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Penguins Camp: Unexpected, Different D-Pairings Possible this Season

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Mark Friedman

There is one clear and decided difference between the past couple of iterations of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the coming version set to begin next week. The Penguins’ defense is undergoing the strains of time and the influx of new faces. Not only did GM Ron Hextall part with Mike Matheson and John Marino, but he also added a few new faces combining youth and potential with established success.

It’s not just 34-year-old Jeff Petry on his way in, but 23-year-old Ty Smith, a work in progress and steady yet quiet Jan Rutta.

The Penguins’ defense also includes the great possibility of declining Brian Dumoulin. Injuries and filling in behind Kris Letang for 24 minutes per game have taken their toll on Dumoulin, the 32-year-old bedrock defenseman.

His arc has been on the downward trend. Injuries and hard minutes can shorten careers, and Dumoulin will have to reverse course to maintain his first-pairing status.

It’s in Dumoulin’s potential to rebound or continue sliding that the Penguins’ defensive pairings could shuffle. And it is in the shuffle that the Penguins coaches could create some unexpected and unique defensive pairs to create what head coach Mike Sullivan typically terms the Penguins’ “best chance to win.”

Since I can already hear your wheels turning, no, P.O Joseph is probably not a good solution, either. In his big NHL run during the 2020-21 NHL season, when coaches paired him with Letang, his game regressed, and the momentum he built with stellar play beside John Marino faded.

However, that was two seasons ago. Perhaps could see it again.

We also checked into Jeff Petry’s experience on the left. Our Montreal colleagues report Petry does not like his off-side, and in limited minutes on the left while Shea Weber was not effective.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ options, should Dumoulin not be the guy, are limited, at best.

Jan Rutta-Kris Letang

What happens if Dumoulin is not truly up to the first-pairing task? Marcus Pettersson has proven not to be the best or even a good partner for Letang, so the coaches cannot credibly move him to the top pairing.

The right-handed Rutta isn’t a natural left-sider, but he’s come through with flying colors in the past. Former Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville praised Rutta’s left-side work while in Chicago a few seasons ago.

“He handled it well, so it’s a good option for us,” Quenneville said during Rutta’s first NHL season in 2017.

It does not appear the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Rutta played any meaningful minutes on the left side with Tampa Bay over the last two seasons. However, Rutta is likely the first up should Dumoulin’s decline continue and would be the best fit because of his ability to play tough near the net.

Joseph-Letang

The reasons this makes sense, at least on paper, are Joseph’s mobility and puck-moving ability. Joseph can keep up with the fast game and is quick enough to jump into the play but also get back to the defensive zone.

The reasons the pairing does not make sense are Joseph’s lack of physicality and inexperience. Playing with Letang requires an ability to defend the net and play hard minutes against top-tier competition.

Can Joseph meet those requirements? It seems a long stretch for a player trying to make the team to leap to top pair responsibilities. Joseph has much to prove at the NHL level before he’s a legitimate option for high-pressure minutes.

The above would also apply to the newly acquired Ty Smith, whom the Penguins snared with a third-round pick from New Jersey for John Marino.

Wildcard: Mark Friedman

Friedman-Petry? That seems like a possible combination, but what about Friedman-Letang?

It’s implausible, if not impossible, to think Friedman could take top-pair minutes. Seventh defensemen don’t make that jump. However, Friedman’s career arc has not been typical. He’s getting better and better. If Chad Ruhwedel can make the leap to regular defenseman at 31 (now 32), perhaps Friedman could be used in a pinch if Sullivan and assistant Todd Reirden are happier with Rutta elsewhere.

We know Friedman isn’t shy about defending his net or getting his nose dirty. We also know he can skate and has some offensive instincts, but he doesn’t let those desires dictate his game.

He did play sparingly with Letang in the Round One loss to the New York Rangers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ limitations on the left side remain a question mark for the season. Dumoulin, Pettersson, Friedman, Joseph, and Ty Smith on the left provide the Penguins with some talent and versatility, but not a sure-fire top pairing defenseman–unless Dumoulin is up to the task.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Alan Smith
17 days ago

The Pens defense will be second class at best! They have made no effort to acquire top flight players in the last four years! They have to always out score teams and hope to give up fewer goals! Any 2 goal lead is never safe! Maybe a possible trade during the season is the way to go?

Bachinga
Bachinga
17 days ago

Why is it that everyone sees something in Joseph that no one who has actually played or coached, or both, see in Joseph?

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
17 days ago
Reply to  Bachinga

First round picks are always viewed that way…until they aren’t. He has a lot to prove and has to have an outstanding training camp to make the team or else he will most likely lost on waivers

Bachinga
Bachinga
17 days ago

The bottom line is that this team is not better than it was last February let alone last May…

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
17 days ago
Reply to  Bachinga

You honestly don’t think at the very least that swapping out Matheson and Marino for Petry and Rutta/Smith doesn’t make them any better at all? That is a huge upgrade on defense alone. Also, having Rakell for a whole season will also make the 2nd line way better.

Ed Andrews
Ed Andrews
17 days ago

Well per the article non are better than Dumo (perception) and we dont know if he will be able to come back to his former self Petry has been dragged down the block several times, Smith has not a lot of Exp and to be honest there is nothing spectacular about Rutta, i live in Tampa and watched him and the Lightning play he is not a Serg, Cernak. mcdonagh or even remotly close to a Hedman. The Pens def need to draft or pickup some better def player

Edgar
Edgar
17 days ago

No.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
17 days ago
Reply to  Edgar

We will see when the team actually starts playing. At least on paper i think the team is better 🤷

James
James
17 days ago
Reply to  Bachinga

That’s not true.
The Defense is WAY better.
The big head scratcher for me was the Kapanen signing. And then I hear that ERod got less money from Colorado? Ugh.
Other than that, I just can’t disagree more.
They need one more IMPACT middle six forward and you have a contender. That’s just the reality this core give you with proper supporting cast. And I think they ALMOST are there.
Just need that one more player.

James
James
17 days ago

I think the trades definitely made them better. What I think lacking is the unknowns for the left side. Who is a staple at their position like Dumolin has been for years now? I mean, he is still the best option for 1st pair duty with Letang in my opinion. Even if he regresses a bit. But maybe Petterson just has a GREAT year. If that’s the case, plug him in with Letang if it works. It sounds self evident and maybe stating the obvious, but it all comes down to performance. Maybe Dumolin plays better with Petry? I could… Read more »

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
16 days ago
Reply to  James

Zucker or Kapanen could be that one player. Or maybe one of the WB guys steps up, makes the team and forces a trade of someone out of the lineup.

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