The recent news that rookie defenseman Olli Maatta and blueline prospect Derrick Pouliot will both be rehabbing surgically repaired shoulders this summer shouldn’t detract from the one imperative I’d give the Pittsburgh Penguins for the 2014-15 regular season.
For the love of all things holy, go young on defense.
For the past eight months, we witnessed a Penguins team woefully short on forward depth, and whoever takes over Ray Shero’s old office at Consol Energy Center should devote most of free-agent signing period to finding legitimate NHL wingers (and maybe another center) to fill out the four lines.
According to CapGeek.com, the Pens project to have about $15 million in space under next season’s salary cap. That should be more than enough to make a meaningful difference up front. There’s also the possibility the new general manager decides to jettison one of the team’s bigger salaries, such as Kris Letang ($7.25 million), James Neal ($5 million) or Paul Martin ($5 million), via trade.
To be clear, I don’t advocate dealing any of those three. Letang is a rare talent whose trade value figures to be lower than usual due to his recent stroke. Neal has shown the ability to be a 40-goal sniper when paired with Evgeni Malkin. Martin is worth every penny for his puck-control skills, and his current contract will be off the books in 2015-16 anyway.
Besides, when it comes to Martin and Letang, the Penguins will need veterans on the back line if they do what they should and hand the keys over to some of the promising defenders they’ve drafted and developed over the past several years.
Scott Harrington should start next fall in the NHL, as should Simon Despres. Philip Samuelsson deserves a long look and the same goes for Brian Dumoulin. Pouliot may be hampered by his shoulder rehab, but I’d like to see him get an opportunity in Pittsburgh as soon as he gets back into game shape.
It’s time for the Penguins to find out what they have on defense. Let Brooks Orpik walk. Don’t sign pending free agent Matt Niskanen unless he’s willing to take below market value. It may be scary, but as long as the Pens make the playoffs next year, it won’t be a wasted season at the NHL level.
As we know, all you have to do is make the tournament and you have a chance. With Martin, Letang, Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo and a (hopefully) improved Rob Scuderi on the roster, there’s enough experience on the blue line to support a handful of rookies making the transition to the world’s best league.
Competing for a championship in a salary cap world requires getting major contributions from inexpensive players. That’s not going to be the case at forward for the Penguins, but they have an opportunity to get great value from a host of talented youngsters on defense.
Will it be a risk? Yes, but it’s one they need to take.