The Stanley Cup Final has shown that teams with bigger defensemen have a bigger advantage. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense pales compared to the Vegas Golden Knights and even the blue line crew that new president Kyle Dubas built with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past six seasons.
For comparison, the Vegas blue line has six defensemen at least 6 feet and 200 pounds (Shea Theodore might be a pound or two under 200, but the point stands).
Even Toronto had five of six who met the criteria and a sixth who is close.
This summer, the Penguins figure to lose their second-biggest defenseman, Brian Dumoulin. It’s not a guarantee that Dumoulin will leave via free agency, but his inconsistent performance this season, born of knee surgery last spring, doesn’t make him a good long-term investment, even at 31 years old.
Coach Mike Sullivan replaced him for a spell as a top pairing defenseman beside Kris Letang, using Marcus Pettersson and infrequently P.O Joseph. Still, that spot has been Dumoulin’s as faithfully as Chewy beside Han for about five years.
The left side of the Penguins’ defense is, to be generous, slight. Pettersson is 6-foot-3 but 178 pounds. Joseph is listed as 185 pounds. Dumoulin was the only left-side defender with enough size to withstand the battles at the net for 82 games.
Dumoulin made just over $4 million this season, which should allow Dubas to look at some better defensemen. However, there is a problem.
Replacing Dumoulin won’t be that easy.
There are very few left-handed defensemen on the UFA market, especially those who could fill a top defensive role and have the size to back it up. Also, they would have to fit into the Penguins’ salary cap structure. They could use Dumoulin’s $4 million or a little more to replace him, but chasing a marquee UFA like Dmitry Orlov won’t fly.
On the coming free agent market, by our count, there is Dumoulin and … one other.
Houston, we have a problem.
There are several players at the end of their careers whose names might leap off the page, but their recent play has not. Erik Johnson, Ian Cole, and Calvin de Haan have seen better days.
Boston Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton might seem a possibility, but he often plays on the right and is too prone to the “oh boy” type brain farts that get defensemen benched. See Game 6 against Florida.
And so, the effort to replace Dumoulin could be down to bringing back Dumoulin, or big New Jersey Devils defenseman Ryan Graves.
EDIT: The initial draft of the story included Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield, who is right-handed. I regret the error. Removing Mayfield only further underscores the lack of left-handed options.
Graves, who is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, can be a genuine shutdown defenseman. However, the 28-year-old might see a healthy raise on last season’s $3.16 million AAV. If there’s a UFA get for the Penguins to replace Dumoulin, it’s Graves by a mile.
But the salary cap is still a thing.
With some irony, the dark horse on the free agent market could be Dmitry Kulikov. The Penguins acquired him from the Anaheim Ducks at the NHL trade deadline, but he played only six games because of injury.
Alas, we barely knew thee.
Kulikov has been a hockey vagabond for six years. Since his seven seasons with Florida, followed by three with Winnipeg, he’s played for five teams in five years.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan seemed to like him a great deal. His tone was optimistic, and Kulikov was immediately inserted into the Penguins’ lineup in a top-four role.
Perhaps he’s the budget fallback.
However, this summer, the free agent market is not a bumper crop for LHDs. So, if the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dubas were banking on free agency for a Dumoulin replacement, they might need to look for a trade instead.