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Penguins' Niskanen not necessarily gone

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 11:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Niskanen plays against the Senators, Tuesday, May 14, 2013, at Consol Enrgy Center.
Penguins defenseman Simon Despres celebrates after scoring against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in January 2013.

Rob Scuderi nearly ruined Matt Niskanen's summer and perhaps for no good reason.

His signing in July placed the Penguins over the $64.3 million salary cap and left them with eight NHL-ready defensemen as training-camp practices begin Thursday. Coach Dan Bylsma learned last season that keeping eight defensemen is not ideal.

Niskanen figures he has the short end of the stick because the Penguins need cap space, and moving his hit ($2.3 million) would make the team compliant. It doesn't seem likely GM Ray Shero will deal Brooks Orpik, a physical presence and vocal authority. (Orpik and Niskanen are in the final year of their current contracts, though Orpik's deal includes a limited-movement clause.)

Niskanen suspects he is down to his final weeks as a Penguin; clubs must be at or under the cap by Sept. 30. However, there are reasons for him to breathe easier.

Management and coaches believe their best chance to win the Stanley Cup is with Niskanen as a No. 5 defenseman who can work on a second power-play unit.

Next is the Penguins' presumed cap overage, which website CapGeek estimates at about $1.01 million. That number does not match the one calculated by assistant GM Jason Botterill, who hinted Wednesday the Penguins have more cap space than some believe.

The Penguins insist they can get under the cap by the roster-set date without a trade, so they feel no pressure to move Niskanen.

Finally, of their eight NHL-ready defensemen, only Simon Despres — with his $840,000 cap hit — does not need to pass through waivers to play in the AHL.

Bylsma termed Despres, a 2009 first-round pick, a “top-four defenseman” after last season, but that was when the Penguins did not have Scuderi.

There is a sense that Despres could benefit from a substantial AHL role instead of a limited one in the NHL. A start in the AHL also might inspire consistency from Despres. Frustration with not making the Penguins did wonders for Kris Letang when he was sent to the AHL after camp in 2007. Letang was a regular by the 2008 playoffs.

Niskanen could be with another club by then, too.

For now, Niskanen is a Penguin, and even the addition of Scuderi is no guarantee that will change soon.

Note: The Penguins announced they will end training camp by spending Sept. 27-29 at West Point, where they went in 2006 and 2008. They will work with members of the military in off-ice exercises while also spending time on the ice.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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