Last July, it was easy to look at the six years and $24.6 million the Penguins gave Brian Dumoulin and wonder if the money might’ve been better spent.
The nature of free agency in any sport is that a team will probably have to ‘overpay’ relative to market value in order to win a bidding war, but Dumoulin was merely a restricted free agent, so the Penguins could’ve simply rolled over Dumoulin’s contract for another year at a slight pay raise, effectively telling the defenseman to prove his worth in 2017-18.
Instead, Jim Rutherford and the two-time defending champions took a risk that Dumoulin, now 26 years old, would continue to develop his all-around game to the point that he’d look like a value by the middle of his new deal.
Ten months later, it appears the Penguins’ front office was prescient, because Dumoulin lifted his performance in many ways in the first year of the contract.
First of all, Dumoulin ended up with five goals in the regular season plus one more in the playoffs, beating his previous career total of five (counting postseason). His 18 points in the regular year also marked an NHL best for the man from Maine.
Dig a little deeper and the Underlying Numbers(TM) were encouraging, as well. Dumoulin’s on-ice share of even-strength shot attempts and scoring chances were 2 and 4 percent better than the Penguins as a team. Those raw rates were the best of Dumoulin’s NHL career, as well, so it wasn’t simply a case of him maintaining his level while the team trended downward.
Considering that Dumoulin played more than 80 percent of his even-strength ice time with an increasingly erratic Kris Letang, it’s easy to say we just watched Dumoulin’s finest season as a Penguin, even if he sounded like he was ready for a two-week nap on locker cleanout day last week at UPMC Sports Complex.
“We all know how grueling the season is,” Dumoulin said, responding to a question about facing a longer summer than usual. “I’m definitely going to take advantage of it and I know a lot of guys are, too. Last year, it felt like we were done and we were getting ready to train again. And that’s a good thing, but we gotta use this to get more fresh and get ready to go again.”
If Dumoulin was a little gassed by the end of the Penguins’ three-peat pursuit, that would be understandable. He averaged over 20 minutes in the regular season for the second straight year and over 21 minutes in the playoffs for the third straight year.
It’s true that Dumoulin often stays at home when he’s with the more free-wheeling Letang, but that doesn’t mean these are easier minutes. For instance, the list of the most frequent opposing forwards Dumoulin faced this season includes some of the brightest lights of the Eastern Conference: Artemi Panarin, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, Taylor Hall, Sean Couturier and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Mike Sullivan broke up Letang and Dumoulin for a brief moment late in the regular season, but it’s rather clear the coach considers 8-58 as the Penguins’ top defense duo at both ends of the ice.
“We’re starting to have a good connection together,” Letang said. “I love playing with Brian. He’s a good player.”
Zone-exit microstats describe Dumoulin’s reliability better than anything anecdotal. Per analyst Corey Sznajder, Dumoulin topped the Penguins’ regular defense corps in three important categories: escaping the defensive zone, escaping it with possession and avoiding exit failures.
Zone Exits also an issue for the Pens defense. Dumoulin’s been the most efficient at getting the puck out and making plays. Everyone else was really feast or famine. pic.twitter.com/S31JD5IDCP
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) May 17, 2018
Let’s not get too carried away. Since Dumoulin played so much with Letang, it wouldn’t be fair to credit Brian alone for those sterling on-ice numbers mentioned above. In fact, Dumoulin had a 49 percent shot share without Letang and a 55 percent share with him, so let’s not act like Dumoulin was dragging Letang up and down the ice all year.
“I don’t think I had to lean on him,” Letang said, pushing back on a question last week. “Everybody has a job to do, you know? If I didn’t do mine, it would not be fair for me as a player to lean on my partner. I needed to be better.”
Fine. But we can probably all agree that Dumoulin was the member of that pairing that had to do more cleaning up of messes. At least, that was the case until the playoffs, when Dumoulin seemed to get more involved in the attack by the game.
Letang said he noticed Dumoulin jumping up more during the regular season, and he’s not wrong. Remember that dubious goalie interference call in Toronto that cost Dumoulin a successful drive to the net? It’s uncertain Dumoulin had ever gotten below the hashmarks in seasons previous.
Against the Capitals in a tight second-round series, Dumoulin took it upon himself to step up into gaps and lug the puck right to the goal on multiple occasions. Only a sharp Braden Holtby prevented Dumoulin from scoring goals from point-blank range in Games 3 and 5.
“I just think whenever the opportunity presented itself to create some offense somehow,” Dumoulin said. “I mean, the forwards don’t have much room out there. If I had a little bit of room and I could create something for them, I tried. Whatever opportunity arises, you try to take it.”
With a long-term contract in hand and a truly superb season under his belt, Dumoulin is in position to not just contribute to the Penguins in the future, but also be a leader. You wouldn’t have imagined such a scenario a couple of years ago, but maybe Dumoulin can help Letang get back to his old Norris Trophy-caliber game in 2018-19 and beyond.
If that happens, Dumoulin will have truly provided extra value. It seems feasible after what we saw over the past several months.
“You could see how hard he was trying,” Dumoulin said of Letang. “That guy cares so much. I think as we go on and play more hockey together, we’re only going to get better.”