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Penguins are still looking to lock up defense

| Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011

Coach Dan Bylsma can write his top four defensemen's names in permanent marker before every game.

Deciphering the other three who will make the team isn't so easy.

Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen and Alexandre Picard are fighting for three roster spots. Although Lovejoy seems to be the most likely to receive a regular shift, Bylsma made it clear a competition remains.

"They are not set in stone," Bylsma said of the remaining defensemen.

Bylsma was not being critical but rather illustrating his blue line's depth behind Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

The four fighting for playing time all have something to offer:

> > Lovejoy is a dependable player and smooth skater who was excellent in the second half of last season with two goals and 10 assists.

> > Engelland is one of hockey's best fighters and was not a liability last season, even though he possesses the least skill of the group.

> > Niskanen, a former first-round pick, might have the most potential. However, consistency is an issue, and he struggled in the playoffs against Tampa Bay.

> > Picard is a veteran of 236 NHL games and a steady if unspectacular defenseman. He is the only left-handed defenseman among the four, perhaps an advantage.

"It makes you feel a little bit of pressure when you see how many good defensemen are here," Lovejoy said. "You have to go out and perform. If you don't, they'll go find someone who is just as capable."

Lovejoy and Niskanen played together during the playoff series against Tampa Bay and endured mixed results. In particular, Niskanen struggled.

After coming to Pittsburgh along with James Neal in a February trade with Dallas, Niskanen initially thrived, but he made defensive errors in the postseason. Having a training camp in Bylsma's system has Niskanen feeling good about himself.

"I'm comfortable with what we're doing here," Niskanen said. "My body feels good, and I think I'm getting better every day."

Lovejoy and Engelland are right-handed and more comfortable playing on the right side. Niskanen, also a righty, is rare in that he has played on the left side most of his career. That could be an advantage for him.

"It is pretty rare to have so many (right-handed defensemen)," he said. "But I'm used to playing the left side. It comes pretty naturally."

Being a physical presence comes naturally to Engelland, a lock to make the team but not necessarily to dress every night.

"Other teams respect Engel," said new Penguins' tough-guy Steve MacIntyre. "You've got to watch out for the quiet guys like him. He's a tough cowboy."

Bylsma is hesitant to say so, but it appears Lovejoy will play every night.

"(Lovejoy) is a very confident player," Bylsma said. "He hasn't been this way in camp, ever. He's comfortable. He's aggressive. He's playing physical. But so is Matt Niskanen. So is Deryk Engelland. There are other guys in the mix as well. There's good competition."

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