On the first day of Free Agency the Pittsburgh Penguins signed Defenseman Rob Scuderi, formerly of the Los Angeles Kings. In a recent interview after the signing, GM Ray Shero claimed that letting Scuderi go was one of his biggest regrets, and he was proud to be able to rectify the situation. The dollar amount and length were perhaps troubling, 4 year $3.375M deal with a Limited No Movement Clause. For a team that was already struggling to find a way to fit under the Cap, this signing pushed us over the edge and guaranteed our inability to re-sign prominent free agent Matt Cooke or actively shop around for replacement depth forwards (but that's another show). As it stands now, counting the qualifying offers to our two RFAs that spent the season in Pittsburgh last year, we are $588k over the Salary Cap and only have 22 players on the NHL roster.
Something Has to Give
In order to fit back under the Cap the Penguins will have to move a high paid player, somebody that allows enough Cap relief to not only be back under the Cap, but also to fit in 2 more roster bodies while also leaving some wiggle room to use for mid-season injury call-ups. Even using players on minimum contracts, we would need to clear out $2M+ in Cap space going forward. As it stands, we also currently have 8 NHL defensemen under contract, but usually we go into the season with 7, so defense seems like the logical place to make some room. Our young defensemen, Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo, do not make enough to cover our Cap overage, nor does veteran 7th D Deryk Engelland. Obviously Scuderi himself is untouchable, as acquiring him is what caused this problem. So who do we move?
One option is Paul Martin, whose $5M Cap Hit is the largest of any of the other defenders on the team. It has been widely acknowledged that he has been overpaid since joining the team, and we would be quite capable of replacing him with more affordable options. Especially considering that his $5M would also be in play next season when some of our pricey extensions kick in, so trading him now would also help alleviate Cap pressure the following season. However, he played rather well last year, and our internal options for replacing him are likely to be at least a year away. Although his play last year makes it so his trade value is pretty much as high as it has ever been, so trading him now would net a decent return, and we do now have Scuderi as a replacement Top 4 defender.
Another option is veteran defensive defenseman Brooks Orpik. His $3.75M Cap Hit would be enough to get us comfortably under the Cap, but at his age and with his lack of offensive output one would think that his trade value would be rather low. There were also suggestions that Shero was in talks with him about signing a multiple year extension, and of course his physicality, and especially his PK ability, is not something that can be replicated by our internal options. Of course there is also Kris Letang and his $3.5M Cap Hit, but if Orpik's physical play would be difficult to replace, Letang's offensive skill would be nearly irreplaceable, especially since the only internal options that even come close are still at least a year away. However, his newly signed extension coupled with his skill with the puck makes his trade value astronomical. It is incredibly unlikely that he would be traded, but just imagine the possibilities of what we could get in return.
That leaves Matt Niskanen as the most likely choice. His $2.3M Cap Hit would be just enough to get us back under the Salary Cap Ceiling, as well as leaving us just barely enough room for one mid-season injury call-up. Of course those figures are all assuming the 2 roster bodies that slot in to flesh out the season opening roster are playing for league minimum, and that would only leave enough room for one additional injury replacement that makes league minimum. So it is less than ideal, but it is the bare minimum we could do to remain Cap compliant. Of course trading Niskanen would benefit him as well, as on our team he was unlikely to move on beyond a 3rd pair D, but on a team with less depth he could certainly slot in as a Top 4 D and get more time on both the PP and PK. Of course it is also entirely possible that they trade off both Martin and Niskanen, which would free up a large chunk of Cap space and allow us to actively shop for quality Check line wingers, spending nearly $5M on two 3rd line wingers and still allowing nearly $1M to use for mid-season injury call-ups. Of course doing so would result in us promoting either Brian Dumoulin or Philip Samuelsson to the NHL.
Where Does This Piece Fit?
Who Scuderi plays with really depends on who we trade off to make room for him. Prior to his acquisition, it was assumed that our Top 4 would be Despres-Letang and Orpik-Martin, which would have caused the 3rd pair to be Niskanen with Bortuzzo or Engelland. Now that we have Scuderi, we have to decide whether we slot him into the Top 4, regardless of who we trade, or whether we simply use him as a replacement for whoever we trade.
With the most obvious choice being that we move Niskanen, that would mean that slotting Scuderi into place would give us Scuderi-Bortuzzo as a 3rd pair. This actually sounds like quite a compelling combination. The last time we had Scuderi, he was part of our old Scuderi-Gill shutdown pair. Down in WBS, Bortuzzo was part of the old Strait-Bortuzzo shutdown pair, which was quite often referred to as being reminiscent of the departed Scuderi-Gill combo. So combining the two of them together would give us quite a formidable shutdown pair. Of course the issue here is that we had already complained that it was too much to pay Niskanen $2.3M as a 3rd pair D, so Scuderi's $3.375M would be even worse.
