Tag: Ben Lovejoy

St. Louis Blues v Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?


For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”

Looking to make the leap: Derrick Pouliot

Philadelphia Flyers v Pittsburgh Penguins

Is this the year Derrick Pouliot transitions from promising prospect to full-time pro?

He seems to think so.

“I think I’m capable of being a reliable defender in this league. I think I can produce even more offensively, too,” Pouliot said earlier this summer, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s really about taking a two-way role, not giving up anything and creating some chances for us.

“I’ll come into camp in shape and be able to handle some more minutes.”

Last season, Pouliot looked primed to make the leap. He made his NHL debut in December and eventually replaced an injured Olli Maatta on Pittsburgh’s blueline, impressing onlookers through 34 games until an injury of his own prematurely ended the campaign.

While it was a good showing from a kid that only turned 21 in January — Pouliot racked up seven points while averaging 17:33 TOI — the former WHL Portland standout only provided a glimpse of what he could do.

Now, the Pens want a much bigger look.

They also need it.

Pittsburgh’s defense took a hit this offseason and, as a result, Pouliot’s role is bound to increase. Blueline minutes are there for the taking: Paul Martin, who averaged nearly 23 per game last season, is now in San Jose while Christian Ehrhoff, who averaged nearly 22, is in L.A.

Rob Scuderi turns 37 in December and seems primed for a (further) diminished role, and it remains to be seen if the Ben Lovejoy-for-Simon Despres trade will ever work out in the Pens’ favor.

So, enter Pouliot.

The eighth overall pick in 2012, he’s expected to shoulder a significant load this year, despite it being (essentially) his first full NHL campaign. And this isn’t any ordinary team he’s looking to leap into; Pittsburgh made major splashes throughout the summer, none bigger than the Phil Kessel acquisition, and is a legit Eastern Conference contender.

In short, the pressure’s on for Pouliot.

“I definitely know the expectations, that’s for sure,” he told NHL.com. “I know I have to be ready when the season comes around, what I have to do to be ready. It’s a little different in that aspect, that’s for sure.

“I’m pretty anxious. I feel like I can take on a bit of a bigger role.”

Rutherford: Pens need a better ‘supporting cast’ for core

2014 NHL Draft - Round 2-7

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is more than comfortable with the core of his roster.

And no, he has no plans to trade Evgeni Malkin, despite the speculation.

It’s the “supporting cast” — beyond Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury — that Rutherford is taking it upon himself to improve.

For good reason, he sees Chicago as the blueprint for success in the salary-cap era.

“The Blackhawks’ core group have risen to the occasion over the span of these last three Cups,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette. “Clearly Kane and Toews and Crawford and Keith and some others have been really key players, but all three times they’ve had a different supporting cast.

“The conclusion I draw from that is that 1, we have the core guys to win a championship and 2, it’s my job and the job of everyone in hockey [operations] to try to get the right supporting cast so that we can build enough balance, speed and youth to have a complementary group that allows us to make the same run.”

One of the areas where the Penguins have fallen short is player development. Case in point, Rutherford admitted at the end of the season that Beau Bennett hasn’t been brought along properly.

Bennett was the Penguins’ first-round draft pick (20th overall) in 2010.

That was also the year Los Angeles took Tyler Toffoli, one of the leading scorers for the Kings in their second Cup run, with the 47th overall pick.

The next year, the Blackhawks drafted Brandon Saad in the second round and Andrew Shaw in the fifth.

To stay competitive in the salary-cap era, teams need that constant “support from the bottom.”

The Penguins haven’t received that. We mentioned Bennett’s failure to develop into an impact player. Well, at least he’s still with the organization. Pittsburgh traded the first-round picks that came before and after him. Simon Despres (2009) went to the Ducks to get Ben Lovejoy; Joe Morrow (2011) went to Dallas to get Brenden Morrow.

The Pens do have some good prospects in Derrick Pouliot, Kasperi Kapanen and a few others. The key for Rutherford will be to develop those prospects properly, while also acquiring the right veterans, for the right price, to fill out the rest of the roster.

Related: Rutherford insists Pittsburgh is ‘very appealing’ for free agents, even with ownership situation