Certainly ‘Sarge’ deserves a salute for his services as he exits to Ottawa, but fortunately for the Penguins younger soldiers are on their way. Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero wasted no time sulking the losses of Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis as he picked up two marquee defensemen instead. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek are now officially Penguins thanks to the combined $45 million Shero invested in the blue-liners. Martin accepted a five year $25 million contract yesterday just hours after Michalek accepted a five year $20 million contract instantly giving the Pens one of the best defensive cores in the NHL.
After totaling 163 points over 400 games with the New Jersey Devils Martin decided it was time for a chance of scenery. The puck moving defensemen has the ability to start the rush up ice as well as face the oppositions best player on a nightly basis. Pittsburgh started free agency on a sour note after losing out on both Gonchar and Hamhuis but Martin is no consolation prize. The two-time Olympic selection was the best pure defensemen in the class and should bring stability to a shaky Penguin blue-line. Martin may not display the offensive talent of Gonchar or Hamhuis but he did lead all Devils defensemen in powerplay points over the past two seasons. Seeing as how the Penguins run a system geared much more toward offense it would not be reckless to assume that Martin will see a boost in points either. Clearly, the 29-year-old was brought in to be a shut-down defender though. Penguins fans should take comfort in the fact that next time Alexander Ovechkin or Marian Gaborik come to town they will have a much tougher time cracking the Pittsburgh defense. The Martin signing does raise two questions though:
1.) Martin signed for $5 million per year and Hamhuis only signed for $4.5 million in Vancouver meaning Hamhuis must have turned down Shero’s offer. There was rumor that the ex-Predator wanted to play closer to his British Columbia home and ultimately it was the main factor in his decision. Losing out on Hamhuis and signing Martin still bodes well for the Penguins though. Defensively Pittsburgh will be able to handle any team in the East, and Martin still makes up for some of the offense lost by Gonchar.
2.) Martin only received a $500,000 raise to come to the Penguins. Other teams, such as the Los Angeles Kings, must have offered more to the touted defenseman. My opinion is that Martin took a little less money to play with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The signing of Martin not only softens the loss of Hamhuis but probably puts the Penguins in a better position come playoff time. One thing is certain, there was no better defensive defenseman in the class.
Michalek, also a 2010 Olympic selection, gets the job done in a much different way. The former Phoenix Coyote blocked a league high 271 shots two years ago and followed it up with 156 blocks this past year. He led the Coyotes in ice time and was reportedly their top priority for the off-season. Other than shot blocking, Michalek excels at physical play and even chips in offensively. His 28 points in the 2005-2006 campaign were fifth most on the team despite playing on a squad that ranked 26th in league in even strength goals. Michalek was not brought in to play offense though. Defensively Michalek will drop to block a shot or level his guy in the corner, however he is a much better puck mover than the Penguins past physical defensemen. Another one of the 29-year-old’s strengths is quickly transitioning the play up ice after a turnover. He may not be as complete of a defensemen as Martin but he will prove to me more valuable, and versatile, than the sorely missed Rob Scuderi was.
Certainly it will be weird not to see Gonchar’s powerplay expertise and offensive production on opening day in the Consol Energy Center. On the other hand, Pittsburgh will be boasting its best defensive core since the early 90′s. It is no secret that Gonchar’s defensive play had struggled during his tenure in Pittsburgh. The acquisitions of Martin and Michalek ensure that even a team with multiple offensive weapons will struggle to find the net against the Penguins.
Shero once again showed why he is one of the best GM’s in the NHL. His moves bumped the Penguins up to a Cup favorite and with $2 million in cap space there is sure to be more damage done. You can bet that one of the next steps on Shero’s list is to wrap Alex Goligoski up long term. There is only one thing that Penguins fans will be upset about come opening night: The fact that it came a month late.