point production is a little better, and his plus/minus is a little better, despite all the while being a full year younger than Strait. Unlike Despres, Bortuzzo projects as a career #6 D-man, and in some ways that might actually be a good thing for him. The Pens don’t need a project on the blueline, they need a solid guy who can hit, kill some penalties, and not give up the puck at inopportune times. Bortuzzo seems to fit the bill. As with Lovejoy (and Strait), two things could keep Bortuzzo from the role: although he is in Pens camp right now, he would have to clear re-entry waivers before he could actually play with the big team. I don’t necessarily doubt that some team in desperate need for a #6 defenseman could snag him during that process. Further, he could prove an effective #7, especially in the event that Lovejoy does get moved during the season.

M: The only other thing I’ll mention about Bortuzzo is his health history. I know the C word is a bad thing to mention, but Bortuzzo does have a concussion history. I hope for his sake that he stays healthy and doesn’t get plagued with head trash…knock on wood.

BRIAN STRAIT

BRIAN STRAIT

A: According to Timo Seppa from PuckProspectus.com, Strait almost exactly resembles Ben Lovejoy in his minor league career, however one way or the other, Strait seems likely to stick at the NHL level at a slightly younger age: he turns 24 this year whereas Lovejoy was 26 before he got his first serious chance. With that said, Strait seems to be the odd man out between Lovejoy, Bortuzzo and himself. As mentioned above, he’s not quite as productive as Bortuzzo, and Lovejoy seems to be in the driver’s seat for the job. As with Bortuzzo he would have to clear re-entry waivers before playing for the big Pens, and there is probably a similar (which is to say small) chance that he could get grabbed by another team in the process. As with Bortuzzo, assuming he does make the big team, he could also serve effectively at the #7 role. Personally, I wouldn’t be shocked to see either or both Strait and Bortuzzo moved around the trade deadline. Only time will tell.

M: I feel like a broken record in that I keep repeating that this dude is a solid defenseman. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and a desire to improve. Given the younger guys in the minors that the Pens just drafted, I really can only see this guy getting moved at some point.

Don’t be shocked to see Dylan Reese, a Pittsburgh native formerly of the Islanders get a call up in limited, one game situations. Unlike Bortuzzo and Strait he’s on a 2-way deal and therefore the fear of him getting claimed on waivers is nonexistent.

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2 Comments on “Penguins Season Preview: D-Men”

  1. […] Penguins sweater this year. Back on Monday we previewed the goalies, on Tuesday we shifted our focus to defense, today we are talking wingers, and then the centers, before finally making our BOLD predictions […]

  2. […] Penguins sweater this year. Back on Monday we previewed the goalies, on Tuesday we shifted our focus to defense, yesterday we covered wingers, and today the centers, before finally making our BOLD predictions […]


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