The headline is a little play on words. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ defensive corps has a pair of Hall of Famers on the right side, but the right side of the third pairing has been an open-ended discussion since training camp, with two players filling the role and a third prevented by injury. Now, John Ludvig is taking center stage.
Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson are the likely Hall of Famers who soak up most of the minutes. Mark Pysyk appeared to be in line for the role until suffering a lower-body injury that again derailed his career.
Chad Ruhwedel, 33, was installed as the steady right-handed defenseman on the third pair for the first month of the season. Ruhwedel, known for his game so steady and simple that invisibility was a compliment, struggled this season before suffering an upper-body injury.
Ruhwedel remains out week-to-week and, as of publishing, has not begun skating.
Ryan Shea played one game on the right side when coaches reintroduced P.O Joseph to the lineup against the San Jose Sharks. Joseph struggled, and Shea was fine.
Shea is always fine as he, too, has simplified his game to the barest essentials to lock down the left side of the third pairing. Steady and invisible has also become his one-sheet sales pitch.
Ludvig, 23, seems older than he is. Perhaps it’s the blonde mustache or the fact that he set Penguins fans a flutter by winning a fight Tuesday night against the much larger Michael McCarron of the Nashville Predators. It’s been some time since anyone could claim to win a fight while wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater.
“I landed some punches,” said Ludvig. “He’s a big guy, so it’s kind of tough to get him down, but it was fun. It was good.”
It’s been four years since a Penguins defenseman talked like that–not since Erik Gudbranson. And that’s part of the reason why Ludvig is in the lineup.
He also earned his first NHL point Tuesday with an assist.
The Penguins claimed Ludvig off waivers before the start of the regular season from the Florida Panthers, who were well-stocked at defense, and Ludvig ran out of time to claim his NHL spot. Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas plucked Ludvig, and he was in the lineup by the sixth game this season.
A 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars was his NHL debut.
He promptly tried to deliver a hit to an oncoming freight train, Radek Faksa, in the second period. Ludvig suffered a concussion, left the game, and further delayed his NHL career by a couple of weeks.
“It sucks being out to start the year, especially my first NHL game. (I was) playing well. It’s a bit disappointing to be out, but since being back, yeah, I’ve been feeling better every game and starting to feel more confident.”
Ludvig still plays sheltered minutes on the third pair with Shea. The duo only get about 10-12 minutes per night, but a large part of that is due to Letang and Karlsson, whose pairings each play more than 20 minutes per night.
The bonus for the Penguins is that the unheralded defenders, neither of whom were expected to be in the Penguins or any NHL lineup when training camp began, are posting solid puck numbers.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the pair have a 63% Corsi and a 64% expected goals-for. However, because they most prevalently see the ice with the Penguins’ bottom six, they’ve only been on the ice for one goal for and one goal against. Yet, there is one interesting caveat to their stats.
Despite starting only 36% of their shifts in the offensive zone, they have positive offensive stats. It’s more remarkable because Ludvig is lefthanded, which means he’s playing on his backhand.
“It’s tough. There isn’t a lot of time and space (to flip the puck to your forehand),” Ludvig told PHN. “The forecheck is quick.”
This means Ludvig isn’t able to zip breakout passes ahead like Shea, who is on his natural side. He conceded he must bank the puck off the wall or glass to center ice more often than he wants.
But he still brings a few elements to the Penguins lineup they haven’t had in a while.
“He brings he brings some edge to our team. He sticks up for our guys. I think he’s getting more comfortable with every day that he’s here,” coach Mike Sullivan said Tuesday night after the loss to Nashville. “He moves the puck well. We play him on the right side here. And playing on his offside — that’s not an easy thing to do. And we think he’s doing a really good job there.”
So, perhaps Ludvig will avoid trying to collide with a large player at full speed?
“I still might try to do that, but hopefully, it works out better next time.”