In a regular 82-game season, the Pittsburgh Penguins normally carry 7 D on their active NHL roster. This season, shortened to 48-games we carried 8 D, but that is uncommon. So we have to go on the assumption that they will plan to keep 7 D in the coming seasons. They currently have 6 NHL defensemen under contract for the 2013-14 season, so barring an unexpected buyout there will only be 1 opening. However, by the 2014-15 season we are down to just 1 NHL defensemen, so there will be plenty of opportunity for our young D prospects to make a name for themselves.
The most important piece of the Pens D in Kris Letang, who is only under contract up through next season. However, the team plans to lock him up long term. There is still some uncertainty as to whether or not they will be able to keep him, being that he may very well be looking for quite a bit more than he makes now, but we can assume to pnecil him in long term. Next is Paul Martin, the one player who still has 2 years remaining. There has been speculation at various points in time as to whether or not Martin will be traded or bought out, as his $5M salary is a bit high. However, while he hasn't quite played like a $5M defenseman, his performance this season should be enough to secure his spot on the roster. However, at 32 he is already a tad old, and by the time he is due for a new contract he will be 35, so his future at that point in uncertain, especially with the number of D in the system.
Next is Brooks Orpik, who also has issues with age, so while his veteran presence will still be needed next year, he may not necessarily be back in 2014-15. Next we have Matt Niskanen and Simon Despres, who are both rather similar in that they are two-way D, who focus primarily on defense but do have a scoring touch. They both have 1 year left, but we may well decide not to retain both of them in 2014-15. Despres is younger and has a significant size advantage, plus he will be an RFA and likely sign a cheaper contract, so he is more likely to be back. Deryk Engelland is the last defenseman that will still be under contract next year. He is at best a career 3rd pair D, and quite likely a 7th D. He is also 31. So he may not be back brought back after his contract runs out. However, Shero does like him, and he is the closest thing the Pens have to an enforcer, and he works for nearly minimum, so it is possible he could be back. But with how many other D we have waiting in the wings, they may choose to move on.
Then we have the players that are not under contract next season. Douglas Murray is the least likely to return. He is 33, extremely slow, and was picked up as a rental. For the amount of money he would get, and the fact that he would be a 3rd pair D not altogether different from Engelland, and the number of prospects in the system, it is highly unlikely that he would be back. Mark Eaton is even older at 36 (his birthday is tomorrow), and spent the lockout and half the shortened season without a contract. He may very well retire as a Penguin. However, he actually played fairly well despite being written off as being over the hill, and his contract is rather low. Lastly is Robert Bortuzzo, who will be an RFA. Bortuzzo is only 24, and works for the bare minimum, but he was barely resigned last year, signing his tender late in the summer, and despite some fairly impressive outings, he has yet to be given much of an opportunity, being scratched for the majority of the season. He could be back as a 7th D, but again we have a ton of young D, so he may be better off on a team where he could have an opportunity to play a Top 4 role.
So for 2013-14, the Pens likely have 1 opening on the blue line, although there is still a possibility that one of the FAs would return. For the 2014-15 season, we can assume that Letang, Martin, and likely Despres will be back. They would also probably need at least 1 more veteran on the roster, so there would be 3-4 roster spots available. So with that in mind, let's have a look at the 12 remaining D that are currently playing in the minors/juniors and estimate the likelihood of their making the NHL roster.
Brian Dumoulin, a product of the Staal trade this summer, is still under contract until 2014-15. A 21 year old rookie, he started out the year slow but really kicked it into high gear after the lockout ended. He has age and size in common with Despres, but unlike Despres who worked through the QMJHL and already has 2 years of professional hockey under his belt, Dumoulin came up through the NCAA, playing for Boston College. He actually had quite an impressive junior career: 2 time NCAA champion, 3 time Hockey East champion, 2 time Hockey East Best Defensive Defenseman, 2 time First Team All-American, 2 time Hockey East First Team All-Star, Hobey Baker finalist, played in the World Juniors, New England D1 All-Star, New England Best Defenseman, and All-Rookie team. While he started the season near the bottom of the depth chart, though still in the active gameday lineup, he quickly rose to the top, surpassing previous hot prospects Despres and Morrow. He finished the season as the #2 D with 6 goals and 18 assists, although a -11 Rating. He had his ups and downs, usual rookie jitters, but finished the season strong. His long term projection is like Despres, Top 4 mini-Letang, so it is possible that in 2 years they choose to move Dumoulin up rather than keeping either Despres or Niskanen. However, he is unlikely to play next season unless there are significant injuries, but is quite likely a shoe-in for the 2014-15 roster.
