The Pittsburgh Penguins are set. The team which won back-to-back Stanley Cups but stumbled on its way to number three will get at least two more cracks at Lord Stanley. Every top nine forward, except Carl Hagelin, is signed for at least two more years. Thursday, the Penguins signed defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to a three-year deal which means their blueline corps is also locked up for at least the next two seasons, too. But, the question remains: Is the Penguins defense, which struggled last season, good enough to wrap their arms around 34 pounds of silver?
The answer is a definite…maybe.
Defenseman Kris Letang will not decide as much of the Penguins fate in 2018-19 as he has for much of his career, but he is still the blueline engine.
The 12-year veteran had very good statistics last year, but even he admitted it was a frustrating, inconsistent year. Letang is far and away the Penguins most talented defenseman and the team cannot replace what he can contribute. When he is on his game, the offense is dynamic and opponents scramble to keep up.
You know the flip side when Letang is not. His 89 giveaways was a career high and can’t be repeated.
If the Penguins do cut his minutes, as the team and player have admitted, to get the most from Letang, the other two pairings will have to pick up about 40 minutes per night, which means the second and third pairing will each play about 18 to 20 minutes.
This is the reason the Penguins will spend nearly $27 million on their defense this season, currently the second-highest total in the league behind only Carolina.
Last season, Justin Schultz proved his reclamation project to be complete. His work in the defensive zone was efficient and straightforward. Word around PPG Paints Arena was the coaches consistently gave Schultz high marks during film study. Schultz sacrificed a little bit of offensive push for greater command of the defensive zone, and that was just fine. He has become an upper tier second-pair defenseman.
But who will take Schultz’ left side on the second pairing is a bit of a mystery.
The only defensive pairing which is set in stone is Brian Dumoulin with Letang. After that, the Penguins have three defensemen who could play on Schultz’ left, and those same three defensemen could also play the right side on the third pair.
Rolling the third pairing for anything close to 20 minutes would be nearly unique to the Penguins and for the Penguins. Most third pairs play 12 to 14 minutes per night, which is the reason the Penguins signed defenseman Jack Johnson. Johnson can play big minutes and provides a little thump to go along with his puck moving ability.
Fortunately, the Penguins blueline corps is deep with talent. The additional minutes won’t be a problem for Jamie Oleksiak, 25, who is on his way to finishing his reclamation ala Schultz. Nor would the extra minutes be a problem for Olli Maatta, who was steady last season. Maatta, a five-year veteran, is only 23-years-old.
What the Penguins lack is a little bit of balance. Only Letang and Schultz are right-handed, which means the Penguins will push one of their lefties to the backhand. It’s not a significant issue, but it’s not ideal, either.
The Penguins blueline could well be Stanley Cup worthy. It has talent, depth, a pair of defenders who can punish opponents, and six defensemen who can play with the puck while maintaining their responsibilities. However, last season turnovers were an epidemic which caused even more problems. If the Penguins take care of the puck, they should be one of the better corps in the league.
In addition to Letang’s 89 turnovers, Dumoulin misplayed the puck a career-high 43 times. Maatta had career-worst 50 giveaways. Schultz was the safe bet with only 27.
“If” and “should” are the keywords for the defensemen. The Penguins have enough talent and a unique mix of skilled defensemen. It could be a great unit which increases the Penguins chances for another Stanley Cup, but until they prove the 2017-18 turnover totals were a fluke, the answer remains…maybe.