Mar 20, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; New York Islanders defenseman Mark Eaton (4) plays the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Islanders beat the Maple Leafs 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Penguins sign Mark Eaton, plus other random thoughts

As the Penguins announced today, 35-year-old defenseman Mark Eaton has signed a one-year, $725,000 contract with the team.

It had to feel like deja vu for Penguins general manager Ray Shero, as Eaton was one of Shero’s first free-agent signings after he took his current position in the summer of 2006. Eaton went on to play four seasons in black and gold, highlighted by his stout defensive effort during the 2009 Stanley Cup run, in which he averaged over 18 minutes of ice time while dressing in all 24 games that spring.

Since leaving Pittsburgh in 2010, Eaton played two years with the Islanders before signing a pro tryout with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after the lockout. The 12-year NHL veteran had been practicing with the big club in recent days.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Seth Rorabaugh wrote, the addition of Eaton immediately puts the status of rookie blueliners Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo in question. Despres had been an intermittent healthy scratch lately, with Bortuzzo being coach Dan Bylsma’s alternative to Despres in recent games.

Eaton won’t provide anywhere near the upside of Despres or the physical strength of Bortuzzo, but he is a known commodity. With the Penguins seeking to maximize their current roster, Eaton’s defensive instincts, shot blocking and penalty-killing ability would be welcomed among this mostly offensive-minded defense corps.

Other Penguins-related thoughts on this game-less Monday:

  • The addition of Eaton expanded the team’s number of available defenseman to eight, but it didn’t require a corresponding roster move as Evgeni Malkin was placed on the injured reserve due to lingering effects from Friday’s concussion. It certainly was a different experience watching the Penguins play Sunday with Sidney Crosby and without Malkin, as opposed to the other way around.
  • In that vein, I did enjoy seeing James Neal get an opportunity to skate on Crosby’s line, which was the intended spot for Neal when he was acquired two years ago. Of course, Neal and Malkin developed a rapport in the fall of 2011 with Crosby still recuperating from his concussion-related issues, but I trust Neal will fit in just fine on No. 87’s wing for as long as Malkin needs to return to health (and maybe longer).
  • Neal aside, the Penguin most eligible to benefit from Malkin’s absence is center Brandon Sutter. As the second-line pivot during Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory over Tampa Bay, Sutter got a chance to stretch his legs and take on an enhanced role in the attack. Sutter’s skating ability is elite and he appears to be more comfortable with the puck than he was in the opening 10 games or so. Look for No. 16 to start appearing more on the scoresheet.
  • Three goals allowed on 30 Lightning shots didn’t look great for Marc-Andre Fleury, but as often is the case with goaltending, analysis needs additional context. Fleury stopped Nate Thompson and Richard Panik on breakaways when a goal would’ve tied the game, and two of Tampa Bay’s scores came courtesy of fortunate bounces. Fleury is playing just as well as he did last season when he was in the running for team MVP, showing little reverberations from last year’s playoff flame-out. Of course, he’ll have a new hurdle to leap once the Cup chase begins again.
  • Finally, a quick look at the NHL’s proposed realignment plan, which is altered slightly from last winter’s trial balloon: This time around, the Board of Governors is set to vote on a four-conference format that is based almost entirely on time zones. It’s a clear win for Detroit and Columbus in particular, both of whom will be grouped with Eastern Time Zone clubs next season if the proposal passes. Television ratings for regional sports networks should benefit as well, with far fewer games starting at odd hours of the night. Not much will change for the Penguins, although welcoming Washington back into their division should be fun, as will having Ohio’s only NHL team on the schedule a few more times each year. I’ll have more on this if/when the change is made official.

Tags: Brandon Sutter Evgeni Malkin Mark Eaton Pittsburgh Penguins

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