One of the biggest conversations I see fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins having is usually about what to do about the surplus of defenders on the roster, and what could be done to best utilized such a big group of players.
The Penguins’ coaching staff has put a short-term solution in the works by shifting Deryk Engelland from defense to winger, but what happens when all of their defenseman return to 100 percent? Will that ever actually be a problem?
Having the (unfortunate) luck of injuries to occur that keeps the defense from being 100 percent has put the Penguins’ depth to the full test. If all had gone to plan, Olli Maatta might have never got a chance to play in the NHL this year, but a string of injuries have presented the opportunity, an opportunity he has ran with.
When Kris Letang returned from injury, it gave the Penguins a fully healthy squad on the back end, but it lasted less than two games, when Rob Scuderi was injured and required surgery to help with his broken ankle.
But what would the Penguins do if they ever returned to full health and stayed that way? Would they ride it out with eight (seven and a half really) defenseman, or could they make a move? Engelland could be an option to be moved, either by waivers or trade, all though he may have found a niche as a fourth-line winger, which could potentially keep him safe.
By keeping Maatta past the nine-game limit, the Penguins burnt one of his contract years, but if they were to send him back to his junior team before he hits the 40-game mark, it would keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent a year earlier. Ray Shero has said he is here to stay, but if playing time becomes scarce on the bottom pair, it could be an interesting option.
The most common scenario that comes up is a trade of one of their top defenders to not only clear some cap room, but to add another piece to the puzzle, either player, prospect or pick. The name that surfaces the most is Matt Niskanen, the 26-year defender who is a pending free agent this season. Another name is Paul Martin, who has become what Sergei Gonchar was to Penguins fans during his tenure, a man that despite his success cannot escape a rocky start to his Penguins’ career.
Martin has become the backbone of this defense, leading in ice time, and good for ninth most in the league. He has certainly become that two-way defender that Shero had hoped he would become. So, does that make him a better trade bait than Niskanen? Which would you rather have?
In my opinion, Niskanen is the better long-term fit. In Letang’s absence he showed that he is a legitimate top-four defender, and is on pace to blow by his former career high in points of 35 (on pace for 49). Niskanen is also tied for second among defenseman in plus/minus with a +11 rating.
So, if the opportunity presented itself and the Penguins decided to move a defender, which would you move? The certainty that Martin brings, or the potential upside Niskanen still hasn’t quite tapped into?
It’s a question in which we will likely never see the answer, but a fun and interesting one indeed to look at.
Anthony Murphy is a contributing writer for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AMurphyTFC.