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Shero Upgrades Pens' Defense with Martin, Michalek Signings

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s four days before the fourth of July, but the Penguins set off a few fireworks from the war room on the opening day of the NHL’s free agency period.

Pittsburgh bolstered its defensive corps by adding two of the top blueliners available on the market.

The Penguins signed defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek each to five-year contracts that will also provide long-term stability at the back end.

Paul Martin/ Getty Images
“This thing with Michalek came down right away. That was a guy we wanted to target,” general manager Ray Shero said. “It says a lot about Paul Martin – who had a lot of suitors out there – that he wanted to come to Pittsburgh, which made us feel good. It worked out quite well for us. With these two signing with our team, defense is an area of strength. Last year I don’t think it was.”

Martin and Michalek join currently signed Pittsburgh defenders Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Ben Lovejoy.

When the season ended the Penguins had only three defensemen (Orpik, Letang, Goligoski) under contract for the 2010-11 season. The Penguins brass made a point to focus on the defensive position.

With the re-signing of Lovejoy to a three-year deal two weeks ago and Thursday’s inking of Martin and Michalek, Pittsburgh transformed an apparent weakness into strength.

“I think we did really well. Since the end of the season I’ve met with the coaching staff and our pro scouts, the area we addressed, and I was pretty clear over the last couple of weeks about addressing our defense,” Shero said. “By getting Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, I think we’ve done that. We’ve got a great corps of defensemen right now that are signed for a number of years. They’re at the right age I think. That’s the area we targeted to improve our team the most. Today, from our staff and coaches standpoint we’re pretty thrilled.”

The signings will upgrade the team’s defense for the foreseeable future. The Penguins now have Lovejoy (2012-13), Orpik (2013-14), Letang (2013-14), Martin (2014-15) and Michalek (2014-15) under contract for the next three-plus seasons.

“(Martin and Michalek) should be real solid additions to what we already have in Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski,” Shero said. “That is a real solid defensive corps. We’re looking forward to having them play the blue line for a number of years for us.”

Martin and Michalek bring diverse skill sets to the Penguins.

Zbynek Michalek/ Getty Images
Martin is a great two-way defenseman with underrated offensive ability. He put up respectable offensive numbers in New Jersey (five seasons with 20-plus points), despite playing in a defense-first system. His numbers and talent should only flourish under the Penguins up-tempo, attacking system.

“Paul is a really smooth skating defenseman, great stick, good defensively,” Shero said. “Offensive production might be a little bit better than what he’s had in the past. He’s a real solid all-around player. He can play lots of minutes, an effortless skater.”

Michalek is a classic stay-at-home defenseman that will provide a solid presence on the blue line. He’s a shot-blocking specialist (led the NHL with 271 blocked shots in 2008-09), and can play a shutdown role against the opposing teams’ top forwards.

“Michalek is a right-handed defenseman that we really liked,” Shero said. “He’s 27 years old, a big body, 6-foot-2. He was really under the radar in Phoenix. He’s had a great career there. He was an under the radar swap with Minnesota a few years back, and he really blossomed in Phoenix under Dave Tippett. We’ve really liked him for a long time. Phoenix tried really hard to re-sign him. Unfortunately for them he became free. He was our first phone call today. We took care of that pretty quickly.”

Now the Penguins will wait to see what is available at the forward position as free agency proceeds. But they can rest assure that the defense, which took a hit with the defections of Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis, looks as solid as ever.

“We’re going to sit back over the next day or so and see what’s still out there from a forward standpoint,” Shero said. “This is something we’ve talked about for a month internally. We need to address our defense. I made it clear that we’d like to sign Dan Hamhuis and Sergei Gonchar. That didn’t happen. We’re really, really ecstatic to have Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. They’re at the right age and are under a long-term contract. I like the look of our defense today and moving forward.”

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