Defenseman John Marino is smashing all expectations. The Pittsburgh Penguins picked up the rookie defenseman in July for a conditional sixth-round draft choice from the Edmonton Oilers after Edmonton realized they were unlikely to sign Marino, who was soon to be a collegiate free agent from Harvard.
Folks in Boston who scouted Harvard had talked up Marino despite his tepid stats, which included only 11 points in 33 games during his final year. However, one of those folks has a big mouth and a direct line to the Penguins management: Penguins scout Kevin Stevens.
“Kevin had been talking him up for a year,” an industry source told PHN.
At the rookie tournament in September, Marino told PHN the goal was to make the team. It seemed like a lofty goal for a kid who acquired for a sixth-round pick. However, we certainly noticed him and wrote a couple of analysis pieces. At the moment, a rookie making the team seemed a bit far-fetched but with every tournament game, every practice, training camp scrimmage and preseason game, it made more sense.
For laughs, you can see the old interview in the link above. My initial, unspoken reaction to Marino saying he wanted to make the team was, “Ok, kid, maybe after a few months in Wilkes-Barre.”
During our chat, Marino said he was working on adding layers to his game.
“(Offense) is something I’ve been trying to incorporate a little more,” Marino said back then. “I’d say defensively, that’s my strongest suit, but I’m trying to improve on the little things on the offensive blue line, getting shots through, joining the rush, little things like that.”
Little things, huh? Mission accomplished.
Marino is not only a leader in most rookie defensemen leaders in most categories, but he’s taken over the Penguins second pairing in the wake of Justin Schultz’s second lengthy injury absence.
Schultz suffered a lower body injury on Dec. 17 in Calgary. In the 11 games since Schultz’s injury, Marino has seven assists and averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game.
The advanced statistics aren’t as glowing to Marino in the same period as he and defensive partner Marcus Pettersson are underwater in goals against, and even in scoring chances. However, the eye tests and the ever-improving play create highlights such as the one below.
Marino checked the Lawson Crouse, stole the puck, outskated the forecheckers, and set up the breakout. Because Marino zipped past the forecheck of Phil Kessel so quickly and pushed the puck forward, he pinned Crouse and Kessel behind the play. The deft play set up Bryan Rust for a breakaway chance. Watch:
Marino has 22 points, including four goals. He is ninth in NHL rookie scoring and fourth among rookie defensemen. As a little note of comparison, he has five more points than first overall pick Jack Hughes.
Not bad for a conditional sixth-rounder?
John Marino Skills Analysis
Marino has not only shown uncommonly good game speed, but his fluidity also stands out. Marino uses his edges to change direction quickly or effortlessly adjust to the play. His acceleration, as shown in the video above, is like a Tesla; he is quiet and seemingly motionless but immediately at full speed.
Marino has done well to add the offensive layers to his game. He dipped a toe in the water during the preseason by pinching a few times. Then, he activated more. And more. His skating ability allows him to get back into position.
Sunday, the Penguins needed more offensive support from the defensemen. Marino blasted six shots into traffic, which broke down the Arizona logjam in the low zone and created loose pucks for the Penguins forwards to retrieve. Marino didn’t have a shot on goal, but his job was to create pressure from the top of the zone.
Another mission accomplished.
He has also earned the trust of coaches who now use him on special teams. Sunday, Marino played over three-and-a-half minutes shorthanded, which equaled nearly half of the time which the Penguins were shorthanded.
John Marino also played 1:19 on the power play.
In a topic we’ll delve further into over the next several weeks, Marino’s emergence and capability to handle second-pairing duty bodes well for the Penguins’ future. Second-pair defenseman Justin Schultz is a pending UFA, and Jim Rutherford publicly took a “wait and see” approach to a new contract.
A lengthy slump and injuries plagued Schultz since he signed a three-year deal with an average annual value of $5.5 million. Schultz has just 50 points since signing the new contract and had only eight points (2g, 6a) in 27 games this season.
Could the Penguins use Justin Schultz as a trade chip this season and bank on Marino? Cue the ominous organ music. Trade season is just beginning.