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The Penguins Have a Problem on Defense; Answers are Due Soon

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Pittsburgh Penguins brian dumoulin

This season, there has been only one steady, uninjured part of the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup. Only the top-six defensemen have been in the lineup on most nights and performed the required tasks.

Until recently, anyway.

As the games have grown more serious, opponents have grown more intense. Fast forechecks and tough games have been battles. Opponents have attacked the Penguins at the source of their speed: the defense and breakouts.

For PHN+ subscribers, we detailed how the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, and Nashville Predators blunted the Penguins game. Colorado created traffic in the neutral zone with an extra forward and bogged down the Penguins. Nashville crashed on the Penguins forwards and played tight–again putting pressure on the Penguins defensemen by taking away good outlet passes.

It’s not a coincidence that Mike Matheson has played his best hockey over the last couple of weeks. Opponents had to open the lanes for defensemen, and Matheson is a blur racing up the ice.

It’s also not a coincidence that Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson have drawn poor reviews for turnovers and forwards skating past.

Dumoulin served up an easy Islanders goal on Tuesday night when he misplayed an Islanders dump-in.

“It’s easy to pick out one or two mistakes a game with any player…It’s a fast game, and in many instances, it’s a game of mistakes,” Sullivan said of Dumoulin last week. “It’s about making sure you minimize them as best you can. When mistakes are made, everyone has to support one another and defend. I’m not going to pick apart some of the mistakes that he has made over the last handful of games. He’s done a lot more good to win games than some of the mistakes that were made…”

We confined the criticism of Dumoulin’s deteriorating game to report cards with the expectation things would turn around. They haven’t. Dumoulin, 30, is too young to have lost a step, so there remains hope that whatever the cause of the downturn can be fixed.

However, according to Natural Stat Trick, the slide is part of a downward two-year trend in his analytics. Also, in each of the last two seasons, Dumoulin has suffered a lower-body injury. He missed 15 games last March and had surgery for a lacerated ankle tendon in 2020.

Dumoulin’s play has created a quandary for the Penguins coaches. Matheson with Kris Letang has been dynamic, but Dumoulin with John Marino has been a titanic problem. Somehow, the Dumoulin-Marino pair has a positive goal differential (7-6), despite an abysmal 41% shot attempt radio and 43% scoring chance ratio.

Excluding the 11-2 blowout of Detroit, Dumoulin is a minus-3 over nine of his last 10 games.

Marcus Pettersson

Since Marcus Pettersson slid back to the third pairing with Chad Ruhwedel, the pair has a negative goal differential (3-8) but has the odd statistical twist of being well underwater for scoring chances (47%), but well above board on high-danger chances (63%).

The shot attempt rate is just above 51%.

Not exactly brimming with confidence yet? I’m using the numbers to illustrate what your eyes have seen. Pettersson watching Colorado’s Alex Newhook blow past to create a goal stands out, as does twisting and falling to the ice as Nashville’s Matt Duchene breezed past for what became a breakaway goal.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins Shuffling

Those incidents occurred in two of Pettersson’s last four games. After praising his turnaround earlier in the season, he’s struggled lately.

“I think I was happy with my first half of the season, and I think I’ve got to get back to that…kind of hit the reset button once you get out of the lineup a little bit but learn from it,” Pettersson said last week.

Ruhwedel with Mark Friedman, a recently used pair, is above average. They are even in goals (6-6), but 52% of shot attempts, 55% of scoring chances, and 57% of high-danger chances. 

For those who use the worn line, “just watch the game,” we also haven’t noted the pairing as a negative in any recent report cards.

Is there a fix beyond Dumoulin reversing course? Friedman seems to be making fewer mistakes than Pettersson and not getting caught by the forecheck, but there remains a trust gap with Friedman; a fear he will take penalties combined with unanswered questions about how he will perform if given a regular sweater.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have an issue that seems to be growing, not shrinking, as the playoffs approach. Sullivan is obviously trying to fix it. Even as he voices support for his players, his blue line shuffling confirms that he, too, recognizes the problem.

With a few weeks until the start of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, Sullivan has a little more time in the laboratory, but the time to experiment is coming to an end. The answers are due soon.

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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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Bob Mild
Bob Mild
7 months ago

Totally agree that this defense has been a let down this season. No one seems to be improving. Also worth noting that as a group they are the highest paid group of dmen in the league. No doubt there’ll be changes coming this off-season especially if Letang is not resigned.

