What Paul Martin’s return means for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense

Martin 2Mercifully, Paul Martin made his return against the Winnipeg Jets last night after sitting out 18 games with a broken hand he sustained during the Olympic Games in Sochi.

He looked in top form, scoring the final goal to ice the game and the Metropolitan Division title for the Pittsburgh Penguins on a beautiful one timer from the high slot.

But what does his return mean to Pittsburgh’s defensive corps going into the playoffs?

So much depends on the return of Kris Letang, the Penguins’ elite puck-moving defenseman who has been out since February after suffering a stroke.  When (and if) Letang returns remains a huge question mark, and with the postseason right around the corner, figuring out pairings is of the utmost importance.

Let’s say for the sake of argument Letang does not make it back in time for the start of the playoffs.  What would the Pens defense look like?

If I had my choice, D-pairings would look a little something like this:

Martin-Orpik

Maatta-Niskanen

Despres-Bortuzzo

It pains me to say it, but Rob Scuderi could be the most expensive healthy scratch the team has ever seen.  His first year back with the team has been an abject disaster.  A -7 on the season, age has finally caught up with Scuderi, who has seen himself get burned on odd-man rushes time and time again this year.

Yes, he has proven an effective penalty killer, but the system Dan Bylsma plays is one that relies heavily on puck-moving defensemen starting the breakout by moving the puck up to the Crosby and Malkin lines through the neutral zone.

Speed and transition are of the utmost importance if Pittsburgh wants to win.

And with  Letang gone, why not bring in a replacement with a similar skill set like Simon Despres- someone who can move the puck up the ice and back check quickly enough to catch up with the rush if need be.

It will never happen though.  Pittsburgh simply spent too much money on Scuds in the offseason to bench him for a minor-league call up come playoff time.  He will most likely be paired with either Maatta or Bortuzzo for the duration of their playoff run.

If the Pens are worried about the penalty kill without Scuderi in the lineup, I have a simple solution: don’t take stupid penalties.

Obviously the Pens are still going to have penalties go against them.  It would be ludicrous to think otherwise.  However so many of the penalties they do take are of the retaliatory variety that for the most part could be avoided by cooler heads.

Pittsburgh is a team that is in the bottom third of time spent short handed, however during the postseason that number tends to increase.  In the 2012-13 season, they ranked 11th in the league in time spent short-handed.  In the playoffs, however, they finished 4th, with a total of 52 minutes spent short-handed.

And if they run into the Flyers again, that could mean trouble.  Last time Philly and Pittsburgh met in the 2012 Eastern Conference quarter-finals, the Flyers made Pittsburgh pay for their mistakes, and Pittsburgh was bounced from the first round in six games.

The Pens penalty kill finished dead last for all playoff teams that year, a measly 47.8%.

Obviously those number are skewed the longer you go into the playoffs, but the fact remains: the fewer stupid penalties you take, the less you have to worry about how much your penalty kill would benefit from having a guy like Scuderi in the lineup.

Which brings me to perhaps the most puzzling cog in this whole thing: Simon Despres.

Here’s a guy whose been given every opportunity in the world to stick with the big club, and each time Pittsburgh has failed to keep him around.  Despres has looked solid or better in most of his appearances for the Pens this year, but for whatever reason, Pittsburgh does’t see him as a long term option.

Still, his speed and offensive ability cannot be ignored, at least not completely.  Having a system built around speed and transition breakouts and not using Despres in a more key role seems insane.  He has played only 31 games this season, most of them call-ups to replace the injured Martin, Orpik, Letang, and Scuderi.

However in those 31 games, Despres has managed five assists and is a +5 on the year.

Maybe it’s immaturity, maybe it’s work ethic, or maybe it’s something else entirely, whatever the reason, Despres isn’t getting the time he should be. And the worst part of it all?  Now that Martin is back, he will likely be sent back to the AHL to make room for Deryk Engelland on the third pairing.

Having Martin back has been a welcome relief to a Penguins squad that has look very shaky the past two weeks, but they still have a lot to figure out if they want to win with this group.