“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.
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.