Pittsburgh Penguins 2011-12 Season Preview: Defense

By Troy Pfaff

Boasting arguably the best top-four defensive squad in the entire National Hockey League, defense is certainly a strong suit for Pittsburgh.

Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang make up one of the most complimentary defensive pairings in the league, while Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin comprise a much-better-than-good “second” pair.

The team’s third pairing will consist of any two of Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland.

Niskanen, who performed very poorly in the playoffs last season, has been solid in camp and in the preseason, and the coaches have taken notice. At this point, it seems like he will have a spot in the lineup on most nights.

The most important thing I can write about in regards to defensemen might be the power play. While Letang looked like one of the best blueliners in the entire league both offensively and defensively for the first 41 games of last season, his numbers took a huge hit when Sidney Crosby went down. He finished the season with eight goals and 50 points – 24 of which came on the power play – which are still solid numbers.

If Letang can take another step toward becoming a potent power play quarterback and reign his slap shot in toward the net a little more often, he could be a viable Norris Trophy candidate for best defenseman in the league. At just 24 years of age, that’s pretty good.

If Letang struggles while man up, though, the Penguins’ power play could post some abysmal numbers yet again. Paul Martin has shown very little skill the power play (at least in Pittsburgh), and Zbynek Michalek isn’t offensive-minded enough, although his slap shot could be a force from the point. Hopefully Letang will take the power play reigns and we won’t have to worry about this.

I hate to do this, but one player I’m a tad worried about is Orpik. He’s 31 years old now. That’s generally the later stages of a hockey player’s prime. I’m worried, though, that his physical style of play could take some years off his game, and that we may start seeing those effects this season.

Orpik’s number of games played has decreased in each of the last two seasons. He’s even injured at the moment and his status for tonight’s game is still uncertain. That’s really the only thing I have, I just have a bad feeling. I love the guy – he’s probably my favorite defenseman – but I don’t have a good vibe for this season for him. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Prediction: Kris Letang – 11 G, 48 A, 59 P. A year or two away from a Norris nomination.

Check out the rest of my Pittsburgh Penguins 2011-12 Season Preview: Center | Wing |Goalie/Team

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