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‘Can Always Make Your Defense Better,’ Should Penguins Overhaul D?

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MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 13: Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Jack Johnson (73) skates away with the puck during the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Montreal Canadiens game on October 13, 2018, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)

“You can always make your defense better,” Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford said about his defense on July 1.

In full disclosure, we’ve taken that quote out of context. In a vacuum, it says what many fans want to hear: The Penguins defense wasn’t good enough. The prime scapegoat for the Penguins early offseason has been the Penguins defensemen, especially Jack Johnson, but some shrapnel scattered to Erik Gudbranson and the anti-Kris Letang contingent has made its annual appearance like a fuzzy groundhog looking for spring.

However, put in the broader context, Rutherford offered tepid praise for the setup of his defense. Before Rutherford offhandedly admitted things can always be better, he also explained why he liked his blue line.

“I like the way it’s structured,” Rutherford said. “We started last year with (Jack) Johnson on the right side. That was harder for him to play that side and we got him to his natural side (the left side) he played better.”

“We were able to get Gudbranson in. My point is, the structure of our defense–we’ve got the right shots where they should be, the left shots where they should be, is what I like. Can we make it better? Sure, you can always make your defense better.”

Apologies for getting your hopes up.

“I’m not saying its the best defense in the league but its a solid defense. It’s a good enough defense,” Rutherford concluded.

After months of staring at a tidal wave of fan opinion on Jack Johnson and the Penguins defense, it was nice to hear the GM honestly evaluate the rearguards in the same manner in which we did.

But can it realistically and safely be improved?

The Penguins defense as currently constituted played 20 games. For rough numbers, that is about 25% the season. In that time, they allowed the fifth fewest scoring chances at even strength. They let the fewest goals (23) at 5v5 by a wide margin. The next fewest goals-allowed was Arizona (28). The Penguins also allowed the fewest high-danger chances and fewest goals on high danger chances at 5v5.

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At even strength, the Penguins offense also generated the 11th most scoring chances and the sixth most high danger scoring chances.

The upshot is the Penguins forwards played an aggressive team game for the last 20 games which contributed to the suppression. The downside is the Penguins failed to convert at a rate anywhere close to their chances. The Penguins were 22nd in even strength goals scored.

The forwards helped the defense. The team generated chances as the blueliners helped the forwards. However, the back end did not help the forwards convert chances; which is not born out by advanced stats but a simple reading of base stats and watching the games. Erik Gudbranson, despite his exemplary play, had just two assists in 19 games. Johnson had only one assist in that time.

Offensive defenseman Justin Schultz had just four even-strength assists.

So, do the Penguins need a defensive overhaul? No. They are as Rutherford described them: Good enough. Should the team continue to generate a high volume of chances, the numbers will most likely increase, even with the current personnel. Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel were ice-cold in the second half last season. If both of those players converted at career norms, this wouldn’t be a worry.

But the Penguins still need to create salary cap space, and Johnson is the most likely trade candidate.

In this case, one domino will create multiple changes. If Rutherford deals Johnson, the defense will likely undergo various changes because replacing Johnson won’t be as simple as plugging in a new defenseman. In Johnson’s absence, Marcus Pettersson should slide up to the second pairing with Justin Schultz and Juuso Riikola could helm the left side of the third pairing.

“Riikola in his second year, we feel he’ll be better, step up and push for one of those regular spots,” Rutherford said.

Two new pairings would be a mini-overhaul. Of course, a Pettersson-Schultz pairing is potentially dangerous as neither is a physical defender, and the New York Islanders outmuscled both in the Penguins’ Round One playoff loss. The pairing could become a target for opponents.

Riikola was an exciting rookie prospect who took training camp by storm. “Why not?” was his answer when asked if he could make the team. He is gritty, quick and can be an exciting defenseman. However, his puck possession statistics (44% Corsi) were below the much-maligned Johnson levels.

