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Analyzing the Pittsburgh Penguins New and Improved Top Four

Kyle Dubas put his stamp on the Penguins with a new and improved top four defensive unit. But how will these pieces fit together and what will the Pittsburgh Penguins top four look like?

Pittsburgh Penguins “New Look” Top Four

As the 2023-2024 season draws nearer, fans around the greater Pittsburgh area are starting to brim with excitement. Despite a disappointing end to the past season, General Manager Kyle Dubas has infused new life into the aging Penguins. Dubas’ big fish was Norris Winner Erik Karlsson, he got him. Penguins fan began salivating at the thought of a revamped powerplay and crisp breakouts to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Almost lost in the euphoria has been the practical question of what the new Top Four Defensive group should look like. Fans online seem to have the preconceived notion that the Pittsburgh Penguins Top Four will look something like this:

Pettersson   Letang

Graves         Karlsson

While this Pittsburgh Penguins Top Four looks to be elite, the two defencemen on the left side can change places. We won’t know until training camp starts how these four will gel with one another. But let’s take a look at possible combinations based on past results and see if we can predict some future success.

Pettersson Letang…A look back

Let’s start with the grouping that we have the most data for. While Brian Dumoulin was stapled to Kris Letang for most of his tenure, injuries and poor performance over the last season elevated Marcus Pettersson to the top pair.

According to NaturalStatTrick, Marcus Pettersson and Kris Letang had 408 minutes with each other during the 2022-2023 season. For comparison, Letang and Dumoulin played 543 minutes with each other last year. Point being, Pettersson and Letang obviously have a relative comfortability with one another.

During those 408 minutes, the pair generated offence at a fairly average rate, as they had an Expected Goals For Percentage of 55.98%. For reference, top pairs in the NHL usually hover around the 55-60% mark. Meaning that these two, albeit with limited ice time, have shown that they can generate offence AND keep the puck out of the net at an above average level.

What About Graves?

The newest addition to the Pittsburgh Penguins top four is a stellar player. Before Kyle Dubas made his big splash of acquiring Karlsson, he signed a lanky defencemen from a Metropolitan foe, Ryan Graves.

The appeal with Graves is rather obvious. At 6’5″, Graves has been known to use his long reach to stymy rushes from opposing teams, as well as snap quick, efficient breakout passes to the forwards on the rush.

Last year in New Jersey, Graves spent most of his time with former Penguins John Marino. Again, the pair did fairly well together, with their Expected Goals For Percentage last season being 58.46% (via NaturalStatTrick).

If we take a look at Graves individually, things start to get a bit murky. One advanced stat that has been making its rounds in the hockey community is WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Essentially, a player’s WAR percentage is a single number that quantifies a large number of offensive and defensive impacts, such as scoring chances created, shots for and against, expected goals for and against, among many others. The higher the WAR%, the more of a positive impact a player is to their specific team. According to the model created by JFresh, Ryan Graves’ projected WAR % is an unappealing 20%. This is due to the decline in defensive impact he had last year, implying that the Expected Goals For Percentage listed above is weighted heavily by John Marino.

When looking at Graves and Pettersson, the two players are eerily similar in appearance and build, but when digging into the advanced stats, it becomes apparent that Pettersson is the more complete player. Petterssons’ projected WAR % for the upcoming season is a much more manageable 83%.

Now, like all analytics, it’s easy to look at these numbers in a vacuum and assign meaning, but until meaningful games get played, we don’t have much else to go on.

Swedish Connection?

As previously mentioned, the overwhelming thought going into training camp is that Pettersson will play with Letang. However, is it possible that Coach Sullivan could bump Graves up to the top spot replacing Dumoulin and have a Swedish connection of Pettersson and Karlsson on the second pair of the Penguins top four?

Karlsson’s warts have been well documented; he struggles in his own end. That being said, he is a legitimate superstar offensive defensemen who is coming off a Norris Winning, 100 point campaign. It’s clear to see why the Penguins snatched him.

With Pettersson, Karlsson is able to roam free a bit more than he would if Graves were to his left. As noted above, Graves’ numbers last year were ballooned slightly by the defensive acumen of John Mario. This is something that Karlsson frankly does not possess.

While Letang is certainly no Nicklas Lidstrom, he doest boast more positive defensive numbers than Karlsson. This could potentially mean that a Graves Letang pairing will fair better in the defensive end.

Sully’s Choice

Ultimately, Coach Mike Sullivan has a good problem on his hands. No matter who Letang and Karlsson play with, the Penguins Top four is improved from last year. It will be interesting to see what combinations Sully employs come training camp.

Main Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports


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