Matt Niskanen leads the NHL with a plus-minus mark of 30.
The Penguins have NHL-caliber defensemen playing for their American Hockey League affiliate at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Penguins have AHL-caliber forwards playing in the NHL.
What’s wrong with that picture?
You can never have too many defensemen, or so they say. The Penguins are without Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand). They played a good portion of their campaign without one, some or all of their top four. Eleven defensemen have played for the Penguins so far. None have been terrible.
But the Penguins don’t have nearly enough good forwards. They need a right wing for Sidney Crosby’s line. They need one or two bottom-six forwards. Three wouldn’t hurt. The more, the better. Grit is lacking.
When Brian Gibbons skates on Crosby’s right wing, no one feels better knowing Brian Dumoulin patrols the blue line in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, or knowing that the Penguins are covered if disease, famine or pestilence strikes down half their defensive corps.
Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik can all become unrestricted free agents at season’s end. The Penguins should let them all walk.
Orpik has been a key cog for a decade. He's the conscience of the dressing room. Niskanen is having a career year. Engelland fills a need.
But Letang, Martin, Robert Bortuzzo, Olli Maatta and Rob Scuderi all return. Simon Despres will be a restricted free agent but can be retained inexpensively. That’s a very good NHL defensive corps, and you have cap room to add forwards.
Martin’s contract expires after the 2014-15 season. Replace him then with power-play whiz Derrick Pouliot, the eighth pick in the 2012 NHL draft.
If somebody gets hurt, you still got Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Philip Samuelsson in reserve. More than enough depth.
That’s how roster turnover is supposed to work under a salary cap. You don’t spend on replaceable players. Out with the old and expensive, in with the young and cheap. Don’t get too attached to anyone. Life in the cap lane.
The coaches love Niskanen. What’s not to love? He leads the NHL in plus/minus and does everything the Penguins need him to do.
But Niskanen will likely never have a season like this again. He’s going to command too much money. You have several who can replace him. Niskanen is a fifth defenseman. Useful and capable. But he’s a fifth defenseman.
The Penguins’ surplus of defensemen is insane. It helped earlier this year when so many defensemen were hurt. But it won’t help come spring.
The Penguins could go into the playoffs with a skeleton crew up front.
When the Penguins assembled their excess of defensemen, the idea was to make trades for forward help if necessary. Well, it’s necessary. Really necessary.
If Engelland, Niskanen and Orpik all depart, the Penguins will still have 10 defensemen of NHL capability at their next training camp. You only roster seven.
GM Ray Shero can probably come up with lots of good reasons to hold onto any or all of his young defensemen. Here’s a good reason to swap a few: No Stanley Cups since 2009. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in their primes.
Less defensemen, more wings. Less future, more present.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).