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Will Penguins’ Young Defensemen Create Physical Pairing, Finally?



Pittsburgh Penguins, John Ludvig

CRANBERRY — John Ludvig has appeared in 32 games since the Pittsburgh Penguins claimed him off waivers from Florida last Oct. 9.

During that time, he’s logged a total of 376 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time, an average of 11:46 per game. That ranks 22nd among Penguins skaters, and is the lowest average of any defenseman who has played for them in 2023-24.

Nonetheless, if Ludvig is paired with Jack St. Ivany when the Penguins visit Columbus Saturday at 7:08 p.m., he will be the senior partner on the pairing.

And it’s not even close.

Sure, Ludvig had never taken a shift in the NHL before his Penguins debut Oct. 24, but St. Ivany never got one until last Friday night in Dallas.

Alongside him, then, Ludvig practically qualifies as grizzled.

So while plugging Ludvig into the void created opposite St. Ivany on the No. 3 pairing when Ryan Graves suffered a concussion during the Penguins’ 3-2 victory against Columbus Thursday might seem like a logical and obvious move, coach Mike Sullivan did not commit to associate coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense, using them together against the Blue Jackets.

“(Reirden) has a good feel for how guys are playing and he’s tries to put players in positions where they can play to their strengths,” Sullivan said. “There might be moments where (Ludvig and St. Ivany) are out together as a tandem (but) Todd might deploy them with other players, like (Kris Letang) or (Erik Karlsson) or Marcus (Pettersson), something like that, so that they get some time with some of our veteran players who can help them in that regard.”

Regardless of what Ludvig and St. Ivany lack in experience, they add physicality to a defense that does not have much of it.

In his four games to date, St. Ivany has averaged 12.13 hits for every 60 minutes of playing time, the most of any Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman. Ludvig is immediately behind him, at 11.31.

“They bring a physical dimension to our defense corps,” Sullivan said.

The early reviews for St. Ivany have been decidedly positive, including the one he got from Ludvig Friday.

“He’s a good player,” Ludvig said. “I think he’s got a bright future here. He’s just a solid two-way defenseman. Easy to play with.”

Ludvig added that he gave St. Ivany a few tips on how to approach his first game at this level — after all, Ludvig had gone through it himself just a few months earlier — but said that, in general, there hasn’t been much need to offer him guidance.

“He’s doing a great job on his own,” Ludvig said. “I don’t think he needs my advice too much.”

Ludvig is, of course, still very much a work-in-progress himself.

He’s only 23 — a year younger than St. Ivany, actually — and still is learning to play the position, although Sullivan suggested he is progressing nicely.

“I think he’s really improved,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s processing the game quicker, with every game that gets under his belt. That’s an important hurdle for young players to have to overcome.”

Ludvig has three goals and two assists in his 32 appearances at this level, but preventing, not producing, goals is the cornerstone of his game.

“He’s hard in the battle areas,” Sullivan said. “He’s hard at the net-front.”

Opponents aren’t always the ones who bear the brunt of Ludvig’s rugged style; his NHL debut was cut short when he got a concussion delivering a big open-ice hit to Dallas forward Radek Faksa.

That’s one of two injuries that caused him to sit out extended portions of this season.

After dressing for nine consecutive games, Ludvig was a healthy scratch for the Blue Jackets game, and said he watched it on TV in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ weight room while getting in an off-ice workout.

He acknowledged that observing from the press box or seating area would offer a better perspective on what’s transpiring on the ice, but didn’t want to miss an opportunity to “get better, conditioning-wise.”

Even so, Ludvig said he was able to pick up a few insights on things like the Blue Jackets’ forecheck, and the tendencies of some individual Columbus players.

It’s the kind of information that might come in handy at Nationwide Arena Saturday night, no matter who his partner is.