Friday, July 10, 2009

Square peg, meet square hole


We haven't yet hit the Ides of July yet, so there is plenty of time between now and training camp before rosters are finalized, but the Penguins took a big step in fleshing out their team, signing defenseman Jay McKee to a one-year contract Friday.

The last "need" on Ray Shero's list was a defensive defenseman, ideally one with a physical presence, and McKee fills both roles. Last season, McKee was seventh in the league with 185 blocked shots in only 69 games. Unknown-player-turned-cult-hero Rob Scuderi blocked 164 shots during the regular season to lead the Penguins.

McKee (6-4, 203 pounds) is also quite willing to throw some fierce body checks. YouTube has the evidence. He'll also drop the gloves when he wants.

On paper, McKee seems to be an upgrade over Scuderi. His price tag is believed to be only $800,000, which leaves the Penguins with a little over $2 million with ideally another depth defenseman and a backup goalie to sign.

The problem with McKee - and thus the need for a seventh defenseman - is his injury history. He played only 69 games last year and has suffered concussions, hip injuries, knee injuries, broken fingers, foot injuries, "lower body" injuries, a fractured right hand, charley horses, and probably swine flu and the plague for good measure. He hasn't played over 70 games since the 2005-06 season and you have to go back even further - 2001-02 - for the last time he played over 80 games.

Still, it's a quality signing through and through for a No. 6 defenseman. Assuming Ben Lovejoy signs with Pittsburgh - he hasn't yet accepted his qualifying offer and no contract has been reached - maybe McKee can teach the kid how to play defense and Lovejoy can step in next season to fill McKee's spot.

The Penguins' lineup now looks like this:

Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Bill Guerin
Max Talbot*-Evgeni Malkin-Ruslan Fedotenko
Matt Cooke-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy
Eric Godard/Pascal Dupuis-Mike Rupp-Craig Adams

Sergei Gonchar-Brooks Orpik
Mark Eaton-Kris Letang
McKee-Alex Goligoski

Marc-Andre Fleury
John Curry/veteran backup

(*Talbot will miss the first one or two months of the season, and most likely either Luca Caputi or even Kennedy could be bumped up to the second line. Dupuis could then play on the third line.)

Pittsburgh's defensive pairings will have a nice balance between offense and defense. Gonchar is one of the top defensemen in the league while Orpik is one of the biggest hitters around; Eaton is Scuderi without the publicity of saving a goal in the Final and even showed some offense during the playoffs with four goals, Letang sees top power play time and has the makings of a strong all-around player; and Goligoski showed a flair for offense in limited time last season (six goals, 20 points in 45 games.)

About the last thing for Shero to do is find a veteran netminder to challenge John Curry to be Fleury's backup. Shero has stated Talbot's replacement will come from in-house, and he has a knack for making trades at the deadline, so I'd expect him to save some cap room for that purpose. A trade or two might yet come - the Dupuis contract is one of Shero's mistakes - but for the most part, this will be the team Pittsburgh uses to defend its championship.

No comments: