Penguins acquire help on defense
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Other free agents have gotten more lucrative contracts than Mark Eaton in the past few days.
Dozens of them, actually.
And lots of those guys have had more of an impact on the balance of power in the NHL, too.
But there probably haven't been many who attracted more genuine interest on the open market than Eaton, a defenseman who accepted a two-year deal worth $1.6 million annually from the Penguins yesterday.
He is the kind of player -- one with solid credentials and relatively modest salary demands -- who appeals to a wide cross-section of clubs. Especially those with limited resources or salary-cap issues.
"He was a very hot commodity," agent Steve Bartlett said. "We probably had 12 offers at one point. I wish I could have cloned him."
The Penguins likely will feel the same way if Eaton fills the role they envision: That of a reliable veteran who can play on a top-four pairing and be matched against opponents' top forwards.
Not the sexiest job in the NHL, to be sure, but an awfully important one. Especially for a team that was among the most porous in hockey last season.
"Mark's not flashy, but he plays his position really well," coach Michel Therrien said. "He's going to have big responsibilities with us."
Eaton is the only player to join the Penguins since the start of free agency Saturday, but wasn't the only addition to the organization yesterday: Andre Savard left his position as assistant general manager in Montreal to join Mike Yeo as the assistants on Therrien's staff.
Savard had been the Canadiens' GM when Therrien coached there -- he actually fired Therrien -- and also worked with GM Ray Shero in Ottawa. He is considered a shrewd judge of talent and, while his primary job will be overseeing the Penguins' defense corps and penalty-killing, Savard's duties will not stop there.
"He's going to be more than a typical assistant coach," Therrien said. "He's going to evaluate players ... he'll bring a lot more than people expect."
Presumably, Savard's scouting report on Eaton would read like most others: He's a good skater, makes a crisp outlet pass, is trustworthy in his own end and kills penalties well, but doesn't play as physically as might be expected of a guy who is 6 feet 2, 212 pounds.
Eaton, 29, reinforced his reputation last season with Nashville, which paid him $700,000. He had a team-high 170 blocked shots and averaged five minutes, 22 seconds of penalty-killing work per game.
Although Eaton, who put up three goals and one assist in 69 games in 2005-06, never has been a prolific point-producer, the book on him has been rewritten a bit since he broke into the league with Philadelphia in 1999-2000.
"I was more of an offensive guy coming in," he said. "I took it upon myself to concentrate on learning the defensive side of the game.
"The best way to do that is through experience, playing games and learning from your mistakes. You don't want to make the same mistakes twice. I pride myself on being a student of the game, an intelligent player."
And, Eaton added, on being more of an offensive force than his resume might suggest.
He didn't get any power-play work in Nashville, but manned the point occasionally when he broke in with the Flyers and feels he's capable of assuming that role again.
"I think my offensive abilities haven't gone away totally," he said. "My offensive game last year, I wasn't happy with my numbers. I can add a lot to that aspect of the game."
Eaton said his departure from the Predators was a "kind of mutual" decision, that Nashville wanted to create roster space for some promising young defensemen while Eaton was looking for a team that would use him in a prominent role.
He experienced some of the Predators' growing pains in the early part of this decade, and said he's not concerned about going through the same thing with the Penguins.
"There are no worries in my mind at all about that," he said. "I went through a little phase of rebuilding [in Nashville], but I think Pittsburgh is farther along in the process, with lot of young guys getting their feet wet in NHL last season.
"This is going to be a much better season than last year. At the least, we should expect to make the playoffs, and see what happens from there.
"There were a few teams I considered. But when I weighed everything, I like where Pittsburgh's headed. It's going to be an exciting team this year, and for years to come."
First Published July 4, 2006 12:00 am