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The Departed - Mark Eaton - 08-03-10

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

"The Departed" series on EN is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Mark Eaton.


In the summer of 2005, the Penguins, under general manager Craig Patrick, emerged from the lockout by signing several big-name stars such as Sergei Gonchar, Zigmund Palffy and John LeClair. The results were less than impressive as the Penguins finished next to last in the overall league standings.

In stepped Ray Shero as Patrick's replacement. Shero had helped build the Predators into a stable franchise on the ice by making modest but not flashy moves. In Pittsburgh, he had had a solid young nucleus in place with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and some Russian named Evgeni Malkin who would be making his way to North America soon. Surely with a lot of salary cap space, he would go about finding an all-star to compliment those players. A 40-goal winger or an all-star Norris Trophy-candidate defenseman, right?

He ended up signing Mark Eaton.

Mark Eaton, the former Utah Jazz center with the lumberjack beard?

No. Mark Eaton, the steady, reliable but hardly highlight-worthy defenseman from Delaware.

Ohhh. That Mark Eaton.

Wait... who?

When Shero's time is up as the Penguins' general manager, scoring champions like Crosby or Malkin will surely be the first thing most folks think from this era of the franchise's history. But the very first personnel move Shero made with the organization under his control was to bring in a player he was familiar with from their days in Nashville.

Eaton's arrival in Pittsburgh was hardly greeted with plans of a parade. He wasn't going to knock anyone through the boards like Ulf Samuelsson. He wasn't going to fly up and down the ice like Paul Coffey. He wasn't even going to completely shut down opposing forwards the way Dave Burrows did. All he was going to do was block shots and be a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman.

His first game in a Penguins uniform was typical of Eaton's style of play in that it was completely unmemorable. In 19:57 of total ice time, he had 7:53 of shorthanded ice time and blocked two shots in a 4-0 shutout of the rival Flyers. Injuries limited Eaton to only 35 games that season. He had all of three assists and was a minus-6 in 2006-07. But check out the team's numbers:

 

Without Eaton With Eaton
Games 47 35
Record 22-16-9 25-8-2
Points 53 52
Winning percentage .564 .743
Shutouts 2 4
Goals For 156 121
Goals Against 154 89
Goal For Per Game 3.32 3.46
Goals Against Per Game 3.28 2.54

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


And Eaton proved to be far and away the team's best shot-blocker:

Player Games
Played
Shots
Blocked
Shots
Blocked
Per Game
Sergei Gonchar 82 138 1.68
Josef Melichar 70 131 1.87
Ryan Whitney 81 118 1.45
Brooks Oprik 70 114 1.63
Rob Scuderi 78 109 1.39
Mark Eaton 35 83 2.37
Alain Nasreddine 44 74 1.68

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So despite some significant injuries which caused him to miss more than half the season, Eaton proved his worth his first season in Pittsburgh. Eaton's chance to show his value on the ice was derailed once again in 2007-08 when he was slew-footed two days before Christmas by Bruins forward Marco Sturm along the boards. Eaton's season would be over due to a knee injury and he would miss out on the team's run to the Stanley Cup final that spring. In all, he appeared in 36 games that campaign, recorded three assists and blocked 89 shots.

Shero faced a difficult offseason in 2008 with high-profile wingers such as Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. One way or another, all four were let go in moves which were less than popular. And just as unpopular was the re-signing of Eaton to a two-year contract at $2 million a season. Why re-sign a defenseman coming off a significant injury when the team already had so many other NHL-caliber defensemen on the roster and a few holes to plug up front on the wings?

Ultimately, Eaton once again proved his value. With the team's top two offensive defensemen - Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney - each missing time due to significant injuries of their own, Eaton was a safe, conservative option to pick up those minutes. He would appear in 68 games - almost as many as his previous two seasons combined - contributed nine points and blocked 148 shots. And under interim coach Dan Bylsma, Eaton would discover an offensive element to his game by scoring the first seven points of his NHL postseason career (including four goals) in 24 games as the team won its third Stanley Cup title.

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Eaton's final season with the Penguins would prove to be the best of Eaton's career. He led the team's defensemen with a career-high 79 games and reached a career-high in points with 16. But defense was always Eaton's bread and butter as he was second on the squad with 135 blocked shots. In the postseason, Eaton appeared in all 13 games, recorded three assists and blocked 20 shots.

Last month, he joined the New York Islanders as a free agent. In 218 regular season games with the Penguins, he scored 31 points.

The Penguins never needed Eaton to be a flashy player or a big name. Just safe and dependable. And that's exactly what he was.

(Photos: First-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images; Second-Peter Diana-Post-Gazette; Third-Getty Images)

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