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Penguins happy to shell out for top defensemen

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, 7:08 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.
The Penguins' Kris Letang plays against the Jets Feb. 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang plays against the Jets Feb. 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin (8) plays against the Captitals during game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday, May 1, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin (8) plays against the Captitals during game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday, May 1, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole (28) puts a hard check on Capitals right wing Justin Williams (14) in the third period of game 4 of the second round of the NHL Playoffs on Wednesday May 03, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole (28) puts a hard check on Capitals right wing Justin Williams (14) in the third period of game 4 of the second round of the NHL Playoffs on Wednesday May 03, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

A new plan has emerged for parents hoping to be taken care of financially well into their golden years. It may not be as sensible as contributing to a 401K, but it has a proven track record of working spectacularly well in specific cases.

Teach your sons to skate backwards.

NHL teams are paying for defensemen like never before.

Ten of the league's 31 teams will go into this season with $20 million or more committed to their top four players on the blue line. Nineteen teams will pay their top four $17 million or more.

With the exception of Carolina Hurricanes, who are rife with young defensemen on entry-level contracts, and the sad-sack Colorado Avalanche, every team in the league is allocating at least $15 million of its $75 million salary cap to its top six players on the blue line.

The Penguins are no exception.

When they open camp Friday morning in Cranberry, they'll do so with the second-highest-paid top six in the league. Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Matt Hunwick will combine to make more than $25 million this season. Only Winnipeg's top six, raking in more than $27 million, will make more.

By way of comparison, the last time the Penguins were coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1992-93, they paid their top six defensemen a total of about $3 million, led by $950,000 for Ulf Samuelsson and $850,000 for Larry Murphy.

Even as recently as the championship season of 2008-09, the Penguins' top six defensemen made a total of about $12 million, less than half what they're making now.

“You have to identify your core and then either go with it, or if you're not comfortable, move on,” assistant general manager Bill Guerin said. “If you have a Kris Letang or an Erik Karlsson or one of those guys, that's where it starts. Then you have a guy like Dumo. He doesn't put up a ton of numbers, but he's consistent. He's reliable. He's the same every day. He's a winner. Those are the things that you have to identify as part of your core, and the CBA is set up in a way where you're going to lock guys up at a younger age.”

That's the big-picture philosophy the Penguins have followed in making their defensemen rich men. There are also a few other smaller details that have led to rising costs.

First, two members of their top six came due for new contracts right after a second consecutive championship. The Penguins weren't going to get Schultz and Dumoulin at a discount.

Second, they're in a down period in terms of developing defensemen. There's no blue-line equivalent of a Jake Guentzel or Bryan Rust, players who will make significant impacts while playing on cheap, entry-level contracts.

Third, the Penguins favor puck-moving defensemen who can make a difference in the transition game, and traditionally, that kind of player gets paid more than the stay-at-home types.

“You need mobile defensemen,” Guerin said. “The game goes through transitions, and those guys are at a premium right now.”

A larger paycheck often invites greater scrutiny, which is a pro sports fact of life Penguins defensemen might be on the verge of learning all about.

In last year's playoffs, with Letang out with a neck injury, the blue line was asked to merely be competent, and they accomplished that goal in spades. This year, with Letang back and $25 million price tag attached to the group, expectations might be higher.

Schultz seems fine with that.

“We kind of don't listen to that noise,” Schultz said. “We just go out there and play and have fun with it. That's what we've been doing the last two years, and it's worked. We're just going to keep on doing the same thing.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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