Penguins' Shero confident in reshaped defense
Planning has already begun to replace Rob Scuderi in the shutdown role along the Penguins' blue line.
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Penguins fans who wallow in short-term memory might be a bit panicky over the loss through free agency of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill.
The defensive defensemen were effective playing against some of the top talent in the NHL -- Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Carolina's Eric Staal, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg -- during the Penguins' playoff run to the Stanley Cup and became dubbed the team's shutdown pairing.
"We don't win it without those two guys," said general manager Ray Shero, who Friday signed free agent Jay McKee, another defensive defenseman.
Shero couldn't match the offers Scuderi got from Los Angeles, and Gill from Montreal. That's a consequence of the league's salary cap. But he's confident in the Penguins' talent on defense heading into 2009-10 -- even if they don't end up using a pairing in the same mold as Scuderi-Gill.
"Going into last year, we didn't have a shutdown pairing," Shero said. "It's really about what you have."
Shero tossed out another moniker -- matchup pair.
In recent seasons, that usually has been Sergei Gonchar and whoever he has been paired with. It was Mark Eaton before he had a couple seasons gutted by injury. Since then it has been Brooks Orpik.
"Gonchar has always been that matchup guy against the top lines," Shero said. "That's why he gets those minutes."
It's not unusual for Gonchar to play close to 30 minutes in a game, unless he's not healthy. He missed the first 56 games last season because of shoulder surgery, then was limited in the playoffs after Game 4 of the second round, when a knee-on-knee hit from Ovechkin left him with a torn ligament.
That's when Scuderi and Gill took over the duty of regularly being matched against opponents' top lines.
"They were two great players for us all year long and especially in the playoffs," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "They did it so effectively. It's going to be tough shoes to fill, but with the salary cap era, it gives some guys a chance to have a more prominent role or a chance for some young guys."
That's exactly what Shero expects.
Gonchar, 35, an elite two-way defenseman and talented power-play point man, and Orpik, 28, the most physical defenseman on the team, could continue to be the Penguins' matchup pair against other teams' most dangerous forward lines.
Or perhaps when things get sorted out, coach Dan Bylsma will play Eaton, 32, with McKee, 31, to form a new shutdown pair. He also could stick with the effective tandem of Eaton and Kris Letang, 22, and use them as a matchup pair.
Letang has shown potential to become an elite two-way player and is the team's only defenseman who is a right-handed shot. No matter who he and Alex Goligoski, 23, play with, they will see their roles increase, Shero said. Goligoski played 45 regular-season games and two playoff with the Penguins but spent significant time in the minor leagues, mostly because he had a two-way contract and did not need to clear waivers to move between the NHL and the American Hockey League.
"Letang and Goligoski will be ready to take on more of a role," Shero said. "Letang has the ability to play against top players with his strength and skating."
Eaton is the remaining defenseman whose skills are closest to Scuderi's -- blocking shots, playing sound positionally -- although he has a bit more of an offensive edge and saw some time on the point on the second power-play unit.
"Eaton can read the play well and anticipate," Shero said.
It would be fine with Eaton if he is asked to refine his role some.
"I pride myself on trying to be a smart player," he said. "A lot of that comes with experience. You think you've seen most situations.
"I'm all for added responsibility. I've played a shutdown role before."
The guy who most relies on the team's strength defensively and is an expert on what each defenseman brings recognizes the gap Scuderi and Gill leave but isn't worried about filling it.
"It's a huge loss because they're two great players, very steady defenseman," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said
"I'm sure with the guys we have right now, we'll be in pretty good shape. We have guys who can play two ways. We'll be all right."
Although he placed Scuderi and Gill in that shutdown role after Gonchar got hurt in the playoffs, Bylsma, who took over as coach Feb. 15, preaches an aggressive approach. That includes the defensemen creating and seizing opportunities on offense.
If the Penguins are going to remain contenders for some time, they could face this kind of maneuvering annually. One way or another, Shero will have to address a similar issue over the next year. Gonchar, Letang, Eaton and McKee have contracts that expire after the upcoming season.
First Published July 12, 2009 12:00 am