s, For those of us who believe we will see hockey again in 2020 and a conclusion to the 2019-2020 season, the Stanley Cup chase is only paused. We can look ahead to the bruising tournament, which annually showcases the best teams and rewards the most desperate. We can handicap teams based on their season and add in a myriad of new factors such as age and expected effects of months away from the ice. And, we can ask specific questions, such as, “is the Pittsburgh Penguins defense good enough for a Stanley Cup run?”
From Kris Letang to Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin to Justin Schultz, the looming question is: Can the Penguins rearguards provide enough puck movement, defense, and even enough offense to get this Penguins core to its fifth Stanley Cup Final, or fourth Stanley Cup championship?
Penguins Changed the NHL
As hockey sage Scotty Bowman told PHN, “Mike Sullivan was the first to build a racetrack team.”
The Penguins speed and speed game was a jarring feature of their 2016 team. It was far from the singular reason the Penguins finally broke their inexplicable string of playoff disappointments, but their speed was often a “get out of jail free” card.
Every team in the league immediately lurched hard towards defending the Pittsburgh Penguins. Some teams, such as Washington, added a little more speed and more toughness to grind the fast teams. Others went all-in on the speed game.
After the 2016 Penguins, lumbering defensemen quickly became extinct. Big name, big money contracts to those blueliners who couldn’t keep up became summer flings, ripped at the seams.
The Penguins changed the NHL game.
No longer do teams employ slow defenders, and teams stocked on younger legs with new skating techniques. Even the beautiful skill-game faded as general managers screamed for more speed.
However, with some irony, the Pittsburgh Penguins defense is not the fastest. It’s not quite the 142nd fastest gun in the west (Frank Gallop, Dr. Demento reference), but the Penguins defense is a more average unit.
Top defenseman Kris Letang and John Marino are superior skaters, and Letang is one of the best in the league. Schultz is a good skater, but as the game has sped up, his advantage i marginalized.
Brian Dumoulin is also a swift skater. His anticipation and agility enable him to get to pucks quickly and get to uncovered spots with equal rapidity.
Jack Johnson is not quick. Nor is Marcus Pettersson. Both defensemen handle significant responsibilities and minutes on the Penguins left side. While there has been a quiet undercurrent of questions about Pettersson this season, Johnson is a 100-foot lightning rod of criticism. If there is a goal scored, it’s Johnson’s fault. And if you’re undecided, simply scroll through Twitter.
St. Louis and Washington won Stanley Cups since the Penguins last lifted the trophy with offensive talent, grit, but not a heaping helping of speed.
Stanley Cup Worthy?
There isn’t a conglomeration of players, which are as individually respected around the NHL but hammered by fans, even the 2020 All-Star captain Letang. The Penguins won the Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 by virtue of their superior forwards.
The 2016 team controlled the puck. Actually, the 2016 team hogged the puck for four series and didn’t relent in a seldom-seen show of force. The 2017 team was forced to win with a patchwork defense, which featured Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey as the go-to pairing for tough situations and Justin Schultz with Ian Cole as the offensive pairing. With a handful of improbable wins from clutch goals and extraordinary goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, then Matt Murray, the Penguins survived the four-round onslaught.
So, can the 2019-20 team do the same?
But that doesn’t make the task impossible.
The Pittsburgh Penguins no longer have a pronounced advantage among their forwards. The Penguins aren’t even the deepest team in their division (though Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker in the same lineup could be very potent), as Washington can roll four powerful lines.
If the NHL season does resume as many of us hope or expect, the game figures to be a little slower as muscles atrophy and conditioning wanes. Players may be in game shape after a two-three week training camp, but that time won’t rebuild muscles as quickly.
Believe it or not, the speed regression will play to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are a well-coached veteran crew with plenty of younger legs and offensive talent.
Whichever team hoists that 35 pounds of silver won’t remember the isolation of self-quarantine or heed the words of LA Kings defenseman Drew Doughty who downplayed the 2020 Stanley Cup.
“It won’t be the same,” Doughty said a week ago.
He may be right for 30 teams, but for the 31st team, he’s very wrong. To be that 31st team, the Penguins defense will need to be better than it has been, but it won’t need to be better than it is.
The Penguins will need a helping hand from their defensemen to again be the beasts of the east. Justin Schultz will need to rediscover his scoring push, which helped him post 51 points in 2016-17. Pettersson will need to settle-in to the slick, puck-mover he showed himself to be in 2018-19. This season, he has been beaten on the edges and had difficulty evading hard forechecks.
Rookie John Marino changes the Penguins paradigm. His work this season has justifiably drawn rave reviews and his offensive game has blossomed, which gives the Penguins an offensive defenseman on all three pairings, without sacrificing primary responsibility to keep the puck of their own net.
It won’t hurt if Johnson can remain on the Penguins second or third pairing. This season, Johnson was playing some of his best hockey and provides the Penguins defense with a needed dose of physicality. His oft-criticized Corsi rating was around 50% until injuries thrust him on the Penguins top pairing with Letang. The pair sputtered, and Johnson’s stats took a hit, but Johnson was winning over critics with his play and his typical hard-nosed penalty killing. That is the type of game-elevation which the Penguins need from others.
Luck, masquerading as health, wouldn’t hurt either.