Reid McNeill is the other current AHL D that will still be under contract in 2014-15. He is a 21-year old rookie, with a fairly good size (6'3"), that worked his way up through the OHL. He spent the majority of this season playing in Wheeling, joining the Baby Pens after the Nailers season ended. He didn't get any points in his 3 games in the AHL, but did have a +2 Rating, and was actually pretty impressive as a pure defensive D in his limited exposure. He is young and inexperienced, so more likely than not he will be returning to WBS next year. It is still early in his career, so it is hard to determine if he has a future with the NHL club, he could certainly fill in as a Bottom 4 shut-down D, but at the moment I'm not sure he would be able to surpass any of the more experienced defensive D, not to mention the young prospects who will be coming up.
Philip Samuelsson, son of the Pens Ulf, is a tough defensive D like his father, although lacking the vicious nature. He will only be under contract until next season. He was another NCAA product, playing in Boston College with Dumoulin, but he is now a 2nd year pro. Long term he projects as a classic shut-down D, similar to Bortuzzo, so it is quite possible that one of them will stick around to replace Orpik as the 2nd-pair defensive D when he gets too old to continue. However, there are still a number of other young D working their way up, so he may still be replaced. Samuelsson had 2 Goals and 8 Assists, not the best but quite good for a defensive D, with a team high +10 Rating. His long term future is uncertain, but he has the skill and experience that he could possibly move up as the 7th NHL D for next season, or he could remain in WBS filling the void left by Bortuzzo/Strait as a solid shut-down D and then determine whether or not to resign him and move him up for 2014-15, but with so many other D it is hard to say.
Dylan Reese, local resident and former Pittsburgh Hornet, he will be a free agent this summer. At 28 years old, he could fill in as a veteran presence on the blue line if the choose to bring him back. He also served as the 3rd A on the team, and last year had an A in Bridgeport. He is also a product of the ivy league, something the Pens seem to like, graduating from Harvard where he was a Senior Captain. He spent the past 6 seasons in the AHL, but did get a good deal of NHL exposure playing 74 games over the previous 3 seasons, in addition to his 3 game stint when Letang and Niskanen were injured earlier this season. He has spent most of the year at the top of the WBS depth chart, serving as the #1 D paired with Dumoulin post-lockout, and finishing as the top defensive scorer with 8 Goals and 17 Assists, and a +3 Rating. He may lack the size of a physical shut-down D, but he still manages to play a solid 2-way game. Based on experience and his performance this season, he is probably the most likely to move up to be the 7th NHL D next season (actually quite likely supplanting Engelland and/or Niskanen on the bottom pair), assuming he gets resigned. The Pens seemed to like him, and both sides said it was unfortunate that he didn't get a chance to prove himself in a real pre-season training camp, so he might sign on for another season next year just to be given a shot. His long term beyond that may be in question, but he could return for 2014-15 to fill the veteran void. What he does bring to the blue line is an additional right handed D, which would be needed if Niskanen/Engelland doesn't return.
