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Defenseman Should Be on Rutherford’s Trade Deadline Priority List

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Pittsburgh Penguins Juuso Riikola

The Pittsburgh Penguins are likely to get defenseman Justin Schultz back on Tuesday night in Philadelphia for their final game before a nine-day break, which includes the All-Star Game and their bye week. That should give Penguins GM Jim Rutherford plenty of time to address the Penguins primary need. Before the Penguins trade for a scoring winger, they should fortify their left-side defenseman.

The Penguins have not been sharp since Jake Guentzel was ripped from their lineup with a season-ending shoulder injury, but they have scored enough goals to win. And any player capable of replacing Guentzel in the Penguins lineup will be costly.

However, the Penguins have also struggled with the defense. The patchwork pairings have each let the Penguins down. Currently, the Penguins third defense pairing with Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel are being given sheltered minutes with a disproportionate number of offensive zone starts to limit their defensive shortcomings.

Teams have been able to get at the Penguins defensemen and create pressure against the Penguins. The Penguins resiliency has shown through, but improving now would lessen the burden.

Getting Justin Schultz back will help, sort of.

“It will be a huge boost. He’s a real good player. He’s played a lot of good minutes for us, he’s been banged-up a fair amount this year,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “When we do get him back, it’s going to be a big boost for the team.”

Riikola and Ruhwedel have been playing about 12-13 minutes per game, which is a small number for defensive pairing. But with Schultz, which one will be a healthy scratch? Riikola is the natural left-side defenseman who provides the righty-lefty balance, but his play has suffered lately.

Ruhwedel hasn’t been significantly better, but he is a veteran presence. The Penguins could opt for another righty-righty pairing as they did in the days following LHD Brian Dumoulin’s severed-tendon injury.

Really, there are no good options, which is why the Penguins trade for an LHD becomes important. No matter the current choice of pairings, the Penguins patchwork defense will remain their weak link. Regardless of which two defenders comprise the third pairing, the Marcus Pettersson-John Marino pairing has, at times, graded poorly despite strong individual performances. The Jack Johnson-Kris Letang pairing is a marriage of necessity as well.

One capable LHD could change the Penguins’ choices. And their fortunes.

Before GM Jim Rutherford goes after a winger capable of scoring goals beside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, Rutherford should look to his blue line first. Around the league, there are a handful of veteran left-side defensemen on expiring contracts, including former Penguins Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey. If they don’t strike the Penguins’ fancy, there are several more choices. (Click here for the full PHN list of LHD on expiring contracts).

Given the Penguins struggles with the Boston Bruins, and coming wars with the Washington Capitals, would anyone say no to Ottawa’s Mark Boroweicki?

It’s difficult to use advanced stats for defensemen adequately. Different situations, line matchups, and the amount of time on the ice with grinding lines skew the data-driven story. For example, the Pettersson-Ruhwedel pair played about 100 minutes together and were underwater in goals against and shots, but just a couple of scoring chances on the positive side. The Riikola-Ruhwedel pairing in 160 minutes has better numbers across the board, according to NaturalStatTrick.com

But no one will argue Riikola is better than Pettersson (or at least they shouldn’t).

What can’t be argued is the Penguins blue line is a mismatch of talents. After Dumoulin returns to his top-pairing spot, the Penguins blue line will again be one left side injury away from the same place they are in now.

The Penguins have something special brewing. Their charge up the standings and through talented teams has been nothing short of impressive. Yes, a Penguins trade for a scoring winger would make life easier, but a better-left side would provide a better foundation. And it would ensure the Penguins have the puck more often, too.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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HarkeyPuck
HarkeyPuck
1 year ago

I agree with this opinion. We are going to need 8-9 defensemen to get through the East. While I like 2 & 50, I’d rather not have to rely on both of them playing significant minutes come April. And before we give away too much for a rental let’s see what Bjugstad can do to help the the forward lineup. Maybe he and Galchenyuk can figure something out on a line together. Wishful thinking I know, but let’s see what we have there first.