The idea may excite some but a simple removal of Johnson could negatively impact the Penguins blue line, and probably require the acquisition of another defender–at least one. The current defensive pairings with Johnson-Schultz and Pettersson-Gudbranson also developed good chemistry, which was something sorely missing for much of last season, too.

This situation begins to seem more like a game of Jenga than of building. Rutherford’s cautious, tempered, but accepting tone is probably where the Penguins need to be. The defense is…good enough. Changes may be coming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be positive.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Zach Smith

    July 9, 2019 at 11:00 am

    If we trade Jack Johnson, it has to be for a defensive defenseman better than him. Maybe add Jarry as an extra piece with him. I also like the Pettersson-Gudbranson pairing.

    I also remember you writing the article about how we can re-sign Pettersson, Aston-Reese & Blueger without making a single trade.

    • Hatrick Pornqvist

      July 9, 2019 at 12:22 pm

      From what I understand we should assume there is 2.3 million left because we won’t carry 9 Dmen on the roster after Petterssen is signed.

      So really we need to clear about 2 million in cap space to get those three signed. (Petterssen, ZAR, and Blueger).

      So we go back to JJ, Rust, Bjugstad.

      Starting with what you say about trading Johnson. If like you say, we need to trade Jack Johnson for a Dman, we are gonna have to get a one million dollar guy back (to achieve the cap savings goal), so the obvious answer would be we already have that in Riikola, unless you can get a better one at that price. Putting Riikola in, or betting on a different $1M guy are essentially both the same gamble. If the d we currently have played as well as those numbers indicate, why even bother? Seems like a far better plan to keep JJ and Riikola around and bet on one of them, as opposed to betting on Riikola or a new $1M guy. Doesn’t seem prudent at all.

      So I think it goes back to Rust vs Bjugstad. We have great Center depth now and shouldn’t mess with it. I love Rust but it has to be him. We just got a more dynamic version of him in Tanev anyways.

      Or, JJ AND Rust. Now we explore a higher end Dman, and the internet can rejoice that Johnson is gone while simultaneously bitching GMJR is wasting even more cap space on the blue line.

      Either way I think Rust kinda has to go. So why not do the Rust/Puljujarvi deal? Cap space works. We get a potential star player.

      • Zach Smith

        July 9, 2019 at 1:52 pm

        I agree, we have to trade Rust because Tanev is like the better version of him. We should get an upgrade from who ever we trade with him. The problem with trading for Puljujarvi is will we get a 2nd pairing defenseman better than Johnson? Or maybe we just straight up trade Rust for Puljujarvi & get an upgrade at LD by trading Jarry with Johnson.

        Like Dan mentioned in this article, Pettersson & Schultz being together might be a huge target for other teams since neither of them are very physical.

        • Hatrick Pornqvist

          July 9, 2019 at 5:08 pm

          I was suggesting that we do Rust for Puljujarvi straight up and leave the D as is.

          In my opinion the only moves that make sense are Rust and Johnson get traded, or just Rust. I don’t think just Johnson is a smart move unless cap space can be found elsewhere because I’d rather keep Riikola and Johnson than have Riikola and a one million dollar guy.

  2. Jerry

    July 9, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    That view is not a popular one. I agree though. Schultz, Johnson and Gudbranson are movable but at what cost and what replacement in the line up?
    That may not be a good sign for Rust and his future in Pittsburgh when it comes to the cap.
    Hornqvist is important to the PP and his contract lowers his trade value for Pit.
    Bjugstad would create a huge hole at 3C. Not worth it.
    Galchenyuk and Tanev were just brought in so most likely safe.

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  4. dean

    July 9, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    I agree with Dan’s other article we can sign them all without making a move.

    send JJ to the AHL – that saves 1.075 in cap space
    Send Desmith to the AHL and keep Jarry – 1.25 -1.075 =.175 for DeSmith plus .675 for Jarry that totals .85 compared to the DeSmith 1.25 = 400K in cap space

    If we have to move Rust I like Puljujarvi’s upside, however you can’t package JJ in that deal without providing cap relief to the Oilers.