Alex Grant, the final D currently playing in the AHL, will be an RFA this summer. He moved up through the QMJHL and Wheeling before landing a full time job in WBS for the past 2 seasons. He is one of the best PP quarterbacks WBS has had, although still not as good as Letang is. He is extremely talented offensively, has an excellent shot, and actually filled in at Wing on occasion when they chose to dress 7 D. He has good size for a D as well. He spent most of the lockout as a scratch, but then jumped full time into the lineup (and passing up Morrow) when the lockout ended. Since then he has been the #5 D, paired up with whoever the rotating 6/7 D of the time happened to be (Morrow/Wild/McNeill). Despite being scratched early on and missing a few games with an injury, he still managed to finish 3rd amongst D in points with 4 Goals and 16 Assists (although a -7 Rating), despite playing 20 games less than team leader Reese who only beat him by 8 points. And the year before he led the team D with 10 Goals and 27 Assists (and a +5 Rating) in 61 games. Yet despite his excellent offense and skill as the PP quarterback, his future with the team is unlikely. He actually has quite a lot in common with Lovejoy, a talented offensive defenseman who is especially effective on the PP. As such, he is unlikely to rise above a 6/7 PP specialist D, and frankly, like Lovejoy, there is no room for him on the Penguins. However, like Lovejoy he could find a place in the regular NHL lineup on a different team with more openings along the blue line. He could get signed back next year, either remaining in WBS or jumping up as the new #7 Lovejoy, but he barely got resigned this summer, signing his tender late in the year, so I'm not sure they will bring him back again, considering the number of other options along the blue line.
Harrison Ruopp, the Penguins most recent defensive signing, is on an entry-level deal that kicks in next season and runs through the 2015-16 season. Ruopp came along with the Michalek trade this summer, a 20-year old D that just finished up his final season in the WHL wearing an A and racking up 1 Goal and a career high 15 Assists, with a career high +11 Rating, before joining the Baby Pens to practice with them as a Black Ace. He has good size, plays a very physical game, and is a stay at home shut-down D. He may be in WBS next year, but depending on how many D they have could actually wind up spending most of the year in Wheeling. He may find himself eventually growing to replace Orpik/Engelland as a Bottom 4 physical shut-down D, but if so it is still a few years away and he has a number of other players standing in his way.
Scott Harrington, Penguins 2011 2nd Round pick, is currently finishing up his final season in the OHL playing for London in the finals. Because he spent the entire year in the OHL, his entry level contract will slide, meaning he is under contract until 2015-16. His career so far, he was on the All-Rookie Team, a member of the CHL Top Prospects game in his draft year, 2-time World Junior U20, wearing an A this past tournament and being named one of the Top 3 Players on Team Canada, and on the U18 squad 2 years ago. Last year his team won the OHL Championships, and are well on their way to repeating this year, wearing an A last season and a C this year. He had 3 Goals and 16 Assists with a +21 Rating this season, which is just a step behind his career high last year (3 Goals and 23 Assists with a +26 Rating). He was 4th in points amongst D, although only 2 points behind #3 with 18 fewer games, and 6 points behind #2 with 13 fewer games. And last year he was the #2 D, 6 points behind #1 in 14 fewer games. Long term he projects as a Top 4 two-way D similar to Martin, although more defensively focused. Next year he is most likely to premier as a rookie in WBS where he can slowly acclimate himself to the system. He is one of the Pens top prospects, so he could very well crack the lineup in 2014-15 when there are more openings on the blue line.
Olli Maatta, one of the 2012 1st round picks and Harrinton's teammate, will still be under contract until at least 2015-16, quite likely 2016-17 as his contract should slide again next year. As with Harrington, his team has won 1 OHL Championship and are on their way to a repeat. He wears an A this year in London, and also wore an A in his 3rd straight World Juniors appearance for Team Finland this year, as he also wore an A for the U18 team 2 years ago, and he was on the All-Rookie Team last season. He leads London D with career high numbers in both Goals (8) and Assists (30) this year, with a +9 Rating. Last year he also led the team with 5 Goals and 27 Assists, with a +25 Rating, but even more impressive was his 6 Goals and 17 Assists with a +11 Rating in 19 playoff games which tied him for most Points and leading in Assists amongst all players on the team, not just D, and with the most Goals amongst all D. He is a solid two-way D with a slight offensive edge, much the way Martin is in the NHL. He is still a few years from cracking the NHL roster, as he will almost certainly return to the OHL next year since he will not be old enough for the AHL, and he will likely need at least a year in the AHL to acclimate himself to the professional level, especially since he grew up playing European hockey, despite the fact that he spent the last 2 years in North American he may still have some transition to work out. Depending on how he adjust to a professional game, he could very well be challenging Despres for a spot in the next 2-3 years.
