The consensus this summer and September posited that Jack Johnson would eventually be the Pittsburgh Penguins trade piece. In fact, there was little doubt it was Johnson, but as things often do around the ever-fluid Penguins, things changed. And they continue to evolve with the emergence of rookie defenseman John Marino.
Marino, 22, has not only earned a spot in the NHL in front of previous rookie surprise Juuso RIikola, but he is currently playing ahead of hard-knuckled veteran defenseman Erik Gudbranson and Johnson. The Penguins’ decision to displace Gudbranson for a pair of games put the right-handed Marino on the Penguins third pairing.
Sunday night, the Penguins coaches chose to keep Marino on the right side but reinsert Gudbranson, too. Gudbranson played on the left side and struggled to adapt to his off-side. His puck movement was forced to include clunky backhanders off the glass. The defense pairing likewise struggled to generate puck possession, unlike Johnson-Marino, which played very well (in part because Johnson is a natural left-sider) in the previous two games.
Saturday night, head coach Mike Sullivan piled on the praise for Marino.
“I just think he’s a good player. He can skate, he doesn’t get rattled, he takes hit to make plays, he sticks his nose in, and he makes plays under pressure,” Sullivan said. “What we like about his game is he is really good defensively.”
So which defenseman will John Marino ultimately make expendable, and how will the decision be made?
Sullivan could make the call based on keeping the three defensemen involved and the rotation, however imperfect it may be. Sullivan could also ride Johnson-Marino as the naturally balanced pairing, but lose the physical presence Gudbranson provides. It certainly may have been useful during the chippy game against Minnesota Saturday.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford could make the call based on the trade value of the defensemen, but Rutherford has reportedly been unhappy with the trade market value of his defensive defensemen, Johnson and Gudbranson.
Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman suggested Juuso Riikola could be had, too. The curious part of that report is Riikola would only alleviate the crowded blue line, not the overcrowded salary cap. When the Penguins forwards return to the lineup, one of Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, or Marino will need to be sent to the AHL, unless the Penguins choose to bury a veteran defenseman in the minors (and kill their trade value). ‘
What separates Marino from the defensive corps vying for jobs is his ability to skate the puck out of trouble, or even simply to skate it out of his own zone.
“He uses his mobility. He’s got a good stick. He closes on people quickly. And then he’s strong,” Sullivan’s gush continued. “…his skating ability, he can skate us out of trouble sometimes.”
Penguins Outlier Scenario
One issue which is unlikely to play out publicly but lurking is Justin Schultz and his expiring contract. Schultz has burned the first two years of his three-year, $16.5 million contract with a pair of disappointing years. A slump, then a broken leg, denied the Penguins full value and Schultz the chance to shine. However, he is doing so early this season. Schultz has four points in the first six games, and the Penguins power-play is reinvigorated.
What might Schultz command on the open market in July? More importantly, what might his asking price be? It doesn’t seem implausible the Penguins are turned off by initial conversations and feel Schultz will exceed their budget. He would be one of the most sought after defenseman on the trade market. The Penguins may have to swallow hard to roll with Marino in a second pairing capacity with Johnson, but the return for Schultz could be a sweet aftertaste, too.
Make no mistake, this writer is NOT advocating that scenario or reporting discussions, but merely pointing out its future possibility.
John Marino / Crowded House
It will be next to impossible to keep Johnson and Gudbranson happy with a pressbox rotation. It will also be challenging to maintain the rotation with Gudbranson on the left side. The Penguins big defenseman has played well this season. In fact, in PHN grading, he has earned higher marks than Marcus Pettersson. His summer of hard work and grasp of the Penguins schematics was evident
It’s a mind warp to be banished to the press box, and that can have negative consequences, too.
Since his Penguins tenure began last February, Gudbranson has been very good. In a vacuum of individual performances, Gudbranson has outplayed Johnson and adds more value with his ability to calm choppy waters with a few fists. However, coaches are quick to credit Johnson as their best penalty killer and his chemistry with Marino was undeniable. For those who don’t subscribe to PHN+, we did a short breakdown in the Saturday report card.
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Johnson and Marino were quick to switch off to accommodate their strengths. Marino was first to the loose pucks, and Johnson engaged in the battles. They communicated well and were tight to the blue line to thwart oncoming rushes.
So, despite Gudbranson adding more value in his natural position, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole with Johnson-Marino.
And for the record, this situation is stunting Riikola’s growth. He needs a lot of playing time this year to be ready to assume a top-six role next year, but it doesn’t appear he will get it in the current deal.
So, while early wagering would have been on Johnson as the odd-man-out, it now appears Gudbranson will draw the short straw if John Marino continues this level of play.
For all of the handwringing about the Penguins defense this summer, it is suddenly revamped with a different face — not a bad problem to acquire for a conditional sixth-round pick.