This offseason general manager Ray Shero had quite a few personnel decisions to make. The big one hinged around star defenseman Sergei Gonchar who had just completed the final season of a five-year, $25 million contract. After a tough first season Gonch more than lived up to his contract, helping the Penguins to two Stanley Cup Finals. Negotiations were protracted, but at the end of the day Gonchar's desire for a third year proved insurmountable for the Penguins and on July 1st the thirty-six year old defenseman was the first free agent to change teams, inking a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators. With Justin Leopold (Buffalo), Mark Eaton (Islanders) and Jay McKee (currently out of the league) also leaving the Pens, Shero had work to do and he didn't waste any time. He signed both Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek to big long-term deals. Here's a look at how those two and the rest of the defensive corps have done through the Penguins first ten games.
The 6'1", 200 lbs., left-hand shooting Paul Martin has stepped in seamlessly as part of one of Penguins' top two defensive pairings, generally with the right-handed shooting Kris Letang. Martin's slick stick-handling and great tape-to-tape break out passes are a perfect fit for Coach Dan Bylsma's system. While not overly physical in his own end, Martin's defensive skills are probably underrated. His great stick work and skating ability mean he is rarely out of position. I'm not ready to say Martin is better than Gonchar because of Gonch's big shot, but it's close and Martin has contributed seven points through ten games similar to Sarge's historical numbers as a Penguin. The early returns are very good although he's a -3 in his last two games. Grade: B+
Kris Letang appears to be having a break out year in this, his fourth full season in the league. He's third among all defensemen in points with nine and in +/- at +7. He has looked good quarterbacking the power play from the left point. He's always had a dangerous wrister and his slapshot seems improved. Letang has also looked very solid in his own end while logging more than twenty minutes of ice time a night. He's only been called for one minor penalty through ten games. He is developing into one of the best offensive d-men in the league and is under the Penguins control through 2014 season at a very reasonable $3.5 million/year. Grade: A
Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek were supposed to be the Penguins shutdown defensive pairing but they've only been on the ice for two games together. Orpik is back and appears to have recovered from the abdominal injuries that have plagued him since the middle of last year. Unfortunately the Pens are 0-3-1 in his four games. Michalek is due back soon from a shoulder injury after only playing two-plus games to start the season. The Pens will be relying heavily on both these guys to contain the other team's top lines going forward and they will absolutely be a key to any playoff success the team has. Grade: Incomplete
Alex Goligoski is an American. Really. The twenty-five year old was born in Grand Rapids, MN (that's Minnesota, not Michigan) and that means four of the Pens top six d-men are Americans. I'm guessing it's the first time in Penguin history that has been the case. Like Letang, Gogo has had a great start to the season registering seven points and a +6 through ten games, while leading the Pens in ice time virtually every night. Goligoski has also taken on a much bigger role on the power play and his skating ability and excellent shot make him a natural in that spot. Gogo isn't big, but like Letang he has taken advantage of Bylsma's system to move the puck quickly out of his own end. Grade: A
Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland and Andrew Hutchinson have generally made up the team's third pairing. Both Lovejoy and Engelland have played nine games and are averaging about fifteen minutes of ice time a night. Both are stay at home defenseman who aren't expected to contribute a lot of points. Generally I think Lovejoy has been a small disappointment and Engelland has been a slight surprise. Hutchinson, a very savy depth signing by Shero in the offseason, played adequately in his five appearances before being sent back down this week. The biggest thing we have learned about these three in the first ten games is that only Lovejoy has a chance to be part of the Pens' plans next year and that is tenuous at best. At 26, he is the youngest, but he hasn't blossomed like the team had hoped. With Brian Strait, Carl Sneep and Robert Bortuzzo developing in Wilkes-Barre, and Simon Despres sure to be part of next year's team, Lovejoy and Engelland need to continue to do the job in their own end to keep their roster spots. They have been adequate thus far, but the Penguins have cheap young talent that will press them for playing time later in the year. Grade: Lovejoy C, Engelland B-, Hutchinson C
Overall the defense has played well. They have given up a few too many odd man rushes, but they have moved the puck well out of their own end and contributed in a big way in the offensive end. Having Michalek and Orpik back should add stability and give the group a real opportunity to mess as we move into the heart of the season. A solid performance thus far.
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