The Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled to report to training camp on Wednesday with the first day of on-ice activities coming on Thursday.
Here is a look at their depth at the left-side defensemen.
All of the attention on the Penguins’ blue line is focused on the right side due to the presence of luminaries such as incumbent Kris Letang and newcomer Erik Karlsson.
But the Penguins’ are much deeper on the left side, especially given their aggressive pursuit of defensive stalwart Ryan Graves.
Signed to one of the largest contracts an unrestricted free agent received this offseason (six years, $4.5 million salary cap hit), Graves will be expected to be a shutdown countermeasure to either Letang or Karlsson, each of whom is more than willing to be aggressive offensively.
Graves has a history in that type of role having been a partner to offensive drivers such as Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche and Dougie Hamilton of the New Jersey Devils. And he’s not exactly a slouch offensively either. In 78 games with the Devils last season, Graves had 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists).
Additionally, Graves offers a badly-needed boost of size at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, though, he’s not exactly renowned for his physical play.
The most pressing question about Graves is if he’ll be partnered with Letang or Karlsson. In some ways, Graves will be competing with the returning Marcus Pettersson to sort out the top two pairings.
Last season, Pettersson emerged as a part-time partner to Letang on the top pairing and came through with one of his best seasons as an NHLer. In 68 games, Pettersson posted 24 points (one goal, 23 assists).
Below them, there will be two first-round picks battling it out to man the left side of the third pairing.
P.O Joseph claimed that role last season as a rookie and showed some flashes that led to the Arizona Coyotes selecting him No. 23 overall in 2017. He had solid numbers, putting up 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in 75 games, but the fatigue of his first full NHL season began to show late in the campaign and he was even a healthy scratch on occasion.
Ty Smith might have been on the NHL roster and playing ahead of Joseph last season if he weren’t in the final year of his entry-level contract and exempt from waivers, a designation that led to Penguins management assigning him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the majority of the 2022-23 campaign.
Smith got a brief cup of coffee at the NHL level in December and January but was experimented with on the right side. In nine NHL games — including a handful of contests on the first power-play unit — Smith had four points (one goal, three assists).
Re-signed to a one-year contract this offseason, Smith is no longer exempt from waivers. That will force management to make a hard decision on either him or Joseph.
Mark Friedman, a right-hander who can play either side of the blue line, is still around, and his versatility, skating and penchant for getting physical will always give him a chance to be a reserve No. 7 defenseman.
Will Butcher was signed to a one-year two-way contract in July after enjoying a prolific 2022-23 campaign at the AHL level with the Texas Stars. In 65 games, he recorded 43 points (six goals, 37 assists). He’ll likely be one of the first options the team will turn to for a potential recall in the event of injuries to incumbents on the NHL roster.
Entering his second season with the organization, Xavier Ouellet is a classic “4A” player who is a star in the AHL but merely a “break glass in case of emergency” option for the NHL roster.
Offseason acquisitions Ryan Shea (one-year, two-way contract) and Libor Hajek (professional tryout) will be competing for nothing more than opportunity in training camp.