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Defensemen looking to lift Pens this season

| Monday, Oct. 3, 2011

The Penguins altered their financial approach in summer 2010, inking two defensemen to contracts worth a combined $45 million.

An organization identified by its forwards invested unprecedented money on the blue line, and those defensemen believe the team's reward is still in the works.

Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin helped the Penguins to 106 points despite injuries to centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But the Fab Four say that was only the beginning.

"Paulie and I know the system now. We're comfortable now," said Michalek, who with Martin joined the Penguins last summer. "You've got Kris and Brooks. They're so good. We can be much better."

Should they play better this season — and defensemen Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen continue the play they've shown during training camp — the Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin back, could contend for the Stanley Cup.

Coaches and teammates say the player who may improve the most is Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy favorite in January. The Penguins believe he has only scratched the surface.

"It's part of the evolution of Kris Letang as the top defenseman in the league," assistant coach Todd Reirden said.

Letang scored 41 points in 52 games with Crosby or Malkin in the lineup last season. Without them, Letang's production dropped, as he managed nine points in 30 games.

The coaching staff understands that Letang's numbers were bound to drop. But Letang's overall game appeared to wilt without dominant play from the forwards.

"Kris' expectation is (that of) an elite level (defensemen) all year round," coach Dan Bylsma said. "The second half of the season wasn't as high as the first. Kris is looking for consistency at that level."

Martin's plight has been more challenging. The Penguins' highest paid defenseman was acquired largely for his offensive ability, but he was a dud last season, scoring only three goals — one an empty-netter. Martin's adjustment to the Penguins was not easy, having spent his entire career in New Jersey, where defensemen rarely familiarize themselves with the offensive zone.

"To see Paul Martin's comfort level this year versus last year is significant," Bylsma said.

The same can be said of Michalek, although his defensive work was solid last year. Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Ilya Kovalchuk, all of whom play primarily on Michalek's side of the ice, combined for three goals and 14 games against Pittsburgh last season.

"He was outstanding," Reirden said. "When you give up 39 goals fewer against than you did the year before, you know guys like him are responsible."

Michalek showed offensive flashes last season, scoring five goals in his last 15 games. But the Penguins want all of their defensemen to push the issue more offensively.

"He's got that ability," Reirden said. "'Z' definitely can be a part of that."

For Orpik, getting and staying healthy could be the only roadblock this season. Good as he's been, he often has played in pain because of chronic hernia issues. He's hoping to enjoy a healthy season, which alone might be enough to enhance his play.

"I think (this group is) tops in the league," said Letang, who believes the team can lead the NHL in goal's against for the first time in franchise history. "We have just the right guys to accomplish that."

Signed and sealed

The Penguins' top defensemen are locked up for several years:

Kris Letang: Signed through 2013-14; salary cap hit: $3.5 million per year

Brooks Orpik: Signed through 2013-14; salary cap hit: $3.75 million per year

Zbynek Michalek: Signed through 2014-15; salary cap hit: $4 million per year

Paul Martin: Signed through 2014-15; salary cap hit: $5 million per year

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