Penguins’ Retooled D Takes Shape

Sergei Gonchar, a mainstay on the Penguins’ blueline for the past five seasons, is gone. So are veterans Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Martin Skoula.

Only three defensemen who started last season in Pittsburgh – Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski – remain. Ben Lovejoy, who spent 12 games with the big club last year and signed a three-year contract this summer, is the odds-on favorite to fill another spot. And, by the end of day one of this summer’s free agency period, GM Ray Shero had done a fine job of not only plugging the two remaining holes, but upgrading his overall blueline in the process.

New additions Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin don’t yet know who their new defensive partners will be, but both clearly relish the opportunities ahead of them.

Michalek, who played alongside offensive-minded Ed Jovanovski in Phoenix last year, was a durable, stay-at-home defenseman for the Coyotes, leading the league in blocked shots two seasons ago. The Penguins, too, will be counting on him for his strong defensive skills, but their system, which encourages defensemen to join the rush, also figures to give Michalek the chance to branch out.

“They want to play an up-tempo style, spend as little time in our zone as possible, use the skill we have out front and get the puck fast to the forwards, and that’s the way I like to play, too,” Michalek said. “I like to make good passes out of my own zone and get in the attack.”

That’s a role the 27-year-old Michalek has filled before, both growing up and with his junior team, the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL, where he registered 39- and 51-point seasons.

“Over the years in Phoenix, I became a more defensive defenseman – that’s the role they wanted me to play – but I can always chip in offensively here and there,” he said. “In juniors and when I was growing up, I was more of an offensive guy; I could score goals too. So I believe I can get more involved.”

Michalek said he had a good experience in Phoenix, but it was the stability of the Penguins organization, and the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup every year, that drew him to Pittsburgh. Like many kids in the Czech Republic, he grew up watching the Penguins, whose history and success with Czech players has made them a favorite among NHL teams there.

“[Jaromir] Jagr was my favorite, even though he was a forward and I was a defenseman,” Michalek said. “He was the hero for every small kid back home; he did so much for hockey in the Czech Republic, and for the team here in Pittsburgh, too. I remember watching him in Pittsburgh when they won the two Cups in the early 90s, and it was just amazing.”

He also talked to a former Jagr teammate, Josef Melichar, about Pittsburgh when they skated together over the summer.

“He told me all the best things about this organization,” Michalek said. “He said he enjoyed it here and I’m going to have a lot of fun here.”

For Paul Martin, being relied upon to produce offense is nothing new; the 29-year-old is known as an offensive-leaning defenseman and will likely see some time on the power play point that Gonchar vacated. Playing in Pittsburgh’s system, though, would seem to be a significant change from that of the defense-first New Jersey Devils, where Martin spent his entire NHL career so far.

That’s not entirely so, Martin said, though he does foresee more opportunity to tap into his offensive potential in Pittsburgh.

“I think the style [the Penguins] play will better suit my game, and I’m looking forward to it,” Martin said. “At the same time, they do put a lot of emphasis on defense; they just use everybody to do it. It’s similar to New Jersey but, I think, a little more aggressive in trying to get the puck out.

“On the forecheck, the system here is a little more aggressive than they are in New Jersey. It gives the D a little more of a chance to join the rush and chip in whenever possible. It’s still defense-first, but I have a feeling there might be more opportunities here this year.”

Like Michalek, Martin took some time to do his homework before signing on with the Penguins.

“With the caliber of players they have here, the city, the fans – everything you put down on paper as to why you’d want to go somewhere was there,” Martin said. “And I talked to a couple of these guys, like [former Devil and current Penguin] Michael Rupp, and everything was good and positive. It was an easy decision.”

As for becoming a member of a team that had been his fierce Atlantic Division rival since 2003, Martin said, any animosity was gone the moment he pulled on a black and gold jersey.

“It’s usually the tough guys and the guys who try to get under your skin that you don’t really like when you play against them, but those are the guys who, when you get in the locker room, are the best guys to be around,” Martin said, citing new teammates Matt Cooke and Max Talbot as examples.

“They play so hard and you battle with them and I don’t know how you can like them when you’re playing against them. But, once you’re on the same team, it changes your perspective a little bit. You realize you’re all in there for the same reason.”

And that reason – winning – looks increasingly possible as the Penguins become a deeper team.

“I’m excited,” Martin said. “I’ve had an opportunity to play with some great defensemen in New Jersey but, I think, as a group here, there’s a lot of depth and a lot of talent. It’s fun when you see a lot of guys on the same page that can play at a high level.”

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