While a lot of fans are focusing on the changes in the Pittsburgh Penguins bottom six forwards, the ones on the defense might be just as interesting.
The top of the lineup is set- Kris Letang and Paul Martin will be joined by newcomer Christian Ehrhoff. All three are very good players who can log big-time minutes against tough competition, play power play, play short-handed, basically log 23-25 minutes doing whatever the team needs.
The bottom of the lineup is a lot more intriguing, and a lot messier. It's storylines we've gone over all summer: overpaid veteran Rob Scuderi will get a chance to bounce back from a really bad year (whether or not he can improve, is another story). Robert Bortuzzo, one of the few players on the roster with size, toughness and a right-handed shot, is probably a lock to make the team in some role too.
Then we get to all the younger guys. Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot each had shoulder surgery in late May. Simon Despres was given a one-way, two-year contract and might finally get the chance to stick in the NHL. Brian Dumoulin has grown into a force at the AHL level. Scott Harrington had a very good professional rookie season. Philip Samuelsson would require waivers if he has to be sent down. Dumoulin and Harrington wouldn't.
Of the five players mentioned directly above, there's room for two coming out of training camp, should the team suffer no injuries. Keeping three would mean 8 defensemen, something the team doesn't like for practices, and a luxury that might not be affordable given the snug salary cap position the team is in.
The working assumption had been that Maatta would need more time to rehab, but coach Mike Johnston said Maatta"could get some good news" and be cleared for contact in time for the start of training camp. With three weeks until the regular season starts, if he can practice and is fit to play, Maatta's return would change the dynamic.
Suddenly, barring a trade or injury, there would likely only be one spot open for Despres, Dumoulin, Harrington and Samuelsson to fight it out for. (Pouliot, Johnston announced, isn't ready to be cleared for contact yet, and is a lock to start the year in the minors, whenever he is fit to play). With Despres given a two-year deal, it could be he's in the driver seat with the waiver eligible Dumoulin and Harrington a victim of the numbers game, and leaving a decision to be made on Samuelsson.
Do they try to waive Samuelsson and sneak him through on the big cut-down day? Looking across the league, there will be multiple teams with logjams like the Penguins will encounter. St. Louis has 8-9 NHL caliber defenseman, Boston has 7 (plus RFA Torey Krug), Tampa has a glut of veterans, the Rangers probably will be sending a decent D down and Anaheim might have to waive a solid player or stash a youngster in the minors.
Is there a possible trade available? Remains to be seen, but with so many teams (including Pittsburgh) so tight to the salary cap, it doesn't seem to beneficial or realistic at this point. But, of course at this point camp hasn't opened and rosters are as healthy as they ever will be, so who knows.
Either way, the good news for the Penguins is that it seems Maatta is ahead of schedule. If he has to be taken into account for the opening night roster, that's a domino to fall for another young defenseman.