The Pittsburgh Penguins have officially begun training camp. They invited 53 skaters to their new UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, including 32 forwards, 17 defensemen and four goaltenders. Only two of those players remain without a contract, forward Tom Sestito and defenseman Sergei Gonchar are on professional try-out contracts.
There are a lot of forwards who are a lock to make the roster, but the blue line is very unclear. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford spoke with Wes Crosby of NHL.com and had this to say about their defensive situation.
Our defense, it’s time now. … We’ll watch our defense, because it is a little bit younger. We’ll see how that goes in the first half of the season. We want to start with eight defensemen just based on the competition we have going here. Each individual will take care of itself, based on how they play. Certainly, Gonchar will be a guy everybody will be watching. He’s had a very good career. We’ll see how much he has left. Can he keep the tempo? But he’s a smart player. I think he can contribute to our team. Now, we just have to watch these games.
The plan all offseason has been described as going younger and cheaper on defense and there are quite a few players who fit that mold. There are eight players that will likely get a long look to start the season on the roster: Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Dumoulin, Rob Scuderi and Gonchar.
The only two who have been penciled into a certain pairing are Letang and Maatta who will act as the Penguins top pairing. After that, it’s an open competition. Gonchar is only on a professional try-out contract, but it looks like he has a solid chance to make the roster.
So now what do the Penguins do with all of their defensemen? Here’s a look at what their options are with each player.
- Letang: Top pairing – No Movement Clause
- Maatta: Top pairing
- Pouliot: Top four? – AHL demotion possible
- Cole: Second pairing – No trade protection, but just signed a three-year extension
- Lovejoy: Bottom pairing – No trade protection and the last year of his contract
- Dumoulin: Bottom pairing? – AHL demotion requires waivers
- Scuderi: Bottom pairing – Limited No Trade Clause
- Gonchar: ? – Professional Try-out Contract
All contract information – per GeneralFanager.com
So of the mentioned defenders Pouliot, Lovejoy, Cole, Dumoulin and Gonchar all could be cut/traded/demoted. They clearly have a lot of options, but what do the Penguins do with Scuderi? He’s been less than impressive since returning to Pittsburgh and he counts $3.375 million against the salary cap. He will not be easy to trade and the extent of his no trade clause is not known.
Could Pittsburgh actually scratch a defender who makes that much money every night? Or could the Penguins be planning to keep all eight and develop some sort of rotation?
For those who like contemplating defensive combinations, here’s what happened during the Penguins’ first day of training camp.
If you're looking to read too much into defense pairs, a few pertinent ones have looked like this: 3-58 51-12 8-28 55-2 4-33 (McNeill)
— Jason Mackey (@Mackey_Trib) September 18, 2015
If we’re going to assume there’s any validity to what happens in training camp, Scuderi looks to be the one who could be on the move. However, it is just the first day of training camp and many combinations will be experimented with before the season starts. The preseason is an NHL club’s perfect time to experiment, some prospects play games and line groupings are rarely concrete.
The Penguins have a lot of defenders and seeing what the final product turns out to be will be a key component to watch throughout camp.