Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Appreciating the underappreciated


One of the unsung stars on this year's Penguins team is defenseman Rob Scuderi.

Scuderi is not flashy. He doesn't often hit people. He doesn't score. He rarely shoots. He's not going to throw 100-foot passes to spring a teammate on a breakaway. He'll even have trouble keeping the puck in the attacking end at the blue line and he's not a particularly adept skater.

What he does, and does well, is play steady, solid, dependable defense. He'll give himself up to block shots, leading the team and ranking 12th overall in the NHL with 164 blocked shots, tied with Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen.

He is the prototypical "stay-at-home" defenseman. He is a top penalty killer and is phenomenal at defending the 3-on-5. Scuderi is a type of player every NHL team needs at least one of, if not two. He knows his limits and accepts them, never trying to be more than he is. He's a player you tend not to notice unless he makes a mistake.

Scuderi hasn't been very noticeable this season. However, he did an admirable job of keeping Alex Ovechkin relatively in check this postseason.

People who choose only to look at goals or shot totals or hits tend not to appreciate players like Scuderi. (I have two friends who are like this, and it infuriates me when they belittle him.) But the Penguins would be in a much tougher situation, perhaps not even playing right now, without Scuderi.

And he might be getting too expensive for Pittsburgh to keep.

Scuderi, 30, is an unrestricted free agent after the season. According to one report I saw, industry sources are setting his value at $2.5 million. His current contract pays him $725,000 this season with a cap hit of $713,000.

Pittsburgh's salary cap situation isn't much of a secret around the league, with players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Sergei Gonchar earning some big bucks.

Another player in that mix is Mark Eaton, who basically played like Scuderi before Scuderi played like Scuderi. But Eaton suffered a major injury each of the two seasons prior to 2008-09 and it took him some time to regain his form. While he has basically returned to being the player he was before the injuries, right now Eaton could adequately be described as a poor man's Scuderi, though Eaton did have 148 blocked shots in just 68 games, while Scuderi appeared in 81 games to record his 164 blocks.

Except Eaton is making $2 million per season. So he's a rich poor man's Scuderi.

The Penguins re-signed Eaton prior to this season to a two-year contract despite the injuries limiting Eaton to just 71 games the past two campaigns. It wasn't much of a surprise Ray Shero gave Eaton a new contract. My initial thought was the signing was insurance in case Brooks Orpik chose to join a new team. Reports originally indicated Eaton's contract was for $2 million total, a much more reasonable contract considering his injuries.

When I heard it was $2 million per season, well, I swallowed my tongue a little bit.

That contract is likely going to factor into Scuderi's negotiations. The two players are basically the same, and Eaton's recent goal-scoring binge (he has four in the postseason after having just four in the regular season) is unlikely to "justify" Eaton having a larger contract. Plus Scuderi's 15 assists to Eaton's five would cancel that out anyway.

The point is, Scuderi should be getting a nice little raise come July, and one contract Shero handed out to a similar player will play a factor. Whether Scuderi chooses to take a hometown discount remains to be seen. Should he choose to sign with another team, his loss would be a painful one.

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