Lifeson74
Lifeson74
7 months ago
Reply to  Bob Mild

Time for an overhaul! Malkin needs to depart and get some toughness and players who hit and create plays and not take retaliating penalties like Malkin…

Mike Donnelly
Mike Donnelly
7 months ago

Fair and accurate

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 months ago

Dan, maybe a call up from wilkes and give PO or another defenseman a look? Wear and tear on defenseman is a real thing and maybe a rest for Dumo might do him some good?

Kris
Kris
7 months ago

Who you sending down to call up POJ?

Katz is Dumb
Katz is Dumb
7 months ago
Reply to  Kris

You mean putting on IR?

Simon Hargus
Simon Hargus
7 months ago

Riiikolllaaa ? He’s been getting games in wbs how has he looked?

I think they need to give dumo and Marino more time after the break . Dumo just looks tired. I think it’ll work. If they can win tonight and caps loose they should experiment a game .

Ethan
Ethan
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Hargus

Yeah tired and possibly injured. Guy takes some punishing hits behind his own net. They have had pretty good run of health–retape then knock on hockey stick–but I have always wondered why not rotate nights off somewhat? Why run the same lineup (besides goalie) in back to backs. Or just yoyo Friedman and Petterssen? My coaching was spent far away from NHL–but I (like others I know) put much stock in fresh bodies champing at the bit! If they can clear waivers–give them a ride.

Ed Andrews
Ed Andrews
7 months ago

the guy they traded for Beliu (sorry for wrong Spelling) can he help, or bring in PO


Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 months ago
Reply to  Ed Andrews

Beaulieu is out until possibly the playoffs with an injury. PO is a possibility but there is concern that he lacks the physicality to be an NHL defenseman

William Maloni
William Maloni
7 months ago

I’ll repeat what I’ve written several times, at @180 pounds POJ never will be effective in the NHL, just too small/light.

Kris
Kris
7 months ago
Reply to  Ed Andrews

CANNOT AFFORD ANYONE ELSE ON THE ROSTER. It’s called a cap limit for a reason. Why is this so hard for some folks to understand? We are hampered by the former GM giving money away to players who had not earned it yet. Pettersson in the press box making $4-million. Marino playing like he belongs on the 3rd pairing at best $4-million. Problem is they are going to have to add sweetner to offseason deals to take on the Pettersson contract. So all this save draft picks is just going to drown us for next year and beyond.

Paul
Paul
7 months ago

Like I wrote several days ago here, the answer is to blow up the back line and start over. Talent-wise, Letang and Matheson are the only top four d-men in the organ-i-zation — and both are erratic and mistake prone. Everyone else can be kicked to the curb, but especially Dumoulin ($4.1 mil) and Pettersson ($4 mil), who are way overpaid for what little they have to offer. Marino is a bottom pair guy who lacks focus, puck smarts and physical strength. He maxed out two years ago.

Mike
Mike
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul

You are correct, sir.

Kris
Kris
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul

Going to respectfully disagree on Dumoulin. Is he having a bit of a bad stretch, yes. Is he not worth $4-million for all he has done on that contract, no that is incorrect. Resign Letang and ditch Marino and Pettersson (although I don’t know who would be dumb enough to take on that contract).

William Maloni
William Maloni
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul

And our GM promptly overpaid him.

Logan
Logan
7 months ago

I think for next season you have to reshape the D, the 2 D men that you keep are Letang and Matheson, other than those 2 everyone should be open for business in the offseason.

Katz
Katz
7 months ago

Did anyone watch Matt Martin plaster Dumo in the last game? Well rewatch if you missed,. Did anyone watch the Rangers- Flyers game last night and listen to the commentary about Reaves? They said the skill players Panarin, Fox, Zibenijad etc don’t have to worry about being attacked . Also Kreider doesn’t have to drop the gloves anymore…. he has 50 goals. When Reaves was acquired by the Rangers I wrote the Rangers would go deep in the playoffs as well as challenge for the Division. Of course I was attacked , derided , and voted down. That’s a badge… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by Katz
Kris
Kris
7 months ago
Reply to  Katz

The playoffs have not started yet so hang on a bit before putting your badge of honor on.

mstar80
mstar80
7 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Reaves is gone move on.

Katz
Katz
7 months ago
Reply to  mstar80

Ya it’s not Reaves . Reaves is a metaphor. But what a mess

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Congratulations?

Katz
Katz
7 months ago

As I’ve always said I hope I’m wrong. Hope this team can at least win one round. But if not it is not because of an aging core it is because of mismanagement

Katz is Dumb
Katz is Dumb
7 months ago
Reply to  Katz

A deep playoff run for the Rangers is still a failure. For me it is all about the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup…

Why just predict a deep run and not declare who will win the cup? I mean, you are so ardent about who won’t win the cup and proclaim it to anyone that will listen.

Mary L
Mary L
7 months ago

Thought you’d have to approve comments so I deleted mine.

Last edited 7 months ago by Mary Lurwick
Mike Donnelly
Mike Donnelly
7 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

You might need to double check on the “insane” filter, especially with the playoffs approaching.It seemed to be working okay up until the past few weeks, but is apparently broken now.

Mike
Mike
7 months ago

The biggest problem is that they don’t have enough playoff-capable defensemen. As you note, guys like Marino and Pettersson are neither fast nor strong. They are just there. Ruwhedel is kind of the same too. They will all be playoff disasters as usual. Then there is Dumoulin. You say he hasn’t lost a step, but I say the injuries have caused exactly that. Right there you have four guys who are worthy of playoff scratches. Sadly, you can’t replace them all.

Kris
Kris
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike

I think they should scratch Dumoulin tonight and let Pettersson take his place. Then maybe all the knuckleheads on here who want him gone because a bad stretch will see just how valuable he is. Maybe he is having some troubles because we are having to overuse him due to having 7 players but only really 3 NHL defenseman. Anyone ever think about that?
Nope, just need our weekly whipping boy, so step up Brian.

Maxx40
Maxx40
7 months ago

I guess the better question is what other options does Sully have with his D men this late in the season? If PO isnt ready, then what can he do? I am a big fan of Friedman and think he adds a lot to the line up that is not there otherwise. He is fast, aggressive, and gets in other players heads. Yes, he can go overboard, but it only seems that way cause there are no other players in the line up that do what he does. Meanwhile, I dont think Petterson provides anything besides a very random bust… Read more »

mstar80
mstar80
7 months ago

Pettersson or Friedman? The choice is easy for me. I’ll take Friedman because he is quicker and hits people. Also, he keeps the other team alert because he is kind of a loose cannon. Petts would be in the press box if I ran this team. He is so soft and plays horrible defense.

Frank
Frank
7 months ago

The Penguin defensive corp just reflects the team. A competitive group for the regular season but down the stretch and in the playoffs mostly ineffective. They have 7 guys in the group now and 4 of them are essentially third pairing eligible. That means they should be getting maybe half a dozen short shifts each period and never find themselves on the ice against the opposition first line or killing a penalty. That is not a criticism it is just an observation. No team is wondering how they are going to handle the play of Marino/Petterson/Ruhwedl/Friedman. Really now . ..… Read more »

Katz is Dumb
Katz is Dumb
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

I am starting to wonder if you are the love child of Katz & Paul…

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

You are correct sir. The teams winning playoff hockey have beef!

Crazyhorse87
Crazyhorse87
7 months ago

With injuries and illness, it’s hard to be in sync with people going in and out of the line-up. When the new guy gets in the line-up on defense, it’ll take a couple or a few games, hopefully he could make a difference. With him joining the team, Friedman would be the better bet, you look at the penalties he gets and not much on how much he draws. Letang gets all kinds of breaks because of his offensive outputs, but not his give-aways or bad penalties. They look at who plays best against your team individually, well, the Pens… Read more »

William Maloni
William Maloni
7 months ago
Reply to  Crazyhorse87

Can’t wait until the D-room et cleaned out once the season ends.

Let’s see if Hexie and Burke can bring in some skaters with size and grit.

Ed Andrews
Ed Andrews
7 months ago

Given the state of thing the top 3 Def are Tanger, Dumo (injurys are affecting him) and Marino followed closly by Friedman. But remeber if you blowup the def then you have to replace them. Tanger drives me insane i love the guy but if you were not to resign him he still could go to another team with a decent contract and then the current Pens D line has no other def to replace him, the D def needs help

Last edited 7 months ago by Ed Andrews
Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
7 months ago

Good article, I have always thought the defense was an issue all season and thought they should of addressed it last off-season. Also felt the pens would have served themselves better had they played Joseph earlier in the season to see what they had. You could see teams with agressive styles would cause 8 & 28 issues, pace and wall play wasnt good. I honestly would retool the defense in the off-season, whatever it takes.

Lifeson74
Lifeson74
7 months ago

Friedman was playing good now not in the line-up?