When the Penguins decided they could fit Kris Letang into their long-term salary structure, it made sense from watching 2013 that he needed an upgrade for a consistent partner. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin capably anchored a shutdown pair, leaving Letang to play with any and all of Matt Niskanen, Mark Eaton and Simon Despres, finding no long-term success or fits. Some felt that 21 year old Despres might get a chance for a longer-look, but with a limited NHL resume and still a promising future, throwing Despres into the deep end of heavy even-strength minutes probably has a bigger chance of failure than success, especially in the short-term.
With that, Pens GM Ray Shero moved to bring back Rob Scuderi into the fold through free agency last week. Scuderi, a steady and reliable player, can give the Pens their fourth true “top four” defenseman, rounding out a deep group of tested NHL players.
Signing Scuderi took a high price- Shero had to commit $3.375 million for four year for a defenseman who will turn 35 in December and already wasn’t the fleetest skater in his hey-day. The same could be argued with multi-year extensions each for Craig Adams (36 years old), Chris Kunitz (34 before next season starts) and Pascal Dupuis (34), who the Pens all committed term to players already old now and will be older still when their new contracts expire.
The Penguins motto seems clear: worry about what happens three years from now, three years from now. Worry about four years from now, four years from now.
And worry about now, now. The Penguins had a big hole in their top four, even if you’re bullish on Despres (which I personally am), he’s not going to give the stability and reasonably expected level of play that Scuderi can in 2013-14. Pittsburgh is now near the salary cap, but some moves can be made. Niskanen ($2.3 million cap hit) is a highly paid third pairing defenseman, and with Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland to fill out the NHL roster, Niskanen could be a target to trade and clear space. With youngsters like like Brian Dumoulin and even highly regarded AHL-bound prospect Scott Harrington waiting in the wings, the Pens still would have depth even if they moved Niskanen.
After losing Scuderi in the days following the Pens 2009 Stanley Cup, the Pens searched far and wide to replace him over the last four years. Dan Hamhuis’ rights were acquired and the team unsuccessfully tried to woo him in 2010. Zbynek Michalek was given big bucks in free agency in 2011. Douglas Murray was acquired for two second round picks this spring. It’s costly to find a skilled defensive defenseman, and as Shero admitted, he made a mistake in not finding a way to retain Scuderi. Given the Penguins recent defensive decencies, it might have cost the Penguins playoff series losses in 2010 and especially 2012.
Rob Scuderi is not a magic eraser capable of everything, but adding him back to the mix makes the Penguins a lot better and deeper defensively. Should the Pens trade Niskanen, they’ll basically be paying an extra $1 million dollars in Scuderi’s salary for that replacement. In a short-term vacuum, that makes sense and should be a positive move. Two or three years out, depending on how games unfold, it may be time to adjust again, but those problems can be addressed in the future. For now, the Pens are looking to put together a team around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that can win regular season games to gain entrance into the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. The formula they’ve used is to do it with depth at center and defense. That’s been a winning strategy, by and large, for the past seven years and should give them a shot at it again this year.