Brian Dumoulin will be out for eight weeks, or a little longer as his conditioning warrants. In the meantime, the Pittsburgh Penguins defense will be without the lynchpin of the unit and be left vulnerable, at least until Justin Schultz returns.
Replacing Dumoulin won’t be so easy.
“He does everything out there,” Jake Guentzel said. “We’ve got really good defensemen back there, so I know we’ll have guys step up, but obviously he’ll be missed by our team.”
In the meantime, the defense pairings could shakeout with Marcus Pettersson beside Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, and John Marino staying together, and a third pairing comprised of seventh defensemen, Juuso Riikola with Zach Trotman or Chad Ruhwedel. In the past, assistant coach Jacques Martin and head coach Mike Sullivan have resisted pairing spare defensemen and have opted to mix the pairings. Trotman has played with Letang in the past similar situation, but there isn’t a choice this week.
“He’s one of the backbones of this team. It’s going to be a tough spot to fill,” Pettersson said. “He and “Tanger” plays a lot of big minutes.”
Those big minutes could fall on Pettersson now, as well as matchups against the best of the opposition. It will be a stiff test for Pettersson, who has thus far had some ups and downs in a primary top-four role this season.
According to Sullivan, Schultz has begun skating on his own. His next step will be to rejoin practice soon.
Even with Schultz, the Penguins defense will be vulnerable. The top three left side defensemen will be Pettersson, Johnson, and Riikola, which would set up a Riikola-John Marino pairing or Riikola-Schultz pair. Neither of those options should be appetizing for Penguins coaches as both pairings have been tried and both were quickly disbanded.
The last time Dumoulin missed time, the Pittsburgh Penguins still had righty defenseman Erik Gudbranson as the spare defenseman. This time, there isn’t (yet) a veteran ready to stabilize the unit.
“Everyone can see how special of a player (Dumoulin) is,” Marino said. “A lot of people don’t see the stuff he does off the ice, bringing the team together, his presence in the locker room. We’re going to miss him.”
Dumoulin, who was an offensive defenseman prospect, became the perfect defensive counterbalance to Letang. The pair worked well together and have been inseparable for three seasons.
“If we get hemmed into the defensive zone, he keeps everyone calm on the bench. He’s pretty vocal like that. So, we’re going to miss him in that role, too,” Marino finished.
Getting pinned into the defensive zone will be a primary concern for the Penguins newfangled defense. Without Dumoulin and Schultz, they will be perilously thin on two pairings. With Schultz’s return, they’ll have at least one lightweight pairing and perhaps a mismatched pairing.
Riikola has the skills, but he was best when paired with a steady veteran defender, like Gudbranson or Johnson. Trotman and Ruhwedel are also capable replacements, but perhaps not with a fellow replacement defenseman.
Not just one, but multiple defensemen will be handed an increased role as the Penguins continue to patch holes caused by injuries. They’ve lost two in a row and didn’t look so good doing it. The St. Louis Blues, who handily beat them Saturday night, is the next opponent, followed by the speedy and pesky Arizona Coyotes.
Oh, by the way, Patric Hornqvist was also evaluated for an injury during practice on Monday. At some point, it will all be too much. The Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be approaching that line. Adrenaline and determination can only go so far. The next couple of weeks will be telling. The team has treaded water without Sidney Crosby, amongst a handful of others out of the lineup.
And now another lynchpin is out. If this team ever gets healthy, it may take a few weeks to jell because they’ve not played together. Handling the Dumoulin absence may be as tricky as any injury they’ve had…so far.