So our other option is to slot Scuderi into the Top 4. If we trade Niskanen and use Scuderi as a Top 4 D, it means that Despres once again gets shoved aside and stuck getting limited minutes on the 3rd pair. Doing so also has the unfortunate side effect of either pairing him with Engelland, which we saw was not particularly effective last year, or pairing him with Bortuzzo, which would mean two young inexperienced players sharing the ice together. Neither option instills me with confidence in the 3rd pair. However, we would have a couple of compelling choices in the Top 4. One would be to simply keep Orpik-Martin together and use Scuderi-Letang. Scuderi would be a solid defensive anchor that would be able to cover for Letang in our end, allowing Letang to play the free wheeling offensive style he prefers. Although considering that was the intention of signing Letang's former D partner Mark Eaton last season, and they didn't quite work out well together, I'm not sure how effective it would be. The other choice would be to reunite Orpik-Letang, which we know works really well together, and use Scuderi-Martin as a shutdown pair. That would be my preferred arrangement if we are keeping Martin and slotting Scuderi into the Top 4.
However, it is also entirely possible that we would be trading Martin, as that frees up a lot more Cap space than Niskanen would. This would also allow us to move Scuderi up to the Top 4 without having to relegate Despres to the 3rd pair. Of course this would require playing somebody (most likely Scuderi) on his non-dominant side, but fortunately Scuderi is used to playing on either the left or right side of the ice. One option would be to slot Scuderi directly in for Martin, giving us a new shutdown pair of Orpik-Scuderi whilst leaving the Despres-Letang combo intact. This would give us a shutdown pair far more similar to the old Scuderi-Gill combo, but far less offensively capable of last year's Orpik-Martin. So our other choice would be to reunite Orpik-Letang and use Despres-Scuderi. This would allow him to mentor the young D the way he did in LA.
Then there is also the option of trading off both Martin and Niskanen. Doing so would require promoting one of our young D from WBS. Although which player you promote would probably depends on what role you need to fill. If we promote Dumoulin, it would have to be with the intention of playing him in the Top 4, because otherwise he would be much better off remaining in WBS as the #1 D. Using Dumoulin would bump Despres down to the 3rd pair, allow us to reunite Orpik-Letang, and have Scuderi mentor Dumoulin the way he did with young offensively talented D in LA. However, if Dumoulin cannot be used in the Top 4, we would be better off bringing up Samuelsson, as he is a much better fit as a #6/7D. Doing so would once again give us the option of reuniting Orpik-Letang or keeping Despres-Letang as one of the Top 4 combos, and would give us Bortuzzo paired with Samuelsson or Engelland.
What Does Scuderi Bring to the Team?
With all the long winded Cap analysis and depth chart possibilities out of the way, we can look at what exactly Scuderi is capable of doing for the Pens. We all remember when he was in Pittsburgh he was famously paired with Hal Gill as our shutdown pair. After our Stanley Cup victory in 2009, the Pens let Scuderi walk in free agency and he spent the past 4 seasons playing for the Kings. During that time he paired with and mentored Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, and Slava Voynov. These were some of the best point scoring defensemen on the team, although unlike Scuderi they also all saw a significant amount of time on the PP. In recent years Scuderi's role on the PK increased, so his skill set includes being an excellent shut-down defensemen, an asset to the Penalty Kill, and the ability to mentor and improve the performance of offensively minded partners. So no matter which of our defensemen we pair him with he should be able to contribute nicely.
Offensively he was never been a factor, his career high 16 Points coming in our 2009 Penguins season, which also happens to be his career year for playoff stats, scoring his only career playoff Goal and netting 5 total Points. However, we are not looking to him to bring offense to the team, but to be a solid defensive addition to the blue line. Unfortunately, his career high +/- Rating of +23 was also achieved in our 2009 season. He maintained a high +/- Rating in his first season in LA, but over the years has fallen off until he has become amongst the lowest on the team. Although considering he had a quality defensive partner in Pittsburgh and was asked to play a simple stay at home game, but in LA was paired with offensive D like Voynov, Doughty, and Johnson, it makes sense that his +/- Rating would suffer.
However, while he may not be the most offensively minded player, he was quite capable of racking up a decent amount of Hits and an impressive number of Blocked Shots and Takeaways over the years. During our 2009 Cup run Scuderi led the D in +/- Rating, Blocked Shots, and Takeaways. When he joined LA he continued this trend, being one of the most prolific Shot Blockers and Takeaway specialists on the team. So defensively he can still bring a lot to the table. Don't expect him to bring a lot of positive Possession though, as his numbers were on the low end for most of his career. He is a simple stay at home guy, best in his own zone. So perhaps he would be best served if he is not called upon to pair with and cover up for an offensively minded defenseman, and perhaps he would be better served getting to face a slightly lesser QoC than he would as the top shut-down D. Although he would certainly be a compelling option on the PK.
There isn't an awful lot of quotes to find about the play style of a non-prospect, but I was able to come across this:
Assets - "Keeps the game simple on most nights and has exemplary team skills. Blocks shots and is most effective in penalty-killing situations. Can shut forwards down."
Flaws - "Doesn't own ideal puck-moving skills for the blueline position and has limited talent, overall. Struggles when handling the puck, especially when he plays on the right side."
Potential - "Savvy veteran defensive defenseman."