The future is now for Pittsburgh's defense

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Injuries have forced the Penguins to play without their entire top-four on defense. Thanks to an impressive collection of youngsters, they're still winning hockey games.

Through the first three months of the 2013-14 season the Pittsburgh Penguins have had their top-four defensemen (Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi) in the lineup at the same time for just two games.

The last time it happened was nearly two months ago on Oct. 26 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That's also the night the injuries started. Since then each defensemen has suffered some sort of injury or ailment that has knocked them out of the lineup for an extended period of time.

  • In that Oct. 26 game at Toronto, Scuderi suffered a broken ankle when he was hit by David Clarkson. He's skating and getting close to a return, but he's not back yet.
  • Martin, perhaps their most well-rounded defenseman and one of their top shutdown guys, suffered a fractured tibia in late November during an overtime loss to the Boston Bruins.
  • Orpik suffered a concussion earlier this month when Shawn Thornton lost his mind and earned a 15-game suspension for knocking Orpik out.
  • Letang is on injured reserve with some sort of lower body injury after missing the first nine games of the regular season.

When they play the New York Rangers on Wednesday night it will be the third straight game they will be without all of them.

Needless to say, that's a lot of injuries, and it should be a lot for any team to overcome. When you add in the loss of Deryk Engelland as he awaits his in-person hearing for a hit to the head of Detroit's Justin Abdelkader on Saturday night, that's five of their top-six defensemen out of the lineup.

The result is a blue line that is currently made up of one veteran (Matt Niskanen) and five other players (Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson) that have played in fewer than 150 NHL games as a group.

Three of them (Maatta, Dumoulin and Samuelsson) have made their NHL debuts just this season.

What's even more stunning is they are somehow still winning hockey games (and just to make things even more absurd, they've won the past two games without the services of top forwards Evgeni Malkin, because of injury, and James Neal, because of suspension). It's a testament to the depth they've compiled over the years at the position that they've been able to withstand the loss of nearly every defenseman on their roster.

Since Ray Shero took over as general manager back in 2006, the organization has made it a point to stockpile as many young defensemen in his farm system as possible. Whether it be through the draft, trades or free agency, young defensemen (and especially defensemen that can skate well and move the puck out of their zone) have been the priority when it comes to building the team.

Seven of their past 12 first-and second-round draft picks have been defensemen, including first-rounders Despres, Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Joe Morrow. When the team traded center Jordan Staal in 2012 the main return was more prospects on the blue line (Dumoulin, as well as a top-10 pick that was used on Pouliot).

The result has been one of the deepest prospect pools in the league when it comes to defensemen. They surely hoped that all of those investments would one day pay off, they just probably weren't expecting it to be so soon.

The player making perhaps the biggest impact right now is Maatta, a 19-year-old rookie that hasn't looked out of place in the NHL. Maatta, the No. 22 overall pick in 2012, made the team out of training camp and played well enough in his first nine games to stick around in the NHL and not be sent back to his junior team. And he's not just a passenger right now. Lately, he's been taking on some heavy assignments and helping to drive the bus.

He is coming off what was perhaps his best game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs when he played on Pittsburgh's makeshift top-pairing alongside Niskanen. He not only played a season-high 24 minutes, he also spent most of the night going up against Toronto's top line of Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, while also starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone directly in front of his own net. Despite that tough role he still came away even in the shot attempt battle, was not on the ice for a goal against, and had a number of quality plays to break up potential Toronto zone entries.

For any defenseman, even a seasoned veteran, going up against that line that's a good night. For a teenager it's absolutely incredible.

It might be easy to look at the assignments and look at their success on the stat sheet give some of the credit to Niskanen for carrying the rookie. But it was pretty clear during that game that it was Maatta carrying around the veteran and not vice versa.

All of this depth has not only helped them on the ice right now, it also gives them a lot of options. Over the years, the Penguins have at times traded from their depth on the blue line to fill other needs (Alex Goligoski was traded for James Neal; Ryan Whitney was traded for Chris Kunitz; Joe Morrow was traded for Brenden Morrow, a move that did not work out anywhere near as well as the others).

But as we've seen over the past couple of weeks it's also been valuable when it comes to actually building their own team, especially in the face of mounting injuries.

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