On defense, Penguins now paying price for prior pursuit of championships | TribLIVE.com

On defense, Penguins now paying price for prior pursuit of championships

Jonathan Bombulie
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta during the morning skate game 5 of the Eastern Conference second-round playoff series Saturday, May 7, 2016 at Verizon Center.

Last weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins relinquished the NHL rights to 2017 second-round pick Zachary Lauzon, who has battled post-concussion problems.

Last year at this time, they gave up the rights to 2016 third-round pick Connor Hall, who has suffered recurring shoulder problems.

While the Penguins can’t be blamed for the injury misfortune their draft picks endured, the situation shines a light on a pretty serious problem in the organization. The Penguins haven’t drafted a defenseman who has made it to the NHL since they took Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta in the first round in 2012.

Their recent draft choices on the blue line still have time to make an NHL impact. Calen Addison, a second-round choice last June, looks to have great potential as an undersized but mobile right-handed offensive defenseman. Clayton Phillips, a 2017 third-rounder, and Niclas Almari, a 2016 fifth-rounder, have some promise too.

The problem is what went on during the three drafts immediately following the Pouliot and Maatta haul in 2012.

From 2013-15, the Penguins made a total of 15 picks and didn’t choose a defenseman in the first three rounds. The lottery tickets they bought in the later rounds – Jeff Taylor, Ryan Segalla and Dane Birks – didn’t hit the jackpot.

The three-year drought was largely caused by the team’s aggressive – and ultimately, failed – pursuit of the Stanley Cup in the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships.

Their 2013-15 drafts were missing multiple picks dealt away in win-now mode. Two first-rounders were gone to acquire Jarome Iginla and David Perron. It took two second-round picks to secure Douglas Murray. Marcel Goc cost a third and a fifth.

The Penguins gave up a fourth to acquire Daniel Winnik, a third to add Lee Stempniak, a fifth to bring in Brendan Morrow and a third to move up in the 2013 draft to select Tristan Jarry.

Those decisions came home to roost over the past two years.

Because they didn’t have homegrown defensemen to plug into the depth chart, they filled holes by signing Jack Johnson to a five-year, $16.25 million contract and Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million deal.

They traded goal-scoring prospect Daniel Sprong to Anaheim for Marcus Pettersson and middle-six winger Tanner Pearson to Vancouver for Erik Gudbranson.

Leaving aside the hot-button issue of how good their current defense corps is, it certainly is expensive.

They’ve got six defensemen making more than $3 million annually – Johnson, Gudbranson, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz and Kris Letang. The lack of at least one quality homegrown defenseman playing on a cheap, entry level contract has left the team in a cap crunch that will require further trades to alleviate.

The Penguins were able to avoid paying the piper for their Cup-seeking trades at forward and in goal, in large part, because they hit big on third-round choices Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray and Bryan Rust. There are no such success stories on defense, which leaves them in the hole they’ll try to dig out of this summer.

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all offseason long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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