Confession- the seeds of this post were planted when the Penguins were winning 7-6, 5-4 games at the beginning of this winning streak and not playing the good defensive hockey they have been recently. Since then Eaton’s gotten into the lineup and helped stabilized things, but a lot of groundwork was done, so take the following for what it’s worth..
2009 and 2013 history and usageIn the Penguins most recent Stanley Cup run in 2009, eight defensemen appeared in playoff games. The eighth, Alex Gologiski, was mainly an after-thought playing in just two games for a total ice-time amount of 20:42, but the #7 defensemen was an important piece. Veteran Phillipe Boucher, played in nine games and memorably scored what ended up being a game-winning third period power play goal in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and he also chipped in three assists, playing in about a third (9 of 24) games that post-season.
The point being- defensive depth is necessary and important for a team with the intentions of making a deep playoff run. Games are physical, tough, and sooner or later a defenseman is bound to get knocked out of the lineup.
The Penguins, as constituted now, have eight defensemen on the NHL roster. If they have numbers, they lack in strength. Rookie defensemen Robert Bortuzzo is a healthy scratch every game that the team has six other healthy players. Rookie Simon Despres is scratched against the more “physical” teams, according to Dan Bylsma, a sign the team doesn’t feel comfortable (accurately or inaccurately) that Despres gives them the best chance to win against the stronger teams. Deryk Engelland is quite limited in terms of the amount and strength of minutes he can eat. Veteran Mark Eaton has been steady on the 3rd pair, but his age (35) and durability could be question marks in the grind of the every-other-night.
Another point is usage. In the 2009 playoffs, the Pens top defenseman was Sergei Gonchar, who played an average of 23:02 per game. The other five regular defensemen (Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, Kris Letang and Eaton) all played between 18:07 and 20:29 per game. It was a pretty balanced unit in terms of defensive responsibility.
This regular season has been much, much different. Letang’s minutes have shot up to 25:32, as he’s become one of the most versatile and strongest all-around defensemen in the game. Orpik and Paul Martin log big minutes too, 22:46 and 25:19 per game, respectively. Then there’s a drop to Matt Niskanen (19:56) and Eaton (16:08 averaged in eight games) an absolute cliff to Engelland and Despres who play 13-14 minutes a night.
If the Penguins want to have a deep playoff run, their best chance is having a 3rd pair they trust to play more minutes, which will help ease the minutes of their top three guys in Letang, Martin and Orpik. The addition of Eaton has helped, but is it enough to have such few guys that the coach relies on?
One of the reasons Mark Eaton rejoined the Pens was that he was cheap (he admitted he would have played for free, and was just happy to prolong his career) and also that he cost nothing but the cash to sign him. The price of a trade to get a good defenseman is very high, because good NHL defensemen are very valuable commodities. Add in that almost every NHL team currently either has a realistic chance at the playoffs (or, their management/ownership still THINKS they could have a chance) and it’s going to be slim pickens for the buyers that want to load up for a playoff run.
So now we look to the bargain bin, sort of how GM Ray Shero was able to get Gill from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008 for a second and fifth round draft pick. Every player available will have some flaws, none will be perfect systematic fits, but the onus is on finding a guy who might be able to help and provide the coach with a decent option that he can trust to play.
Mike Weaver (FLA)
Salary$1.1 million through 2013-14
Why it’d work: Mike Weaver is a pain to play against and could bring some toughness and defensive responsibility to the Penguins. He’s not a great puck mover or skater, but could adequately slot in to the Pens as a penalty killer.
Donny Rivette from Litterbox Cats told us via email: “As has been widely rumored/speculated, virtually everyone on the Panthers' roster is up for grabs, so Weaver likely falls into the [have to get a] "really good deal" camp, considering Florida's many issues this season.”
Why it wouldn’t: He’s signed for a reasonable amount next year ($1.1 million), and Florida isn’t flush with solid defensemen so maybe they’re not looking to move Weaver for younger, more untested players. He also has been on the sidelines for almost three weeks with a knee injury, the extent of which is unknown.
Potential trade cost, via input from Litterbox Cats – “Picks. Draft picks. Or perhaps a selection in the 2013 NHL draft involving picks. Perhaps just picks. Tallon does on occasion deal for prospects but not of the memorable variety and only does that to move out the deadwood. We're talking a 3rd round selection in the case of Weaver, considering his worth to the Panthers. If part of a larger deal, we get into fuzzy territory, but one-for-one? 3rd-rounder. Worth a second, but we won't get too crazy here. Keep in mind when dealing with Dale: he likes the draft. A whole lot."
