Mar 1, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Kris Versteeg (23) controls the puck against Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Simon Despres (47) in the first period in a Stadium Series hockey game at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins Forced To Rely On Young Defensemen, And That’s A Good Thing


Feb 28, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (41) during practice the day before a Stadium Series hockey game at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

All things considered, the Pittsburgh Penguins have to be encouraged by the progress of recuperating defenseman Kris Letang.

According to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-ReviewLetang has resumed skating and exercising in recent days, gradually increasing his activity level after suffering a stroke in late January. The 26-year-old is still on blood thinners prescribed because of the small clot that led to the whole frightening ordeal.

The Penguins aren’t expecting Letang to play again this season, and his career is still in some question because of the small hole in his heart that was discovered last month. That birth defect could cause future strokes if addressed, so Letang’s doctors will have to discern the best treatment route if he wants to resume playing.

Meanwhile, Paul Martin (broken hand) is at least a couple of weeks away from returning to practice. He (24:23) and Letang (24:13) are first and second on the Penguins in average ice time, so the coaching staff has been forced to spread the workload around since the Olympic break.

Matt Niskanen‘s minutes are noticeably up, as the breakout blueliner hasn’t played less than 23 minutes since the season resumed Feb. 27. He’s topped 27 minutes in the two overtime games during that span, and he’s beaten the 25-minute plateau twice more.

Brooks Orpik has had to pick up the pace, too. The 33-year-old has played more than 23 minutes three times in the past five games, his first stretch like that since early October.

Not surprisingly, teenage sensation Olli Maatta is seeing more ice, getting upwards of 20 minutes in eight of the past nine contests. Even Rob Scuderi, clearly on the decline at age 34, has pushed past 21 minutes in five straight.

But perhaps the most interesting effect of the situation is the increased responsibility foisted upon Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres.

Although Niskanen, Orpik, Maatta and Scuderi are shouldering most of the work to make up for the absence of the Pens’ top two defensive thoroughbreds, Despres and Bortuzzo are now getting regular repetitions in game situations.

Their ice time hasn’t necessarily increased, but they are assured (barring injury) of getting into a game rhythm, which hasn’t always been the case during their fledgling NHL careers.

We’re going to find out a lot about those two this month, but more importantly, so is the Pittsburgh coaching staff.

Not only will the Penguins need Despres and Bortuzzo to excel in the coming weeks, they may also lean on them just as much in the future, as both Niskanen and Orpik could depart this offseason as free agents.

There’s a better-than-average chance the Pens re-sign at least one of those two, but remember that Letang’s long-term status is very much up in the air, and Martin has only one more season left on his contract.

Related: Former Penguin Troy Loney takes over operations of Youngstown Phantoms

At some point the Penguins are going to have to hand the blueline over to the kids. Both Despres, 22, and Bortuzzo, 24, qualify in that category, as do prime defensive prospects Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington a little further down the line.

What better way to find out about young players than in the crucible of March and April? This may not be the scenario the Penguins envisioned, but there is a definite benefit to be derived from it.

Tags: Pittsburgh Penguins Robert Bortuzzo Simon Despres

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