Connect with us


Penguins Blog: Playing St. Ivany? Sullivan Faces Defense Issues



Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Graves

The Pittsburgh Penguins deserved better than their result on Saturday against the New York Rangers, but season-long foibles and defensive shortcomings felled the fledging team. The season was supposed to turn out differently, and the a number of significant changes, such as defenseman Kris Letang modifying his game to make room for reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, should have shined a more positive light.

However, that has not been the case.

It’s fair, if not kind, to say president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’s acquisitions were a mixed bag. Specifically, the defense has been the glaring, spectacular shortcoming.

In fact, the blue line has been in shambles all season despite somewhat miraculously no one in the unit suffering anything remotely resembling a serious injury. Instead, they’ve suffered from a serious lack of a primary function of the position: actually defending.

For every Marcus Pettersson nullification, there have been two blunders by the others. Even Letang looks like the grind of the backloaded schedule is catching him. There aren’t many 36-year-olds who are built to play 25 minutes a night.

Coach Mike Sullivan has called his blue line a “work in progress” at multiple points through the season, but with 15 games to go, it is now a work unfinished.

Dubas did not address it, and that remains a mistake. Free agent signing Ryan Graves regressed and never progressed. His propensity to flop to the ice created, not blocked, opportunities for the Rangers on Saturday.

The bubble defensemen P.O Joseph and John Ludvig were the solid pairing on Saturday. Neither was walked, deked, beaten, or otherwise on the wrong side of a glorious chance because of a mistake. They were the only pair to be able to make that claim.

Even Pettersson was undressed by Panarin like a mannequin on Boxing Day.

And so it’s natural to demand to see Jack St. Ivany make his NHL debut. He might do it sooner than later, but as I’ve caught flak for cautioning you against demanding to see Sam Poulin, Alex Nylander, Valtteri Puustinen (before he was ready), Ty Smith, Anthony Angello, and a crop of others for whom our scouting has yielded marginal grades, I’ll caution that St. Ivany will not be an immediate hit.

I think he has skills to contribute at the NHL level, but his game is physical, net-front, deep-zone defending. He’ll be going against a much higher and faster quality of opponent, which means there will be another steep learning curve.

He is, by no means, a cure for what ails the Penguins blue line. He’s also a right-handed defenseman, which means Sullivan will not be putting him in the lineup for Ryan Graves, who is a lefty. It means St. Ivany will be the third-pair d-man, and to put him in the lineup, Sullivan would need to slide Joseph into the top four, Ludvid to the left, while St. Ivany plays the right.

It might not be such a great idea to have Ludvig and St. Ivany on the same pairing — they’re both physical, but someone has to play the puck. Otherwise, Ludvig must play in the top four, and that is probably a stretch, too.

Defend Harder?

We posed a simple question to Sullivan Sunday afternoon before the Penguins faced the Detroit Red Wings.

What do the Penguins need to do for a better team-defensive effort?

“We need to defend harder,” Sullivan said in earnest. “Some of the looks we gave the Rangers were high-quality looks. When you play a team that’s as talented as they are, they don’t need a lot of opportunities to finish … But I think we’ve got to do a better job, particularly just defending the rush. A lot of that starts with our decisions with the puck and making sure we don’t feed their transition game.”

Sullivan also indirectly confirmed much of our postgame analysis when he said they have to defend the rush better. Graves has struggled in multiple areas, but defending the rush might be the second biggest struggle behind the net front. Karlsson is a hit-and-miss defender, but that’s backed into the casserole, which is the three-time Norris winner.

Defensive shortcomings were not factored into Graves’s six-year, $27 million deal. Detroit is also a high-tempo transition team, and if the Penguins forwards fling open the doors to create more offense, they’ll have to be a lot more careful than they were.

But some cleanup from the goalie and defense is never a bad thing, either.