Day 1 of the NHL Free Agent Frenzy is in the books, with more activity than we have seen in recent years, likely thanks to the unique situations created by compliance buyouts and the new pre-Free Agency interview window. There may still be another move or two remaining, particularly as players remain unsigned and start considering lesser offers than they had initially been seeking. We could also see a trade or two, particularly a high priced blue liner, which would allow us to fill the remaining holes amongst the forward depth, however as of now the team claims to be satisfied with being able to take this lineup into the start of the season and make changes throughout the year. So it is entirely possible that what we see now is what the Pittsburgh Penguins have to work with on opening day, so let's take a look at our roster as it stands.
NHL Roster Battles
The Penguins currently have 15 D under contract, with the makeup of the NHL lineup seemingly set. There are 5 players on 1way NHL contracts that we ca assume will be in the NHL lineup, most definitely Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Rob Scuderi plus almost certainly Robert Bortuzzo. Letang, Martin, and Ehrhoff will be used in the Top 4, and it is entirely possible that they plan to try Scuderi again in that role as well. Personally I don't think Scuderi should be in the Top 4, and would even prefer trading him to make room to fill other roster needs, but as of now he unfortunately appears to be in the team's plans for the start of the season.
Bortuzzo is an ideal #6/7 D, taking over the role formerly held by Engelland, but depending on how the roster battles in Camp play out he could find himself on the move. I highly doubt it, but considering his low Cap hit he could be moved to the AHL in order to create a roster spot for one of the young blue chip D. However, I doubt he would clear waivers, so basically we would be losing him for nothing. But if he is seen as not as good as other options they won't hesitate to make that decision. Although as I said, chances are he is on the opening night roster, and probably as a 3rd pair D.
We also have 2 pending RFAs that should they sign their Qualifying Offers would still be playing on 2way deals, but due to their experience are no longer exempt from waivers. Both Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson have reached the point in their careers where it is NHL or bust for them, so if they do come back we can pencil them into the NHL lineup. Despres has had 3 years to prove himself, and what we have seen is that he can be a decent #4/5 D ut is best suited to playing a 3rd pairing role. Samuelsson has a relatively low ceiling, so he is more of a #6/7 D like Bortuzzo, but we could see them all rotating as a 3rd pair.
We also signed a new veteran Taylor Chorney to a 2way deal, and like Despres and Samuelsson he must be placed on waivers in order to assign him to WBS. However, he was picked up with the intention of using him as an AHL veteran, and at his age and limited NHL experience the chances of another team claiming him is quite slim, so chances are he will be in WBS in the fall. The younger guys are more likely to get claimed if we were to try to waive them, although of the two Samuelsson has the better chance of making it back down the WBS. But then as we saw with Strait, there is no guarantee that a lower tier team wouldn't be willing to take a chance on a free D prospect.
We could have a decent blue line with this setup, but it is not ideal because it leaves no room for the better younger players to come up. In order for one of the other guys to make the NHL we would wither need to make a trade or risk losing a player via waivers, and as we have seen in past years the team tends to prefer retaining all their players, so the waiver exempt guys could find themselves playing in WBS just because they can freely move up and down as needed.
AHL Roster Battles
There are an additional 7 D playing under 2way deals that are waiver exempt and as such can move freely between the NHL and AHL as needed. That roster flexibility unfortunately sometimes works against them as they would prefer to move them down rather than risk losing a player on waivers. The most impressive of our blue chip D, and as such the most likely to make the NHL roster out of Camp, are unfortunately injured. Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta underwent off-season shoulder surgery and they are both expected to miss all the summer activities and as such will likely begin the year in WBS where they can slowly rehab from their injuries.
The rest of the guys will have a chance to compete for a spot on the NHL roster in Training Camp, but they have a long road ahead of them because barring a trade there are no obvious openings in the lineup. It is much more difficult to supplant a rostered player than it is to win a battle for a hole in the lineup, so they must be lights out better than the rest of the competition if they hope to make the team. If anybody can do that, it will be Brian Dumoulin, who by all accounts is ready to play a Top 4 role in the NHL.
The others that stand a chance of making a splash at Camp and winning a roster spot are Scott Harrington and Reid McNeill. However, both are less experienced than Dumoulin and especially the other players who are assumed to be on the NHL lineup and as of last year were further down the depth chart. So chances are they will return to WBS, and as former partners when they played in London it wouldn't be a shock to see them play together as a shutdown pairing.
Even further down the depth chart are Harrison Ruopp and Nick D`Agostino, who last season found themselves in and out of the lineup as 3rd pair D in WBS who occasionally got shuffled back and forth between Wheeling. So I would be incredibly surprised if they did not return to WBS, although with injuries and the possibility of some players graduating to the NHL they might get to play a bigger role this season.
So there are some roster battles that will need to play out in Camp, plus some uncertainty in whether or not players will be assigned to WBS or if they could be wind up being claimed off waivers, before we can really determine what the WBS depth chart will look like on opening night, but there is enough there to start making assumptions and create some possible pairings.
The Pens also still have 3 unsigned D that will be here during the summer for Prospect Development Camp but must return to school and as such won't be available for Training Camp, not that they stood any chance of making the lineup anyway. Dane Birks will be starting his Freshman year after playing last season in the BCHL, while Ryan Segalla and this year's 7th round pick Jeff Taylor will be returning for their Sophomore seasons.