Pittsburgh, like most teams with star players tying up a large portion of their payroll, has to find competitive edges on the fringes. Depth defensemen. Fourth line forwards. Players who can produce reasonably well at the lowest possible cap hit.
That might mean taking on two or three players -- veterans in their twilight, rookies on the first contracts, fringe NHL talents and so on.
Or, Deryk Engelland.
Engelland has spent parts of five seasons with the Penguins, playing well enough to remain with the club but never so effectively to cement his spot in the top-six.
It's an uncommon path Engelland has cut to the fourth line in Pittsburgh. After being acquired as a free agent by the Pens in 2007, Engelland spent two-plus seasons in AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before getting his cup of coffee with the big club in 2009.
He's been with the team since 2010, but never as a forward.
Since 2010, Engelland has rotated in and out of the line-up as a sixth of seventh defenseman. If not for his affordable cap hit -- Engelland's salary of $566,667 is just a shade north of the league minimum -- many figured him a candidate to be moved once Rob Scuderi came back to the team last summer.
In addition to Scuderi, the Penguins returned all of their top-six defensemen from last season in 2013, save late-season acquisition Douglas Murray. Scuderi and hit rookie Olli Maatta now sit higher on the depth chart than Engelland. Robert Bortuzzo, who possesses a greater defensive skillset than Engelland, is being groomed in a regular pairing with Maatta.
Pittsburgh is so flush with defensemen that talented former first-round pick Simon Despres is biding his time in the AHL this season, and he's not alone. Perhaps that's a testament to Engelland's ability to stick with the NHL roster. Few teams, if any, have a premier top-six and a wealth of blue-chip prospects waiting in the wings like Pittsburgh.
For a sixth- or seventh-defenseman like Engelland, that kind of pressure from above and below could make his hold on a roster spot tenuous at best. It also pushed him into the role of eighth defenseman. Not many clubs make a habit of carrying that many defenders at the NHL level.
So, they turned him into a forward.
The move was met with an appropriate level of are-you-kidding-me's when the team began toying with the idea a few weeks ago. However, as injuries mount (and there are three players on long-term injured reserve as we speak), Pittsburgh's ability to fill those roles diminishes.
Dipping into the system is really the only option, and has so far produced mixed results. Maatta wasn't expected to make a roster spot for himself for another year or two, and Jayson Megna is playing in just his second year of professional hockey. Both have contributed nicely.
That mix of positional need and salary limitation perhaps forced the Penguins' hand on Engelland. So far, the move has worked fairly well. Engelland has two goals on the season, neither of the cheap variety. He's proven not to be a defensive liability in his new role, and, should the team (predictably) lose a defender in the course of a game, he can slot into that position and let Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin pick up the extra minutes at forward.
And though he's done little of it lately, the man can still fight.
His role becomes a little foggier if the team ever finds itself relatively healthy. Neal and Bennett will move right back into the top-nine. The fourth line was very productive before injuries broke the group up, and would presumably be reunited sans-Engo. Dustin Jeffrey and Matt D'Agostini, one would think, must be more productive at the forward spot than Engelland, whose career experience in forward barely goes beyond his work there this season.
The team can even wonder if that spot might be better occupied full-time by Megna, whose straight-line speed is an asset unmatched on the current roster and perhaps one worth keeping in Pittsburgh.
Dan Bylsma and his staff seem to love Engelland's game. The positional switch isn't a common maneuver.
So far, for both Engelland and the Penguins, the move has been met with more reward than expected.
Tuesday Slew is a regular feature that will run Wednesdays throughout the season, apparently. Berate James on the tweets, @Slew_James.