    Rust+JJ+3rd- 6.75M for Puljujarvi (~1.25M)+ Russell (4M)+ retain 500K cap on Russell = 2M in savings

    Russell would be a significant upgrade that matches the pens style of play.

    • Zach Smith

      July 9, 2019 at 1:58 pm

      I do agree Kris Russell would be a great fit for us, but after this trade, we would still need another physical 2nd pairing defenseman to either pair with him or Schultz. A Pettersson-Schultz pairing would be a huge target for other teams, like Dan mentioned in this article, & do you really trust a 2nd pairing of Russell-Gudbranson?

      • Hatrick Pornqvist

        July 9, 2019 at 5:10 pm

        And the stats crowd could still cry and moan that way because we would have the original analytics whipping boy in Russel.

  5. dean

    July 9, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    my pairs would be
    Dumoulin – L Letang – R
    Russell – L Schultz – R
    Pettersson – L Gudbranson – R

    Russel plays out west which is a much more physical game. He is tough enough. Plus if you are fast and significantly better at moving the puck you spend far less time in the d-zone.

    You also have Gudbranson as your enforcer.

  6. Dean

    July 9, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    If I was dreaming, here is what I would do,

    Trade Rust for Puljujarvi + 3rd

    Trade JJ to anyone that will take him. I would throw in one or both 3rd picks if necessary. We need to clear his salary and 4 year contract.

    Trade for Hayden Fleury – 1st round pick + ZAR

    That would clear at least $3.5M in space, give us a prospect in Puljujarvi with a tremendous upside, and a tremendous young defender in Fleury.

    That would set-up the left side D for years to come.

    Dumoulin – L Letang – R
    Fluery – L Schultz – R
    Pettersson – L Gudbranson – R

  7. Thomas Roberts

    July 9, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    Rust has to go. Lol. Thank god some of you are not the penguins GM. Rust has speed and plays up and down the lineup and is a terrific pk. Not to mention is basically a 20 goal guy. More guys with speed and grit is what the pens and JR want.

    • Hatrick Pornqvist

      July 9, 2019 at 5:14 pm

      I’m not saying “Rust has to go” in the context that I don’t want him or like him. Love Rust. Just saying when I look at the realities of the team set up, the things Rust brings, the other guys we have that are similar, and the cap space we need, that Rust seems like a candidate to be moved.

    • Zane Gearhart

      July 9, 2019 at 10:55 pm

      In my mind What happens with rust will decide if signing Tanev was a good move. If we lose rust, that means we brought in tanev to lose rust, if I could pick between the 2 it would be rust every day. That said I’d rather move Galchenyuk than rust. A team with both rust and tanev is hard to play against. What I’ve read and seen Galchenyuk is better on offense but still has many of the poor qualities Kessler had (on defense)

  8. Dean

    July 9, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Thomas, don’t misread my comments. I hate the fact that we may have to trade Rust for all the reasons you stated. However the real penguins GM has gotten us into this mess and that may be the way out. No matter what anyone else says we can’t trade Bjugstad which just leaves JJ and Rust. I am all for just moving JJ if that can be pulled off. I hear the concern with Riikola and they point out his bad corsi. Well he was paired with JJ and Maatta to earn that corsi. In spite of that he was plus 3 in 37 games.

  9. Matt Luda

    July 9, 2019 at 11:15 pm

    Want no part of Russell, who’s old and small. Nurse is the guy the Pens should want. He’s 6-foot-4, 23 years old and talented.

    Rust, Johnson and Jarry for Nurse, Puljujarvi and a draft pick.

    • Dan (@Darkeheh)

      July 10, 2019 at 12:06 am

      Hey Matt, have you ever heard of the “all our bad players for all your good players?” Well you just hit the nail right on the head with that post.

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