SEASON PREVIEW — Part 2: The Department Of Defense

We are previewing the 2011-2012 Penguins season all week.
Today we take a look at the defense, that thing Ray Shero has made a priority for years to come. 
And the goalies…
If you were watching during the preseason, you noticed that the Penguins have defensemen coming off of some assembly line in Ray Shero's basement.  It's becoming more and more clearer that Shero's plan is to bank on Crosby and Malkin and their satellites carrying the offense while he secretly builds a devastating blue line.  The fact of the matter is that the Pens' blue line as it stands today is pretty devastating.  You won't find a better top 4 in the NHL.  It's when you start digging into those final 2 or 3 defensemen that shortcomings start peeking out a little bit.
But those shortcomings didn't stop the Penguins from giving up only 2.39 goals per game last year, tied for 6th-best in the NHL.  Marc-Andre Fleury had a mental breakdown at the beginning of last season but then rebounded to have, statistically, the best year of his career, with a 2.32GAA and a .918SV%.   Before both Crosby and Malkin went down with injuries last season, the Pens were the hottest team in the NHL, and the defense was a huge part of that.  Down the stretch last season, MAF and the blue line were the only reasons the Pens were in games every night.
Now we take a quick look at every one of those guys as the 2011-2012 season kicks off.
Other than the 24/7 stuff, when we hear Ben Lovejoy's name, all we can picture is Martin St. Louis torturing him on a nightly basis.  He shared time off and on with Engelland for a bulk of the season last year, then we guess Bylsma felt bad that Lovejoy got hit in the face with that puck because he was given the nod over Engelland in the physical war zone of the NHL playoffs.  His preseason this year has been forgettable.  But when you're a number-6 defenseman, forgettable is usually a good thing.
Looking at his stats, his plus/minus sticks out like a sore thumb.  But he's a defense-oriented guy, and -5 isn't -700.  A month or so into last season, Engelland was dropping the gloves pretty much on a nightly basis.  But when Crosby and Malkin went down, the team's philosophy shifted, and Engelland going to the box for 5 minutes every night meant the Pens were shortening their blue line during some tight games.  So Engo settled in and started becoming a solid part of the corps.  One thing you can't debate about Deryk Engelland is that he puts his shots on the net.
Matt Riskanen.  Matt Mistakenen.  Whatever you want to call him, all we remember from last season is that watching the Lovejoy/Niskanen pairing in the playoffs was like watching your nephews get abused at Thanksgiving.  But that was last year.  Niskanen hasn't been a liability at all during this preseason.  We personally are giving him a clean slate.
Mr. Consistency.  The Speaker of the House.  Our only complaint about Paul Martin last year was that we expected him to put in a couple more goals here or there.  Down the stretch last season, the Pens needed that sporadic contribution.  But the guy can move a puck, and he's making some decent coin because of it.  Anyone who seriously questions Paul Martin's effectiveness probably needs shot.

Welcome to Michalek Island.
We mentioned earlier that plus/minus can be a fickle thing sometimes.  If we're to use plus/minus as a solid barometer for a player's contribution, then Zbynek Michalek is apparently an average hockey player.  We would be really interested in talking to anyone who considers Zbynek Michalek to be an average player.  He's not going to do anything flashy.  He picks his spots on offense.  As we said last season, Michalek is essentially Rob Scuderi but bigger and better.  Easily one of our favorite signings in the Ray Shero era.  For hockey fans who enjoy the defensive part of the game, Michalek is worth the price of admission.  Such a joy to watch.  A constant presence on the penalty kill.
Any time there is a formidable duo in any aspect of life, they are given the moniker of Batman and Robin.  People want to assign that title to players like Crosby and Malkin.  But we're gonna say that the true Batman and Robin on this Penguins team is Crosby and Letang.  Because when you think about it, without Batman, Robin is basically a shell of his Batman-less self, some emo kid with weird hair who people laugh at as he runs around in bizarre outfits.  That's Kris Letang.  Kris Letang is nowhere near the same kind of player when Sidney Crosby isn't floating around.  He put up career numbers in assists and points last year, and his name was being mentioned every time the Norris Trophy conversation was brought up.  But then Crosby went down.  Part of Letang's drop-off in production was that the Pens' team mentality had to change, but his stupid hair doesn't allow facts to be brought into the discussion.
All we'll say about Kris Letang is that we wish he'd hit the net more often instead of inadvertently sending the other team on odd-man rushes as they pick up the puck off the half-boards.   But in summary, he's probably due for a breakout year, whatever that means.
Orpik is clearly a leader on this team. It is hard to believe at one point in the 2008-2009 season he was actually playing on the fourth line. No clue if Orpik is 100% healthy to begin the year, so that may be something to watch. Not once last season do we remember saying, "Man, that was Orpik's fault." The death stare is still there. Hope he kills Erik Cole again.
Johnny got to do something last season all of us have always wanted to do: Punch Rick DPietro in the face. Johnny is more than capable as a backup. We'll ride or die with him for a solid handful of games.
People were ready to run MAF out of town at the beginning of last year. It wasn't pretty. But as we said, MAF found himself and basically carried the Pens through the entire second half.  The upcoming season could be his Mona Lisa.  The defense should be even better than last season. Visions of the Vezina are dancing.  Nothing else to say.
Wednesday, we look at the forwards.
Thursday morning, we look at the coaching staff and preview the Atlantic.
Friday morning, we are recapping a regular-season hockey game.
Welcome back.