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.