The 2016-2017 season will hopefully be known as the season of defense as the Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions and as always, there are some questions about their defensemen.
Much has been written about the last time a team won the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons but we should focus on what will drive another successful run and that's the team's defensemen.
A lot of questions were hopefully answered about Kris Letang as a number one defensemen but even after a Stanley Cup run, there's still plenty to be asked about the other defensemen who will start the season on the roster and maybe even more on those who won't be.
Brian Dumoulin long expected to be top six defensemen turned in a superb defensive season as a top four defensemen and then on the top pairing with Letang in the finals against San Jose. If Dumoulin repeats his strong defensive play, it will be open up more offensive opportunities for Letang to use his natural talents without worrying to cover a partner.
As for Dumoulin's long-term status, a strong start to the season should parlay into a contract extension as he's restricted free agent after the season. Jim Rutherford doesn't like to wait around on such deals so by the end of November, a deal could be struck to keep this improving defensemen around a long time.
We saw the same thing happen last season with Olli Maatta, so with long-term security the question for Olli is more about returning back to health after a few years of shoulder surgeries, hip/back injury from a fall into the boards, mumps, and a concussion.
Maatta's skating really was a struggle last year and it effected his positioning. It was so bad at times, he looked like Rob Scuderi out on the ice. After having a short summer off to train and play for Finland in the World Cup of Hockey, the biggest boost this season can come with Maatta. He's a proud player with talent, if he's healthy the Penguins will benefit.
It appears Maatta will start the season with Trevor Daley, another guy who is working his way back from an injury. Daley's broken ankle in the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay robbed him of his dream to play in the Stanley Cup Finals and though he wasn't able to play, Sidney Crosby's first Cup handoff to him spoke volumes about what Crosby and his teammates thought about Daley the person.
Sadly, two weeks after raising the Stanley Cup, Daley's mother lost her battle with cancer.
Daley for whatever reason didn't play well in Chicago and once he got to Pittsburgh, he was an instant success. He was the man who took the reigns when Letang had to sit out a game due to a suspension. If Daley's ankle is fine and he's able to pickup where he left off, he'll be one of the key motivated players throughout the season to get back and play in the Stanley Cup Finals.
On the third pairing, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz should see the bulk of the time here. Cole's season was mainly a disappointment until Mike Sullivan took over and injuries cracked open the door for him to be a steady influence on on the penalty-kill and most importantly, a defense partner that could play with Schultz.
While some teams coming off a title can start slow, both Cole and Schultz are guys who could see reduced playing time if either struggle. The team made a surprising decision to place David Warsofsky on waivers, so it appears Derrick Pouliot will be the 7th defensemen.
Pouliot has shown to be in better physical shape but his performance on the ice is quite another. He's still not making good decisions with the puck, one shift against the Red Wings, he made two suicide passes to teammates that thankfully didn't result in an injury.
Pouliot's still not a strong defender around the net and with those struggles to read the play and react accordingly, it is a curious move to have him sitting as a healthy scratch in the NHL and not get important minutes playing in Wilkes-Barre.
Which leads to the biggest question for the Penguins, do they have the depth to withstand one injury to the top six or struggling player who needs to sit for a few games?
Besides a questionable Pouliot in the NHL and Warsofsky in WB/S, they have veteran AHL defensemen Steve Olesky and Tim Erixon available for recall. A tight salary cap without another high salaried player placed on long-term injured reserve will put the Penguins in a bind if short-term injuries mount throughout the season.
And for a change, the prospect depth chart on defense is worse than at forward.
Keep your prospect watching down on Ethan Prow and Lukas Bengtsson. The Penguins really need both players to develop because the expansion draft looms and pending unrestricted free agency for Daley, who turns 33 today.
Mock Expansion Drafts
Speaking of the expansion draft, Las Vegas has already started their mock expansion drafts this weekend, six months prior to the June 20th draft. They will be evaluating player's current/projected performance, salary, length of contract, impact on salary cap, and age. Players selected must account for about $48.3 million (60% of cap).
Throughout the season, I'll be ranking the forwards for the Penguins in order to evaluate possible impact for the team coming to the trade deadline and offseason planning.
The Penguins have to protect anyone with a no movement clause so that automatically means Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury would be on their protected list. I also think it is a slam dunk to assume they'll go with the 7 fowards, 3 defensemen and 1 goaltender protection list.
No surprise here, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin fill out the two remaining spots on defense.
At forward, ranking the top four remaining spots and those looking on the outside doesn't look to be too tricky based on the team's current depth chart. The next four forwards would likely be Patrick Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson.
Bonino is an unrestricted free agent after the season but I don't expect the Penguins to let him walk if the chemistry remains with Hagelin and Kessel. In fact, I'm guessing by November a deal could be done.
Right now, I have Wilson ranked higher than Eric Fehr, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Oskar Sundqvist. While plenty has been said about Sundqvist's potential as a third or fourth line center, it might not matter if Bonino is retained and Wilson can play well on a line with Malkin or Crosby.
Another reason is that Penguins might look at Carter Rowney as a fourth line center and he's not eligible to be taken in the draft and as I wrote last week, if Rutherford decides he wants to keep Murray without trading Fleury, then he'll probably have to offer some talent to Las Vegas to retain his rights.