pmms12585
pmms12585
1 year ago

This team doesn’t need a forward. They have a full set of legit top-6 and top-9 forwards as is, and they’ll be getting a 3C in Bjugstad back. The only way I would even consider going after another forward via trade is if there are two more injuries (for example, if both Kahun and Simon were knocked out long-term); they can absorb one more forward loss, but not two. Depth on the left side is definitely the overarching concern. This will be helped once Dumoulin comes back, but even then they are one injury away from being really exposed on… Read more »

candydasein
candydasein
1 year ago

Good stuff. I could also see GMJR going all in on depth 2017 style and getting a Daley and a Boroweicki. I think Riikola hasn’t been quite as bad as others seem to think, but I’m not psyched about him going into corners in the Eastern playoffs. Also, anyone we can get to help reduce some of Pettersson’s workload would be a huge help. I think he’s struggling and gassed from being pushed into a role he’s not quite ready for. Good player but he looks a little in over his head right now.

David Barkley
David Barkley
1 year ago
Reply to  candydasein

Yep I don’t understand why everyone thinks pettersen is that good he is a turnover machine and 1 on 1 is horrible

Ron Klatt
Ron Klatt
1 year ago
Reply to  David Barkley

He is also only 23 years old who, until this year, had 100 NHL games under his belt… This is his 2nd full season in the NHL… He needs to bulk up, that much I will say for sure. He is targeted and drops easily for a man his size. If he put on 10-15 pounds in the gym this offseason he would be a beast This is a guy that is a 50/50 split for defensive starts and still has great analytics. Like them or not they tell a big part of the story. His GvA numbers are no… Read more »

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[…] Defenseman Should Be on Rutherford’s Trade Deadline Priority List  Pittsburgh Hockey Now […]

David Barkley
David Barkley
1 year ago

Yep pettersen is a turnover machine and one on one is horrible

Paul Katz
Paul Katz
1 year ago

Yes I like your idea of obtaining Borowiecki because getting past Washington is required to go further.
Also,Anaheim desperately needs scoring and it would not hurt to have a Nicolas Deslauriers on the roster just for that series. Anaheim gave a 4th round pick to Montreal for him and a 4th and Galchenyuk? I dont’ know if Galchenyuk,has much value but I like Deslauries and Borowiecki as options for Washington.

Anthony
Anthony
1 year ago

Sometimes i wonder if any of you actually watch the games and follow the team. What legit top 6? They are leaning on a few very talented players. Simon not top 6, mb even a 12/13. Kahun barely top 6 mb better bottom 6 for now. You cant win a cup with just 2 elite forwards per line consistently. Before Jake got hurt we needed a depth scorer, so we may need 1 top 6 and a depth forward. For sure a depth defenseman like boroweicki or someone who doesn’t hurt to put in the press box. Dumo and shultz… Read more »

King Penguin
King Penguin
1 year ago

Borowiecki and Pageau for Galchenyuk and a second-rounder. (Become a first-rounder if Pageau is resigned.)

Jordan Mack
Jordan Mack
1 year ago
Reply to  King Penguin

That trade will take more to land both Borowiecki and Pageau as Galchenyuk is on an expiring contract. Maybe a top tier prospect.

E.J.
E.J.
1 year ago

A major weakness you never hear about is face-offs. Only Crosby is dependable in his own zone late in games, a situation that becomes more crucial in the playoffs.The return of Bjugstad (career 49 percenter) won’t change that. Neither will Malkin, McCann and Blueger, who are erratic at best. Have to address this before the deadline.

Cal
Cal
1 year ago

Dan, I’ve mentioned Tryamkin out of Van system but in the KHL. I think he would be a beast in Pitts. Any realistic chance he be be had?

Cal
Cal
1 year ago

*realistic chance he could be traded for

BIG B
BIG B
1 year ago

Juuso Riikola is better than Petterson right now

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[…] The Penguins, who are playing third defensive pairing Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel just 12-13 min…. Pittsburgh could also use Gustafsson’s presence on the power play, as its man-advantage unit is just 17th in the NHL (19.6%). […]

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