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Penguins blue line is stacked with plenty of depth, talent

Getty Images - The Penguins' Kris Letang takes a shot around the stick of the Red Wings' Riley Sheahan during their preseason game Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in Detroit.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Getty Images</em></div>The Penguins' Kris Letang takes a shot around the stick of the Red Wings' Riley Sheahan during their preseason game Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in Detroit.
AP - The Hurricanes' Jussi Jokinen (36) works the puck against the Penguins' Brooks Orpik (44) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C. The Hurricanes traded Jokinen to the Penguins for a draft pick on Wednesday, April 3, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>The Hurricanes' Jussi Jokinen (36) works the puck against the Penguins' Brooks Orpik (44) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C. The Hurricanes traded Jokinen to the Penguins for a draft pick on Wednesday, April 3, 2013.
AP - The Penguins' Robert Bortuzzo carries the puck as the Hurricanes' Drayson Bowman defends during the second period Tuesday, April 9, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>The Penguins' Robert Bortuzzo carries the puck as the Hurricanes' Drayson Bowman defends during the second period Tuesday, April 9, 2013.
AP - Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi skates against the Red Wings in the third period Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in Detroit.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi skates against the Red Wings in the third period Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in Detroit.

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Roster breakdown

Kris Letang

2013 stats: 35 games, 5 goals, 33 assists, 38 points

Chatter: If he can stay healthy, might receive Norris Trophy this season

Rob Scuderi

2013 stats: 48 games, 1 goal, 11 assists, 12 points

Chatter: Steady game should nicely complement Letang

Paul Martin

2013 stats: 34 games, 6 goals, 17 assists, 23 points

Chatter: Emerged as elite defenseman in third year with Penguins

Brooks Orpik

2013 stats: 46 games, 0 goals, 8 assists, 8 points

Chatter: Remains physical presence, locker room leader

Matt Niskanen

2013 stats: 40 games, 4 goals, 10 assists, 14 points

Chatter: Offers versatility, ability to play left and right sides

Robert Bortuzzo

2013 stats: 15 games, 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points

Chatter: Physical, long-armed defenseman has moved into top-six role

Olli Maatta

2013 stats: 57 games, 8 goals, 30 assists, 38 points (London/OHL)

Chatter: Will receive cameo this season; stardom likely in his future

Deryk Engelland

2013 stats: 42 games, 0 goals, 6 assists, 6 points

Chatter: Reliable defenseman offers physical play

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Josh Yohe
Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
 

The Penguins boast arguably the world's two finest players, which immediately casts the impression that forward is the team's strongest position.

A gander at the Penguins' blue line, though, indicates that, top to bottom, this is possibly the team's deepest unit.

“Look around,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “No bad players on this blue line. There's just talent everywhere in the organization at this position.”

When the Penguins are healthy, their top-four is pretty clear.

Kris Letang, an annual Norris Trophy candidate, will be joined by the steady hand of veteran Rob Scuderi in a pairing that gives the Penguins elite skill and defensive ability.

Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are both coming off terrific seasons and will again form one of the NHL's most solid pairings.

“Those are all such good players,” Matt Niskanen said. “Not really a weak link there.”

On paper, the Penguins' top four is among the best in hockey.

A true gauge of this group's talent and depth might be best measured by who isn't on the top four, and by who isn't even on the current roster.

The Penguins like Niskanen so much that they didn't trade him to become cap compliant even though his contract expires next summer. They like Robert Bortuzzo so much that he has passed Deryk Engelland — another guy the coaching staff likes — on the depth chart.

Rookie Olli Maatta is going to receive at least a cameo in the NHL this month, and the organization believes he could become a star.

Simon Despres, the team's top pick in 2009, has been sent to the AHL largely so the Penguins could become cap compliant. The Penguins, in fact, like so many players on their blue line they chose to move under the salary cap via Despres' demotion simply because they didn't want to trade anyone.

“It's a really good group,” Martin said. “I think we all feel pretty good about ourselves right now.”

Maatta will receive plenty of attention in the early going. Although he likely will play nine games at the most with the Penguins this season, the organization believes he possesses the ability to become a top-tier NHL defenseman.

It appears Maatta will play with Bortuzzo when the season begins Thursday against New Jersey.

“I'm not worried about Olli,” Bortuzzo said. “The guy's a good hockey player. It doesn't matter how old he is. He's just got a ton of talent.”

Bortuzzo has been a story this fall as well. Although his game certainly doesn't boast the flashiness often seen with players like Maatta and former first-round pick Derrick Pouliot, Bortuzzo has become a favorite of the coaching staff. A tough customer who will drop the gloves with hockey's toughest players, Bortuzzo has also developed noticeably more confident puck skills.

His skating also is greatly improved.

“I don't know exactly what it is,” Bortuzzo said. “But I really feel good on the ice right now.”

It seems, in fact, that the entire Penguins' blue line is bursting with confidence. The unit that must protect a possibly fragile Marc-Andre Fleury and that would like to help jump-start the Penguins' talented forwards into the offensive zone is primed for a big season.

“We're looking forward to it,” Niskanen said.

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