Published on January 29th, 2013 | by James Conley0
Penguins Weekend Cap: Niskanen Injury Magnifies Pens’ Defensive Problems
Pittsburgh endured a rough home opener and Canadian road trip after beating Philadelphia and the Rangers in rather convincing fashion. The Pens dropped a pair of listless games against the overmatched but harder-working Maple Leafs and Jets, surrendering 9 goals in two games before correcting their defensive efforts in a 2-1 shootout win over the Senators on Sunday.
The Pens emerge from their first five games with six points, the Matt Niskanen injury and more than one question mark surrounding the make-up and cohesion of the current unit.
We were in the cut all weekend and 4G service would have been as good as gold. So short of the game precaps and recaps we’re trying to keep up with this season, let’s review the major storylines to emerge from the season’s first five contests.
Beginning with the big one – how to replace Niskanen?
Pittsburgh’s defense was thought to be its greatest vulnerability heading into the season, but the new-look pairings of Niskanen-Letang and Martin-Orpik were very solid through four and a half games. Sunday, Niskanen crashed oddly into the boards and didn’t return.
Tuesday, the Penguins announced he won’t be returning for 2-4 weeks.
“Our lineup will obviously be adding a defenseman (Tuesday), which will be a game-time decision,” Bylsma said.
The challenge now is replacing Niskanen’s minutes without suffering a noticeable drop in defensive effectiveness. It’s going to be a tall task for whichever player steps into the role.
Alongside Letang, Niskanen averaged over 21:00 TOI, still fourth-most on the team despite limited special teams time. Deryk Engelland and Simon Despres averaged less than 12 minutes per game and are the likely candidates to replace him. Robert Bortuzzo, another defenseman on the 23-man roster, hasn’t appeared in a game this season.
The Penguins will have to trust someone to step into Niskanen’s role. Is Despres ready for genuine minutes and a full role as Letang’s defensive partner? He’s the most talented of the team’s bottom-four defensemen, so the job is there for the taking. He’s also played three games, albeit with the expected growing pains.
Here’s how Pittsburgh’s bottom-three defensemen (Bortuzzo emitted) have fared this season.
5 GP, 0 points, minus-1, 11 PIM, 11:53 ATOI, 5 SOG
2 GP, o points, minus-1, 0 PIM, 13:32 ATOI, 3 SOG
3 GP, 1 assist, 1 point, minus-1, 4 PIM, 9:58 ATOI, 1 SOG
Of the three, Engelland has the most experience and the most regular playing time this season, although none of the three is even approaching Niskanen, Orpik, Letang or Martin in ice time (each averaging more than 21:00 minutes) or responsibilities (special teams, top-line assignments, etc.) Despres has seen perhaps the most time with Letang, and the staff would be crazy to break up the Orpik-Martin tandem right now.
Engelland has a definite ceiling and Lovejoy has been inexcusably poor in his limited time (the lone goal surrendered Sunday came as Lovejoy was caught behind a Senators breakout that began with him in Craig Anderson’s crease). Bortuzzo has been Wilkes-Barre’s best defenseman for sometime but is a complete unknown at the NHL level.
The Penguins have options to replace Niskanen, though few good ones and almost none with any sort of great experience. Their most experienced option may be Mark Eaton, who is currently with Wilkes-Barre on a pro tryout contract.
Is it time to throw Despres feet-first into the fire? He only has one season of professional experience but is a former first-round pick with a very high ceiling. He and Letang also have some experience as a pairing.
Injuries were always going to be a magnified concern in the owner lockout-shortened season. The Pens were lucky in that regard until Niskanen’s injury Sunday. They’ll have the chance to fill the void with one or two of their highly-touted defensive prospects, starting Tuesday against the Islanders.