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.
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.