A large number of people don't realize how far the Penguins defense has come in the past couple years--remember Michel Therrien's classic "too soff" speech, which the very next night they lost 6-1?
The Penguins defense has shown a lot of turnover as Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney have come into their own and been built around, along with free agent pickup Sergei Gonchar.
Here's the Penguins opening night defense last year:
(IR: Orpik and Cairns)
If Orpik wasn't hurt, you could realistically argue that a 19 year old Kris Letang wouldn't have made the Pens roster out of camp. Regardless of that, you've got two guys with really no business being regular NHL defenseman (Melichar and Scuderi) and a 19 year old rookie. Plus Mark Eaton, while very servicable, was brand new to that top pairing role (not to mention this organization).
This should show how excellent Gonchar played, all around, logging the 7th most minutes of any NHL defenseman. He played all situations at all times and acquited himself very well. Certainly moreso than observers give him.
THIS YEAR (on paper, in pencil)
Enter all-around warrior and champion Darryl Sydor and exit stage left Joey Melichar.
(Scuderi and his one-way contract healthy scratched)
So let's break it down, TY v LY:
Eaton-Gonchar v. Eaton-Gonchar
Eaton is still top pairing defenseman, but that's because Sydor's skillset, experience and intangibles perfectly compliment playing with a rookie in Letang. A rookie who tore up the 'Q' and captained Team Canada to a gold medal in the WJC's. Anyways, this is Eaton's 2nd year in the organization and Gonchar's 3rd, so they're much more comfortable in the Pens system and with each other. Gonchar, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin (among others) have been training like madmen in Russia, so expect #55 to get off to a good start. Eaton blocks shots, deflects passes, uses his stick, all the little things. Gonchar chews up minutes and is better in his own end then people realize. I'm not saying he's Scott Stevens, but he's ALWAYS matched up against the other team's top forwards and usually plays well.
Orpik-Whitney v. Melichar-Whitney
Whitney's a lot better and a lot more confident going into this year than last (his first full NHL season), and Orpik blows Melichar out of the water in every way, most of which the great chemistry Orpik and Whitney display. It's the classic stay-at-home dman and an offensive dman pairing.
Sydor-Letang v. Scuderi-Letang
Darryl Sydor is a warrior. And a two time Stanley Cup Champion (Dallas 1999, Tampa 2004). He knows what it takes to get the job done and will pay the price to do so. In many ways Sydor was a lot like Letang is when he first broke in; a good skater, a smooth puck moving defenseman. As Sydor aged he became more oriented to the all-around game and didn't get the PP time to develop into the offensive defensemen that Letang projects too. This pairing should be everything you want on paper though, a left handed steady veteran and a promising right handed offensive rookie.
Letang's previously mentioned experience with his cup of coffee in Pittsburgh last year should help, and any time you play for Team Canada (and wear a C on your chest) it's a big deal, at any level. Letang shouldered that burden and came back golden. You gotta like that.
All in all the D is improved. It improved to 14th in goals against last year and should be better this year, if all stays healthy and Marc-Andre Fleury continues his ascent. Obviously it's not the strong suit that the forwards are, but it doesn't have to be.
If the coaches (especially Therrien and Andre Savard) can keep enstilling an effective counter-attacking system, the perceived 'weakness' of not having much pure defensive defenseman muscle will be nullified by backchecking forwards, turnovers and quick, crisp passes from very good puck moving defensemen like Gonchar, Whitney, Letang and Sydor. And unlike last year when there were some anchors that couldn't clear the puck, or iced it constantly (Melichar, Scuderi and Alain Nasreddine) even Eaton and Orpik can move the puck--or alteast are savvy enough to get it to their partner most times.
As always with defensemen, injuries could unravel it all. The Penguins do have some NHL depth, given that Scuderi (78 NHL games played LY), Nasreddine (44 gp) and free agent Mike Weaver (39 gp with the LA Kings); but obviously none of those guys should really be pressed into duty too often for a team with aspirations to go deep into the playoff.s