It was there for all to see on Tuesday night. It wasn’t just a bad game, it was a Pittsburgh Penguins structural flaw and weakness, which will last another seven weeks until Brian Dumoulin returns from injury. The Penguins left side defense is a problem that causes further problems. The warning flares have begun and Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford should urgently address the issue. These aren’t Penguins trade rumors, but there are attractive options to discuss.
Rookie John Marino is playing top-pair minutes with Kris Letang, but Letang has to move to the right, sometimes. The Penguins top pair now includes a pair of righties and Letang and Marino frequently switch but the current situation has forced head coach Mike Sullivan to just go with it. Sullivan doesn’t have another option beyond inserting seventh defenseman and lefty Juuso Riikola into the lineup to pair with Marino.
And the Penguins have tried the Riikola-Marino pairing and are justified in avoiding it.
“I don’t love the righty-righty. It’s not easy with the pressure on the puck in today’s game. We as a coaching staff prefer to have defensemen on their strong sides,” Sullivan said Tuesday night. “Given the injuries that we have, we think these are the best combinations that we have.”
The trickle-down effect of the Penguins injuries and plethora of righties is spare defenseman Chad Ruhwedel will be a regular until Dumoulin returns. Like British comedy, Ruhwedel is better in small doses.
The Penguins unbalanced pairings were on full display Tuesday night. As noted in the PHN breakdown and report card, Montreal attacked the Penguins defenders both on the forecheck but also on the counterattack. Montreal went at them with the intent of getting to the net and succeeded. Detroit did the same later in the game on Saturday during their furious comeback.
“I think “Tanger” is best to play the left side with his skills, mobility and puck skills. I thought John Marino was our best defenseman tonight. He played pretty well,” Sullivan said. “For me, I don’t think that’s an issue, though we’d prefer something different.”
The Penguins have a unique situation with Riikola. He fit well with a veteran, stay-at-home defenseman like Erik Gudbranson but he’s out of place with a player like Marino. Sportsnet and reporter Elliott Friedman has on multiple occasions listed Riikola as available.
“Right now out of necessity it is what it is,” Sullivan concluded.
It is what it is. The bottom line. Nothing we can do. There is something Rutherford can do. For all of the Penguins missing parts, the Dumoulin injury has proved the most difficult because of the structural weaknesses it creates.
There are a few defensemen on the trade market who could fit the Penguins needs and not cost part of their future. However, any move would also be dependent upon the status of Alex Galchenyuk.
Penguins Trade Avails
1. T.J. Brodie, CGY, $4.65 million, UFA
Brodie is a left side puck mover who will be a free agent at season end. His name frequently appears in trade speculation as Calgary hasn’t moved to sign him, either. Given the large hole in the Penguins lineup and the lukewarm play of Marcus Pettersson, Brodie would be a solid left-side defender with little risk at a fair cost.
2. Travis Hamonic, CGY, $3.85 million, UFA
Hamonic would be a real get for the Penguins. He is a stay-home minute muncher, who — if you recall from his days with the New York Islanders — can play with a little snarl in the Metro Division.
He can also let rip his booming shot from the point. The Penguins may have to pay for his services in the form of a legitimate offer, but Hamonic would be a top-four defenseman worthy of keeping beyond Dumoulin’s return.
3. Erik Gustafsson, CHI, $1.2 million, UFA
Gustafsson, 27, is a light puck mover at the backend of Chicago’s rotation. Former Penguins rearguard Olli Maatta has been out with a mystery illness and Gustafsson has resumed his third pairing role which he held last season.
Chicago has scouted the Penguins’ last several games.
The defenseman exploded for 60 points last season, including 17 goals. He has just 10 points this season, which is more in keeping with his four-year career average. One fly in the ointment, Chicago top-pairing defenseman Calvin de Haan was injured Tuesday night and was further evaluated Wednesday morning.
The Penguins need some help. The righty-righty situation is certainly not ideal. Lowly Detroit got at the Penguins Saturday, then out-of-the-playoffs Montreal got at the defense on Tuesday. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is no fool. With Dumoulin out for an extended time and the soft nature of the defense, a little help would go a long way.
And maybe someday, the Penguins will have good choices to make regarding playing time, but until February, they’re sending an SOS.