At just the right time, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman John Marino is opening up more Penguins trade options for GM Jim Rutherford. The offseason analysis of the Penguins defense centered not on how they could improve but how they could best configure the pairings to achieve balance. Suddenly, the Penguins have another bonafide NHL defenseman whom they didn’t expect and who is kicking at the door for ice time.
As a coach, it is a good problem to have. As a GM, it opens up more possibilities to address pressing roster needs. The Penguins played with just 11 forwards Tuesday night. Thursday, they primarily played with 10 because callups Adam Johnson and Andrew Agozzino played less than two minutes each.
Marino’s inclusion meant veteran defenseman Erik Gudbranson was a healthy scratch.
Head coach Mike Sullivan answered PHN’s question from Thursday morning about his usage of the newbies, not with words but with actions. Definitively, the Penguins need forwards. Center Evgeni Malkin will be out another four to five weeks. Nick Bjugstad has at least another three weeks to go. The Penguins have not yet given a timetable for Bryan Rust, who injured his hand when he blocked a shot in the final preseason game, though his absence could be the longest.
I believe my sentiment after the Penguins acquired the rights of a soon-to-be college free agent from the Edmonton Oilers in July was at best dismissive. It was a depth move. The kid from Harvard only had 11 points in his third and final year of college hockey. He has good size, but it’s a trade for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins blue line. At least that’s why I thought when the Penguins snagged Marino from Edmonton for a conditional sixth-round pick in July.
PHN asked Marino during the Prospects Challenge and was a little surprised when he asserted his goal was to make the NHL roster.
I’ll be eating those words now.
Marino, 22, has burst onto the Penguins scene in the same way Olli Maatta did as an 18-year-old rookie, and in much the same style that Juuso Riikola sprang into the Penguins conversation last season.
“Yes, he does (have a chance to win a job in the top-six). That’s why he played (Thursday),” Penguins head coach Sullivan deadpanned.
As the smooth-skating Marino earns ice time, he’s taking it away from multi-million dollar veteran players.
“We put him in the lineup because we think he can help us win. He’s a good hockey player, and he’s shown a lot through training camp and up until this early part of the season,” said Sullivan. “That’s why the decision was made to put him in the lineup in the first place.”
John Marino put all of his skills on display Thursday, and even showed his inexperience a couple of times, too. Marino made a pair of turnovers as he tried to skate through the teeth of the Anaheim defense at the red line. One turnover led to a two-on-one, the other led to sustained offensive pressure against the Penguins.
Marino will learn the right spots to skate with the puck, but given the Penguins lack of puck carrying defensemen on the third pairing since Trevor Daley left via free agency after the 2017 Stanley Cup win, the Penguins see Marino’s potential. Not only does he have the ability to move the puck, but his agility allows him to play aggressively at the defensive blue line.
“He’s a big strong kid. He’s got a good stick. He is mobile, defends hard and he’s got a little edge to his game,” Sullivan said before stating getting to the heart of the matter. “And he’s got poise with the puck.”
Marino and Riikola give the Penguins a pair of low-salary players who are pushing for NHL ice against the more defensive and expensive Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson. The Penguins have tried to trade Johnson but not found the market to their liking. At the very least, reports persist that Johnson was part of the original Phil Kessel deal with Minnesota, which Kessel vetoed.
PHN has also come to believe based on a volume of conversations, there was legitimacy to efforts deal Johnson on the eve of the regular season. Eventually, the Penguins will also need to clear salary-cap space. If not in the immediate, then before Rust returns to the lineup.
With Marino’s emergence, Rutherford has an extra chip. TSN reporter Bob McKenzie tossed Erik Gudbranson’s name in the mix earlier this week.
Early season trades are rare in the NHL as GMs settle into the season to see what they need before going shopping again. However, Rutherford has pulled off several in the past few years, including acquiring Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin last November and swiping Marcus Pettersson from Anaheim last December. Rutherford also acquired Riley Sheahan for Scott Wilson in October 2017.
Sidney Crosby had to play 24 minutes on Thursday night. Jake Guentzel played nearly 26 minutes, and Patric Hornqvist played just shy of 22. The seven power plays aided those minutes, but so too did a lack of a fourth line. The Penguins need help in the immediate.
And John Marino is giving the Rutherford more options to fill those needs.