Derrick Pouliot, taken 8th overall in 2012, is the de facto #1 prospect, and was ranked by Hockey's Future as having the hardest shot amongst Pens prospects. Like Maatta, his age dictates that his contract is likely to slide again extending his contract to 2016-17. He doesn't have a string of accomplishments in his junior career, having played in the Top Prospects game in his draft year and being one of Team Canada's cuts in the World Juniors this year, but he is well on his way to taking a WHL Championship in Portland. He finished the season with 9 Goals and 36 Assists, with a massive +35 Rating in only 44 games. He is the #3 D on his team in points, but only 9 points behind #2 with 17 fewer games and 21 points behind #1 with 26 fewer games. However, in 15 playoff games he currently leads all WHL D in points with 4 Goals and 12 Assists, and has a +9 Rating. His career high numbers were last season, 11 Goals and 48 Assists, but this year's just over a point per game is more impressive, especially for a defender. He projects to be an excellent Top Pair offensive defenseman like Letang. Next year he will probably be back in the WHL, as he is too old for the AHL. However, if any of the prospects are good enough to jump directly into the NHL it is Pouliot. He most likely won't be in the NHL next year, as there is only 1 opening on the team, but he could very well leap into the lineup in 2014-15 without having to take a year in the AHL to learn the system.
Clark Seymour, 5th Round pick from 2012, is currently unsigned and practicing in WBS as a Black Ace. He is 19 but will be 20 in just a couple weeks, so if he returns to the OHL next season it would be as an overage player. He wore an A and had career high 3 Goals and 10 Assists, although with a -7 Rating. He is a big, physical, stay at home defensive D, so his low number of points is not unexpected. If the Penguins sign him he could play in WBS next year, but is unlikely to make much of an impact, as he projects as a 6/7 physical D like Engelland. That in itself makes his future with the Pens a little unlikely, as they have quite a number of other options with more skill and more experience.
Alex Velischek, 5th Round pick from 2009, finished up his final year with Providence College and ended the season playing 3 games in Wheeling where he had 1 Assist and a +1 Rating. However, when the Nailers season ended he was not brought up to WBS with the other Black Aces. He had 6 Assists in Providence this year, with a career high +17 Rating. However, his best college season was back when he was a freshman, netting 1 Goal and 11 Assists. He is a two-way D that plays on a defensively focused team, so it is hard to tell if his low output is a factor of his ability or just the system. Being that he wasn't even brought into WBS to get a look with the team, the fact that he remains unsigned (although they have until 30 days after his mid-May graduation before losing his player rights), and the plethora of defensive prospects, it is highly unlikely that they will be looking to keep him around, especially considering he will probably never be more than a 3rd Pair D if he ever even makes an NHL roster. There is the possibility that Wheeling or WBS could sign him to a minor deal next year, depending on how many D they need, so he could slowly work his way up over 5-7 years like Engelland did.
Nick D'Agostino, 2008 7th Round pick, finished up his final year in Cornell this year, remaining unsigned. Although like Velischek, there is still an opportunity to sign him withing 30 days of graduation. However, unlike Velischek who joined the Nailers after his season ended, D'Agostino didn't come over to get any professional experience. He wore an A as a Junior, scoring a career high 8 Goals and 12 Assists, with a +2 Rating, making the ECAC Second All-Star Team. This year he was a Senior Captain, but his points fell slightly to 6 Goals and 11 Assists. His freshman year he had his highest +/- Rating at +10, making the ECAC All-Rookie Team and his Cornell was the ECAC Champion. He is a solid two-way D with an accurate shot, good stickhandling and the ability to effectively stickcheck opposing forwards. He also happens to have the Ivy League intelligence that the Pens like to have in their skaters. However, he projects as a Bottom 4 D, and as with many of the others, there are only so many openings and quite a number of more talented players in the way. But if he signs on and plays in Wheeling/WBS for a few years, he could make a case for hopping in as a 5/6 D.
