Does the Pittsburgh Penguins defence, or the organization understand the meaning of the word “healthy”? It seems not. There are days that it feels like the Penguins’ medical staff is busier than the rest of the organization put together. If Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford had any hair left, he’d have every right to be pulling it out right about now. No matter how carefully he arranges his roster, there’s always the possibility of players getting hurt. The squad was healthy for a mere two periods last season. Now only six games into this fledgling season, it has been ravaged by the injury bug once again. This time, it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins defence that is having issues.
Pittsburgh Penguins Defence Facing Challenges
In only his second game in a Penguins sweater, reclamation project Mike Matheson received a hit from Nicolas Aube-Kubel that sent him spinning into the end wall. Now with Matheson on injured reserve, we can only assume that hit had something to do with his injury.
The Washington Capitals then came to town. In the second game between the two teams, T.J. Oshie erased Marcus Pettersson with a borderline illegal hit in the open ice. Oshie’s almost 200 pounds glanced off Pettersson’s shoulder before making head contact.
Also in that game, Juuso Riikola vanished after two periods, leaving the Pens with four defensemen for the 3rd period. What happened to him? We’ll never know, partially because it’s the unwritten, eleventh commandment of hockey NOT to reveal the nature of injuries. On a side note, the defenseman GMJR always refers to as NHL-caliber in Zach Trotman is also out long term with a torn meniscus.
EDIT: After this was initially written, yet another Penguins Left-handed defensemen was injured. Brian Dumoulin left the 3-2 loss on Tuesday night.
The Current Situation.
So where does that leave the Pittsburgh Penguins defence right now? The already-mediocre group of defensemen is now down five players, three of which would start in the top-six. The Penguins’ four best left-handed defensemen are all injured! That leaves Mike Sullivan several unappealing combinations. For now, he has the defensemen paired as follows:
The current pairings have John Marino playing his off-side with Cody Ceci. Although not ideal, would you rather have career AHLer Kevin Czuczman starting? That would force rookie Pierre-Olivier Joseph up into the top-four. Although Joseph has looked good, he’s played all of two NHL games with heavily sheltered minutes. Placing him on the second pairing would be the very definition of throwing him into the fire, as he’d be presumably playing behind a struggling Evgeni Malkin line with a struggling John Marino against other team’s top lines.
Who needs to step up?
Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin have been an elite combination for years now but have struggled thus far this season. Dumoulin and Letang have played a team leading 106:18 minutes together at five-on-five this season, posting a 54.78 percent Corsi. Their Expected Goals for is 55.98 percent coupled with a 58.67 scoring chances for. But despite solid possession numbers, the duo has an average 1.9 goals for per 60 minutes played with 2.9 goals against. As a result, their even-strength goals for percentage is a mere 42.75%.
Letang needs to step up and perform at least in the vicinity of Norris-caliber defenseman as he’s shown at times. Dumoulin hasn’t looked good since his ankle was lacerated in November of 2019, granted he’s only played about 20 games since then. Dumoulin and Letang have been the Penguins figurative peanut butter and jelly for years. Holding the team together defensively while jumpstarting Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin offensively. The Penguins need them to be elite now more than ever, taking the bulk of the minutes in all situations.
Now with a potential Dumoulin injury, Letang will have to revert to his amazing 2016 playoff self or this Pittsburgh Penguins defence will crumble.
Penguins defenseman John Marino is off to a rough start this season. He doesn’t look nearly as smooth or comfortable as he did in his whirlwind rookie campaign. Perhaps the pressure of his new six-year, $26.4 million dollar contract combined with the stereotypical sophomore slump has begun to affect his play. Combine that with being forced to play his off-side and his new and hopefully very temporary partnership with not-top-four-calibre defenseman Cody Ceci and the odds of breaking out are not in his favour.
To date, Marino has been very underwhelming with subpar number across the board. A 48.4% Corsi, minus-six, and the fact he hasn’t recorded a point yet are merely scratching the surface of his struggles. John Marino no longer looks cool, calm, and collected with the puck. He has been losing puck battles, turning the puck over, and making bad decisions with the puck. His defensive zone coverage has been spotty, to say the least. The Penguins really need him to replicate last year’s results as the Penguins are not exactly flush with good options on the right side with Ruhwedel and Ceci next in the pecking order.
Is this too much to ask? He’s barely played 25 minutes in the NHL but expectations are high for the 21-year-old. Pressed into action sooner than the Penguins would have liked due to the aforementioned injury mess, Joseph will have to step up and prove he can be a competent NHL defenseman. He doesn’t have to be John Marino good, but wouldn’t that be something? All the Pens are asking is for him to move his feet and move the puck.
With his former Wilkes-Barre Scranton Head Coach Mike Vellucci now behind the penguins’ bench as his biggest fan, Joseph has been paired with steady veteran Chad Ruhwedel on the third pairing. Joseph will need to soak up every piece of advice he can from the Penguins veteran defence and defense coach Todd Rierden.
It is only natural to assume GMJR is looking to add help on the left side of the defence, even more so with the Dumoulin injury. Right now, the Penguins only have Joseph and Czuczman on the left side. As well, Marino is already playing the left side. Too many right-handed shots playing the left side would be ugly to watch. Finally, does Mike Sullivan even know what his pairings will look like next game? Whatever they are, they will not look pretty.