The majority of Pittsburgh’s blue line is set entering the 2012-13 season, as defensemen Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen are all back this year and are virtually guaranteed four spots on the Penguins’ back end.
But with top-four blueliner Zbynek Michalek traded back to Phoenix at the 2012 NHL Draft, there will be a healthy competition between the wealth of blueliners in the Penguins organization for spots in Pittsburgh’s defensive rotation.
Nine defensemen are at training camp this week. Defensemen Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres and Brian Strait – who have been playing for Pittsburgh's top minor-league affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League (AHL) – join Letang, Orpik, Martin, Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy.
Here’s a look at the defensemen in the mix to crack the Penguins’ roster this season.
WEIGHT: 215 pounds
Bortuzzo is a steady, solid defender. He’s not flashy, but does everything right and is reliable in his own zone. In addition, he’s got a big body (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and long limbs that he uses to his advantage against opposing team’s forwards. Like Brian Strait, he has been developing in the Penguins organization for over three years now, and this may be the year he gets his chance. He comes into training camp having played a full schedule down in Wilkes-Barre, and said "Physically I feel great. I had the luxury of being able to play games and have some of that physicality of game play under my belt. I consider it an advantage."
WEIGHT: 214 pounds
Despres played 18 NHL games in 2011-12, and the Penguins staff liked what they saw when he was with Pittsburgh. Despres showed that he could handle a lot of minutes against top players, be involved on the rush and even contribute on the power play. He certainly made a case for himself as a pro, and he used his time with WBS to work hard on his personal development. But out of the nine defensemen at camp, Despres is the only one who does not have to clear waivers to return to the AHL – which means he may return to WBS for further development. However, with a limited number of left-handed shots on the blue line, Despres does have an advantage in that area. He skated alongside right-handed Kris Letang on Monday and Bylsma said "there’s a legitimate chance they could play together come Saturday" in the season opener.
WEIGHT: 202 pounds
After breaking into the NHL at age 28, Engelland has played the last two full seasons in Pittsburgh. Now 30 years old, Engelland has worked incredibly hard to evolve into a steady, responsible defender that’s proven capable of handling every matchup situation. But what’s perhaps his greatest asset is his physicality. Engelland has established a reputation around the league of being one of its toughest players, and that grittiness paired with his work ethic is what could keep him in Pittsburgh.
WEIGHT: 215 pounds
Lovejoy played the last two seasons in Pittsburgh after developing in the Penguins organization for three seasons in the American Hockey League with Wilkes Barre/Scranton. Like Engelland, Lovejoy has proven that he can be a quality NHLer, and will have to make that case at a shortened training camp this year. His biggest strengths are his skating, mobility and willingness to get involved offensively.
WEIGHT: 200 pounds
This year marks Strait’s fourth professional season. A 2006 third-round pick of the Penguins, he’s been developing within the organization ever since. Strait’s simple style could be a fitting complement to the more offensive-minded players on Pittsburgh’s blue line as he’s more of a stay-at-home, defensively solid blueliner. With that being said, he’s very comfortable in the Penguins’ systems – and he appeared in three playoff contests (plus nine regular-season games) with Pittsburgh last season. Like Bortuzzo, he's been playing games with WBS and comes to camp feeling healthy, ready and knowing what the team wants to see from him. “I’ve been up and down for a couple years now and I know what they expect from me,” Strait said. “I’m going to do my best to prove that I belong here and hopefully I get to be a part of this team.”
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