Blueline Beat: The Road So Far

With this being the All-Star break and being a little over the halfway point of the season, here's my look back at how the defensemen have performed so far.

In the midst of all the injuries to the defensemen, Brooks Orpik has stepped up even more as a team leader this year. He has spoken up when the team was in their slump and will not mince words. He is a monster in terms of physicality: in 41 games played he has racked up 145 hits. He does not provide a lot of offense, but with 10 points so far, he has the potential to beat his total last year (13 points). He is a valuable veteran presence to this defense.

Kris Letang had an unfortunate 21-game absence due to a concussion, but upon his return he looks like he hasn't skipped a beat. In his first four games back, he has averaged just over 26 minutes of ice time. It is apparent that his rigorous conditioning has paid off. Letang has a wicked shot that can find his way through traffic. The power play is his to QB and he has shown to be a threat on it either at the point or roaming towards the net. Any mistakes he makes are few and far between. Currently he is averaging about one point per game, which we can continue to expect throughout the rest of the season.

If there was an award for "most improved since last season", that would go to Matt Niskanen. He improved his game because he had to to earn a roster spot on a team rich with defensemen. Niskanen had a strong training camp and has a total of 16 points during the first half of the season, which has already surpassed his total last season. Niskanen really had a chance to stand out while he luckily avoided injury while other players went down. He is making smarter decisions on the ice and is a good skater. However, he has fallen into a bit of a lull in the point department lately, with only one assist in the last 11 games. A little bit more consistency in that regard would be a good thing for him to work on.

Deryk Engelland is another defenseman who has improved his game this season. He has earned 12 points so far this year, surpassing his point total in 63 games played last season. Like Orpik, he is another physical presence on the blueline and is willing to drop the gloves. Engelland has the ability to make a good shot, but we do not get to see it too often. With the effort he puts out though, he is a solid presence on that final pairing on the Pens defense.

Paul Martin has been the topic of many conversations this season, and many of them have had a negative tone. His $5 million salary brings a lot of complaints, especially this season, because he has not had the best run. He found some difficulties in the absence of his partner Michalek and has been a minus the whole season. Many times he is on the ice against difficult top-line opponents where he has struggled. He has the tendency to get caught up ice at times. As of late though, his game has started to pick up. He sits at 16 points this season and his chemistry with Michalek is starting to show again. Bylsma has recently defended his play. While he can make a bad play, just as quickly he can turn around and help set up a goal. Martin can log a lot of minutes without much difficulty. I wouldn't write him off just yet.

Zbynek Michalek is another player who has been plagued with the injury bug this year. In terms of his strengths, he is a great shutdown defenseman who you do not see making many mistakes. He is a key member of the team's penalty kill unit and a great shot blocker. Michalek has a solid shot, but does not use it enough. It seems like when he does, it is right in a spot where the goaltender can make an easy save. With a little bit more variety there, he can be a greater threat offensively. In spite of that, he is a key member of this team's defense.

With a healthy blueline roster, Ben Lovejoy looks to be the one who will end up as the seventh defenseman. However, he seems to take it all in stride. During his stretch of playing time, we have seen that he plays with energy and tenacity. He can move the puck well in most situations. Lovejoy has the tendency to make some mistakes, which is something that experience can fix.

Simon Despres got the oppotunity to show off his skills during a time when he was needed on the blueline in the injury run. He held his own surrounded by top caliber NHL players. Despres is a mobile skater and he has shown he has the ability to produce offensively ( 4 points in 14 games with the Pens). Unfortunately he is now sidelined with a knee injury and will hopefully return to action soon. He is only 20 years old and still needs time to develop his game in the minors, along with developing more physicality. He has the potential to do great things in the NHL.

Alexandre Picard also got a good chunk of time with the Pens, playing 17 games with the team. In his run he scored four points. He was not one you noticed much on the ice, but that does not mean that was a bad thing. He gave a solid effort and did not make mistakes to harm the team. Picard is another reliable call-up from the Baby Pens when his services are needed.


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