Grading the Pittsburgh Penguins Defence

Pittsburgh Penguins defence
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The Pittsburgh Penguins defence has weathered many a storm just over a month into the 2020-2021 NHL season. With as many as five defencemen out of the lineup at once, the Penguins organizational defensive depth has been tested to the max. 11 different defencemen have dressed for the Penguins so far this season. 

Top-pair defender Brian Dumoulin and Juuso Riikola will be out for a while longer. The Penguins have just welcomed Marcus Pettersson back to the lineup. Now they finally have three players that actually shoot left-handed at their disposal. What a novelty. Without further adieu, let’s grade a few of the Penguins defencemen. 

Grading the Pittsburgh Penguins Defence

Kris Letang: C+

A year older and it seems Kris Letang has lost half a step. Getting beaten to a puck by Alex Ovechkin is only one of several such blunders. Letang has not looked good at all, either even-strength or on the power play. That’s not saying much. No one has looked good on the power play, but I digress. Letang is not showing much at all. He’s appeared slow in his decision making and his decisions have been faulty, to say the least. 

As per the usual, Letang is leading the Penguins with 24:38 minutes per game. Remember those are a ton of heavy minutes against top lines, but Letang simply has to be better. Letang hasn’t scored yet and isn’t even getting pucks on net, with only 27 shots through 12 games. He’s taken some dumb penalties and isn’t driving the play like he usually does. Playing with 21-year-old Pierre-Oliver Joseph should stabilize the pairing, but why does a future Hall-of-Famer need a rookie to “fix” his pair. Enough said. 

John Marino: B-

John Marino had a whirlwind rookie season. Heavy minutes of elite defensive hockey led to his being crowned number one defenceman of the future with a $26.4 million contract extension. Marino has had a bit of a slow start this season. He appears to be overthinking the game and even pushing too hard at times. Is it the revolving door of defence partners? Or the pressure of a new contract? Or the alleged sophomore slump? Explain the sophomore slump to Jack Hughes.

Marino has the talent. We all saw it every single game last year. He is a still a smooth and swift skater. He was in the 100th percentile at even strength defence. Yes, you read that right. He was literally one of the best defensive defencemen in the NHL last season. Seemingly every time someone came down the left wing last season with Marino back they were shut down. Marino has great gap control and rides people harmlessly into the corner while using his stick effectively. The Harvard man gets on the honour roll even when he’s struggling. That’s just how good this kid is. 

PO Joseph: A

Speaking of the kids how about Pierre-Oliver Joseph? Buried behind four other left handed defencemen, he started the season on the taxi squad. A few injuries later, he found himself on the top pairing with Kris Letang. Penguins assistant coach Mike Vellucci was right about this one. He is NHL-ready and can play in the top-four today of a contending team. He has provided the Penguins with many more options moving forward and has given them the option to move another defenceman to get help in another area.

POJ has come as advertised. He has only made the Penguins blue line quicker and has good reach. Much was made of his lack of size but he has proven he doesn’t need his weight to start with a two. He’s put on some muscle and has shown it. PO gets a pass on the Mathew Barzal goal. Not many defenceman could have done better in that situation. POJ is here to stay.

Cody Ceci: A-

Much-maligned Cody Ceci was thought of by many as Jack Johnson 2.0 from the minute he signed a one-year $1.25 million deal this past offseason. Although he had a rough first couple games, he has settled in nicely. Cody Ceci has exceeded all expectations in his still short Penguins’ career. He has the physical talents to succeed, and is more than capable of solidifying Pittsburgh’s third defensive pair. He’s moving well and getting pucks up to the forwards, even joining the rush at the direction of the coaching staff. 

His play has been a lot closer to his promising first couple seasons in Ottawa than his tenure in Toronto. Under the harsh spotlight of the infamous Toronto media and fanbase, he struggles mightily. Forced to shoulder top-pairing duties with Morgan Reilly, he lost confidence and steadily declined. Toronto still lacks any resemblance of defensive structure even minus the scapegoat Ceci. (See Ottawa’s comeback from 5-1 down.) The Toronto Maple Leafs are still a gong show!

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