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Determining defense tops Bylsma, Penguins' to-do list for 2014

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review file
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (front) could return to the lineup Friday against the Hurricanes.

Dan Bylsma has a lot to do in 2014.

Figuring out the Penguins' defense corps tops a list that includes chasing Olympic gold and the Stanley Cup.

The unofficial start of the season's second half begins Friday at Carolina, and the Penguins' bench boss could welcome the return of defensemen Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi.

Bylsma joked Monday, before the NHL's Christmas break, that he should not think about possible pairings when his defensemen are healthy.

“Every time I've answered this question, it's led to another defensive injury,” said Bylsma, who also will serve as coach of Team USA this winter.

Here are the pairings Bylsma preferred when Kris Letang returned from a nine-game absence to open the season: Letang and Scuderi, Orpik and Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta.

On Monday at Ottawa, the top pairing was Niskanen and Maatta, with the other four defensemen out because of injuries. Orpik (concussion) and Scuderi (broken ankle) expect to play soon, perhaps Friday. Letang (elbow infection) is expected to return in early January, and Martin (broken tibia) could play by mid-month.

Having a dependable top four is the objective because coaches felt comfortable playing only three defensemen in big situations last postseason. That is one of the reasons Scuderi was signed as a free agent.

The other was for him to play with Letang.

Penguins coaches praised Scuderi's presence for their strong defensive start. He will be counted on to handle top-four minutes after he returns.

Orpik and Martin, the team's shutdown pairing since last season, will reunite when everyone is healthy, Bylsma said.

“And I think you'd like to see Olli Maatta still be a factor,” Bylsma said.

Maatta, a 19-year-old rookie, had not looked out of place playing top-pairing minuteswith Niskanen.

Maatta has impressed by being a quick study and ego-free.

He has made fans out of Orpik and Letang.

Orpik is more than the longest-tenured Penguin. He also is their most physical, a tone-setter, Letang said.

Letang, at age 26, still can elevate the Penguins. He was the only NHL defenseman to average a point per game last season. His 11 points in 24 games this season were a significant dropoff from the pace that made him a Norris Trophy finalist a year ago.

Penguins coaches can boil down the last postseason based off Letang's performance:

He posted 10 points and a plus-5 rating in four convincing wins over Ottawa, which the Penguins bounced from Round 2 in five games last spring.

In the Penguins' last two playoff series losses — Boston (2013) and Philadelphia (2012) — Letang had two points and was a minus-9 in the eight defeats by the Penguins.

The Penguins are not their dynamic selves when Letang is not himself — a defensemen capable of changing shifts with his skating, an offensive catalyst.

Scuderi can help him rediscover that form and consistently play to it, Bylsma said.

“I don't think they've really gotten a chance playing together yet,” he said, adding that Letang and Scuderi “absolutely” need that opportunity.

Scuderi has missed 28 games, Letang 14. The Penguins have 43 remaining before the playoffs.

“At some point they've got to get back and get together,” Bylsma said.

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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