Advanced stats check-up from our own JustinM: "Mike Weaver has been facing very good competition (+1.500 Corsi Rel QoC), second-toughest on Florida, with second-pairing type TOI. However, he's had 51.5% offensive zone starts, so he's not much of a shutdown guy in role. Unfortunately, as well, he's been outshot a bit more than his teammates have, at a -4.6 relative Corsi. His HARD rating is just awful, but that's true for everyone on that team, so you could probably safely ignore that, or at least understand that it's not telling you much. I'd take a pass [on trading for Weaver].
Suggestion: A 3rd round pick from the Pens sounds fair to me. Given the GM and his obvious love of the draft, he probably wouldn’t be interested in a young player like Bortuzzo and would probably just prefer the pick. It’s important to know who you’re dealing with (literally) if you’re an NHL GM. Mike Weaver, to me, is about exactly what the Penguins need- a guy who’s defensively responsible, tough to play against and capable of eating tough minutes. Adding him in a possible #5/#6 role to play along side Eaton and take some PK minutes would be a good add.
Ryan O’Byrne (COL)
$1.8 million through 2012-13 (rental)
Why it’d work: Capable but not over-powering, he’d be a good piece to slide in. At 28 years old he’s the youngest of the targets here and might have less mileage and wear-and-tear than other veteran defensemen who are on the trading block. If he had a great post-season, it would price him out of town, but he could also be a guy, for the right price, to keep around as a bridge for a year or two until prospects are ready for NHL action.
Why it wouldn’t: He’s still young enough that maybe Colorado doesn’t want to give up on removing him from the team yet. Also, in a limited market, a bidding war could inflate the price to heights that don’t make sense.
Potential trade cost, via input from Cheryl from Mile High Hockey: "The Avs would [trade O’Byrne] for the right deal… Draft pick…The Avs are overflowing with 5-7 defenseman, especially the shutdown, stay-at-home type."
Advanced stats check-up from our own JustinM: "Ryan O'Byrne has been the Avalanche version of Brooks Orpik, albeit with less ice time. Otherwise, they're practically clones based on Corsi-based stats. HARD shows him with a clear advantage over Orpik, though."
Suggestion: If the price is a 2nd rounder, it might be worth a look. If the market pushes that up to 1st round territory, that’s likely a little too rich for the Pens blood. At this point with current depth, and the fact that he’s a rental, O’Byrne places as my second choice of guys to look into.
Robyn Regehr (BUF)
$4.02 million through 2012-13 (rental)
Why it’d work: Regehr leads Buffalo defensemen in PK time, he could add a little grit and depth to the Pens PK and 3rd pair.
Why it wouldn’t: With 0 goals and 1 assist on the season does Regehr still have the capability with the puck to help the Pens more than say Mark Eaton? Regehr also has a no movement clause, so if he doesn’t feel like uprooting his life and family’s lives in a deadline deal, then he doesn’t have to go anywhere, if he doesn’t want to.
Potential trade cost, via input from Die by the Blade: “I think it's very likely the Sabres move Regehr. His contract expires at the end of this season, and at age 32, I don't see him being re-signed by Buffalo. Honestly, I'd be more surprised if they keep him than deal him, even with his NMC. I just think the Sabres will, or should, be sellers at the deadline, and he's one of their prime candidates.."
"A draft pick for Regehr. Probably second round, though with Darcy's recent trade history (Gaustad for a first) he may be able to get a bit more.”
Advanced stats check-up from our own JustinM: Justin compared Regehr to the rough picture that Brooks Orpik has had this season so far, adding that Regehr has “even less ice time, worse Corsi numbers, and a HARD rating that's about the same as Orpik's.”. In short, it’s not a pretty picture for Regehr in his advanced metrics, as you’d probably expect from a defensive-only guy who’s been on one of the league’s worst defensive teams.
Suggestion: Personally, he’d be my third choice of guys on this list. Now that the Pens have Eaton, Regehr doesn’t add too much more at this point in his career. Also he’s a below average skater, and his ability to pick-up and be comfortable with aspects of Pittsburgh’s defensive intricacies (like zone retrievals, breakouts, positioning) might not be seamless.
So there you have it- three potential targets that have a reasonable chance of being shopped in the next few weeks. Any names there (or additional ones) jump out? Or now that the Pens have Eaton and are generally healthy, should they just build for the playoffs from within?