Penguins defenseman Eaton standing strong
He is perhaps the most soft-spoken voice in the Penguins locker room, but defenseman Mark Eaton’s unwavering play has not gone unnoticed.
In a season when the Penguins defensemen have become more more synonymous with Blue Cross than the blue line, Eaton has been a rock, and the player who seemingly couldn’t stay healthy now is becoming the lynchpin of the team’s defense.
“I think he’s getting tired of all these people saying that he’s been the only healthy one,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said, “knock on wood. It’s been a tough year for us with the injuries, and he’s really been great.”
Eaton’s role has varied this season. He ultimately is a responsible, defensive defenseman. However, because of injuries to Sergei Gonchar, Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang, Eaton has seen his share of power-play time. And while his offensive skill set isn’t comparable to that of the players who were injured, it might be significantly underrated.
Eaton was drafted to be an offensive defenseman by the Philadelphia Flyers, and he did score four goals during last year’s postseason.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the style Dan implemented when he took over,” Eaton said. “He has encouraged the defensemen to be more aggressive, and I think you saw that’s when I started chipping in a goal here and there.”
Eaton has recorded three goals and four assists this season, hardly eye-popping numbers, but he was a steady influence on the top power play when called into duty.
“I think people forget he was an offensive guy in college (at Notre Dame), and he was a power-play guy with Philly and Nashville,” Orpik said. “Those skills are there. Maybe they were a little rusty at first, but he can play that role. I think he changed his game into being more of a defensive defenseman when he came here.”
With the team’s offensive defensemen all suffering injuries, and with Jay McKee and Orpik also missing time, Eaton’s role expanded dramatically. There was stretch when he was the Penguins’ most qualified player to work the point on the power play and its top penalty-killer.
“My job is still to be a defensively responsible guy before anything else,” Eaton said. “I just help out any way I can.”
Bylsma appreciates Eaton’s steady nature.
“He’s the kind of guy who could be the No. 6 defenseman or the No. 2 defenseman on any given night, and you wouldn’t see any difference,” Bylsma said. “He’s just the same player every night.”
Eaton turned out to be a godsend with so many young defensemen recently littering the lineup.
He is the kind of player who thrives under adverse conditions.
“He has a demeanor that’s a lot like Sergei Gonchar’s — the highs aren’t too high, and the lows aren’t too low,” Bylsma said. “It’s tough to tell whether he’s having a good day or bad day because of how matter-of-fact Mark is. It pays off during times of injuries and difficulties because you know he’s bringing that same mentality to the rink every day.”
Eaton suffered season-ending injuries in each of his first two campaigns with the Penguins. GM Ray Shero, however, got a taste of Eaton’s ability years ago in Nashville and rewarded the defenseman with a contract despite the bad luck with injuries.
In an ironic twist, Eaton has remained healthy and is playing arguably the best hockey of his career.
“You can’t say enough about the job he has done,” Orpik said. “We’ve really needed him and he has come through for us.”