As for the remaining defenders playing under minor contracts who could return to flesh out the WBS roster... Joey Mormina, the WBS Captain who wore an A last season, is a career AHL player who is 30 years old and 8 years removed from his NCAA days. A 6'7" 220lb blue liner, he played a shut-down role, often paired with Samuelsson, and finished the season with 3 Goals, 7 Assists, and a +5 Rating. It is hard to imagine him not returning next year. Cody Wild, a 25 year old career AHL player now 5 years in the league. He played under an AHL deal last season, but this year during the lockout he was stuck in Wheeling with so many other defensemen on the roster, but he led the Nailers D with 6 Goals and 20 Assists. After the lockout he signed an AHL deal, filling in as the 6/7 D and netting 2 Assists and a +4 Rating in 14 games. Finally, Peter Merth, the Nailers Captain who wore an A with the club last year, is now 3 years removed from college. He has 1 Goal and 16 Assists, with a -1 Rating. He signed on with WBS as a Black Ace after the Nailers season ended. At 6'3" 225lbs, he has nice size for a D, and at only 25 he could still find a future in the NHL, but its unlikely that it would be with the Penguins. However, he could certainly be back in Wheeling or even WBS next year, again depending on roster needs.
So looking at the roster and the possible additions, I would assume that next year we would see the usual NHL roster D of Letang, Orpik, Martin, Niskanen, Despres, and Engelland. Of the players that are likely to be ready for the NHL next year, I would assume Dylan Reese, if he gets resigned, would be the best option as he brings decent skill as well as veteran experience. However, there is a possibility that they could be looking to resign Eaton or Bortuzzo to flesh out the 7 NHL D, in which case their would be no room for an AHL player to move up. Or if they for some reason choose not to resign Reese, or one of the expiring NHL contracts, then the most likely to move up would be Samuelsson or Dumoulin. However, I would think Reese is the best option, as bringing him back could solve some of the veteran issue is coming years as aging players like Orpik, Martin, and Engelland are gone. That would allow us to use Despres-Letang, Orpik-Martin, and Niskanen-Reese, with Engelland filling in as his old 7th D role.
By 2014-15 when we have more openings on the roster our young D will have the opportunity to move up. They would still have Martin as the most veteran D, and more likely than not would have Letang locked up long term, and quite probably Despres resigned as he is one of the top young D. It is very hard to imagine not having Orpik, as he has spent his entire career here, or Engelland since we have had him for 6 years now, but they are both getting older and may not be viable options anymore in 2 years. Even Niskanen, who has not been overly spectacular, has been a solid addition to the D. However, Niskanen is slowly being supplanted by Despres and we don't necessarily need both, and Engelland at least can be easily replaced by other young D. If we don't have any of them, as assuming we had gone with the intended 2013-14 pairings and resigned Reese, that gives us 3 spots to fill. Dumoulin is a shoe-in, and assuming they pick him up for another year Samuelsson could be a good addition. That leaves a 7th D: McNeill, Ruopp, or Harrington may not be ready, and Harrington would be higher than 7th D anyway. Pouliot could be ready to jump directly into the NHL by then, but he could also spend a year in the AHL getting acclimated. So the final option would be resigning one of the expiring FAs, Niskanen, Orpik, or Engelland, to give the young prospects a little extra time to develop. Assuming the 7th D is some lesser Engelland/McNeill/Ruopp that could serve as a traditional 7th D, we could have Despres-Letang, Samuelsson-Martin, and Dumoulin-Reese, with somebody filling in as the 7th D. Although they could very well bring Pouliot straight it and pair him with Martin, moving Samuelsson to the 7th D.
The AHL D will partly depend on AHL contracts, but next year we could likely have Dumoulin, Harrington, Mormina, Samuelsson, McNeill, and Ruopp, with the possibility of seeing Grant or Wild back, or possibly even signing Seymour. By 2014-15 Dumoulin will have moved up, and possibly Samuelsson, while Maatta and Pouliot would be joining WBS. That would allow Maatta to rejoin Harrington, although looking at the remaining pairs it seems even more fitting to move Pouliot straight into the NHL so that we could keep Samuelsson with Mormina. Of course all of this speculation 2 years down the road is very difficult, because we have so many contracts running out it will be very hard to say who will still be here and how many openings there really will be. But long term future outlook, our top 6 NHL D would likely include Letang, Despres, Pouliot, Harrington, and Maatta.