and Zbynek Michalek
each to long-term contracts on the first day of free agency last summer, the team knew it was solidifying its defense for the long term.
When the Penguins signed two elite defensemen in
But looking back a year later, those signings could go down in Penguins history as the franchise’s biggest free agent day ever.
The Penguins have always been dangerous offensively and will be for the foreseeable future, with two former scoring champions in Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
– who are 23 and 24 years old, respectively – headlining the team’s forward lineup.
|Michalek is primarily used to shut down the opposing teams' top players, like Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. (Getty Images) |
But until last season, Pittsburgh had been top heavy in that regard. And the Penguins entered the summer following the 2009-10 campaign with just three defensemen – Brooks Orpik
, Kris Letang
and Alex Goligoski – under contract.
To top it off, the supply of elite defensemen doesn’t meet the demand in the National Hockey League, so during free agency, the top blueliners available become even more of a hot commodity. Signing just one is considered a prize in itself.
But the Penguins landed both Martin AND Michalek, the cream of the crop of a strong unrestricted free agent defensemen class – instantly making Pittsburgh one of the deepest and strongest teams in the league in all aspects (forward, defense and goaltending).
And thanks in large part to the pair’s contributions, the Penguins have become one of the best defensive teams in the league. Last season, the Penguins finished sixth in goals-against average (2.39) as compared to 20th the season before, while also concluding the season with the NHL’s No. 1-ranked penalty kill unit for the first time in franchise history.
Even with aforementioned offensive dynamos Crosby and Malkin sidelined for most of the second half of the season, the Penguins’ newfound defensive strength kept them winning games – something that may not have happened in previous years.
|Martin's smooth skating, puck skills and vision allow him to control the flow of the play. (Getty Images) |
In addition, the dependability provided by Martin, 30, and Michalek, 28 – each the top minute-loggers as well as alternate captains on their former teams – ensured that Pittsburgh would have a top four that would be among the league’s best while providing the stability necessary for the entire defensive corps to grow.
That’s certainly proven to be the case, as the 23-year-old Letang has come into his own as a top-two defenseman alongside Orpik with the support of Michalek and Martin.
Those four have been virtually interchangeable, as any combination of those players can be paired against other teams’ top lines. Their consistency has allowed players like Ben Lovejoy
, Deryk Engelland
and newcomer Matt Niskanen
to develop within the system.
That’s also been due in large part to the chemistry that Martin and Michalek have found as defense partners.
After Michalek recovered from a shoulder injury incurred early in the season, assistant coach Todd Reirden – who works primarily with the defense – paired him with Martin as an experiment.
It worked out better than he probably could have imagined.
Not only do their styles complement each other – Michalek is a stay-at-home defenseman who specializes in penalty killing and blocking shots, while Martin is a smooth-skating blueliner with great vision and two-way abilities – but playing together allowed them to learn the style of play the Penguins wanted to implement.
Both players are looking forward to building off their success as a pair next season – and for many more to come.