Pens Bolster Blueline Despite Loss of Gonchar

After the Penguins’ disappointing second-round exit in this year’s playoffs, GM Ray Shero had a pretty clear idea of where his team stood the most room for improvement.

“Since the end of the season, I’ve met with the coaching staff and our pro scouts, and I was pretty clear about addressing our defense,” Shero said. “That’s the area we targeted to improve our team the most.”

And Shero didn’t wait for the start of free agency to show he meant business. At last weekend’s NHL Entry Draft, he swapped a third-round pick in 2011 to the Philadelphia Flyers for the right to talk to UFA defenseman Dan Hamhuis before the market opened. But Shero’s sales pitch to Hamhuis fell short, as the former Nashville Predator and British Columbia native ultimately signed with Vancouver.

So did the GM’s attempts to keep Sergei Gonchar, who for five years had quarterbacked the Pittsburgh power play and provided a steadying, veteran influence to the young stars in the Penguins’ dressing room, especially countryman Evgeni Malkin. Just one minute into free agency, Gonchar’s camp got a call from the Ottawa Senators offering him a three-year deal at $5.5 million per year, a longer term than the Penguins were willing to offer to the 36-year-old defenseman.

“With Sergei, it was really difficult,” Shero said. “I offered two years; that was all we were going to do. He wanted three or more. He’s had a fantastic stay here, five years, a Stanley Cup, represented us with class and dignity. A lot of respect but, in the end, it was a business decision for both of us.”

Once it was clear Hamhuis and Gonchar were moving on, so did Shero. But he didn’t abandon his strategy of upgrading the Penguins defense corps – snapping up not one, but two, of the most highly coveted UFAs available and locking them both into long-term deals.

First came former Phoenix Coyotes alternate captain Zbynek Michalek at five years and $20 million. Penguins fans who felt the loss of defense-first blueliners Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill from Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup championship team will welcome Michalek, who logs plenty of ice time and led the league in blocked shots two years ago with 271.

“He’s a right-handed defenseman that we’ve really liked for a long time. He’s 27 years old, a big body, and he really blossomed in Phoenix under [head coach] Dave Tippet,” Shero said. “Phoenix tried really hard to re-sign him; unfortunately for them, he became free. He was our first phone call today.”

Then came former New Jersey Devil Paul Martin at $25 million, also over five years. Martin, 29, is a solid all-around defenseman who, while he won’t replace Gonchar, should get an opportunity to fill the quarterback role on the Penguins’ power play. He’s also likely to see his offensive production increase in Pittsburgh’s system.

“He’s a really smooth-skating defenseman, great stick, good defensively,” said Shero. “He’s a real solid all-around player. He can play a lot of minutes, an effortless skater. And it says a lot about Paul Martin – who had a lot of suitors out there – that he wanted to come to Pittsburgh, which made us feel good.”

Just like that, an area of weakness for the Penguins last year, one that was sometimes exploited en route to their early exit from the NHL’s postseason party, had become just the opposite.

“With those two signing with our team, defense is an area of strength. Last year, I don’t think it was,” Shero said. “We’re a team that has had no problem scoring goals – we’re always in the top four, five or six – but our goals-against is not where we want it to be. We wanted to tighten that up.”

The newest Penguins are “at the right age, I think,” Shero said. “And both should be real solid additions to what we already have in Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski. That is a real solid defensive corps. We’re looking forward to having them play the blue line for a number of years for us.”

The additions of Michalek and Martin mean the Penguins will likely also part ways with UFA defenseman Mark Eaton. Another of their UFA blueliners, Jordan Leopold, signed with Buffalo Thursday after the Penguins’ acquisitions. Ben Lovejoy, who played most of last year for Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, is expected to have a shot at becoming the sixth regular on the Penguins’ blue line.

Of course, with the Penguins spending a large chunk of their available shopping dollars to solidify their defense Thursday, their other pressing need – wingers to play alongside their gifted centermen – is likely to be resolved through a patchwork approach once again. And Shero is fine with that.

“There didn’t seem to be those kinds of guys who are going to make a difference for the kind of money they were looking for,” Shero said. “We’ll take a look, and maybe we can do somebody on a one-year deal at a low number, or just give our [minor-league] players an opportunity and see what training camp brings. Or, later in the summer, we can make a trade.”

Veteran winger Bill Guerin also remains a possibility to return. “We’ll see how things shape up,” Shero said. “If he is getting [another offer], he is going to call me, and vice versa.”

One player who’s sure to be grateful for the Penguins’ shored-up defense is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who may face less rubber this year than he’s become accustomed to. Still, a stronger blue line doesn’t let Fleury – or any of the other Penguins – off the hook for what was a rough year defensively, Shero said.

“When I talk about defense, I talk about our forwards playing better defense and not having some of the turnovers we saw last year,” he said. “I talk about our defense, as a group, being active in the rush – Paul Martin and Michalek make a really good first pass – that’s what I’m talking about.

“In Marc’s case, he’s going to have to do a better job than last year. That’s going to be his goal; I know he is focused on that. If he comes back and plays to his capabilities, we are going to be in really great shape.”

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