One bad play and change looks terrible. A moment of indecision and uncertainty led to a Nashville Predators goal while two Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen whiffed on the same puck in deference to each other. Change brings the unknown, and perceptions form quickly.
But should Kris Letang and Mike Matheson remain paired together?
The answer isn’t as easy as you think, and there was good reason head coach Mike Sullivan, and presumably, assistant coach Todd Reirden went with the pairing beyond Brian Dumoulin’s one-game illness. If you’re already formulating a wicked comment and opinion, stop now.
The simple truth is Matheson-Letang has nearly fantastic advanced stats together. While the sample size is significantly smaller, the pair are miles ahead of Brian Dumoulin and Letang, the Penguins top defensive pairing for several seasons running.
“I know he’s going to be in the rush. Maybe sometimes I’ll stay back, so that’s probably the only thing that is going to change because he’s such a great skater that he can join the rush in any moment,” Letang said on Saturday. “And maybe sometimes you have to read it that he’s going to be ahead. With Dumo, I’m mostly in the rush, but nothing changes. I play the same way. Whether it’s Dumo or Matty.”
The Matheson-Letang pair had a momentary breakdown on Tuesday night as a puck slid between them at the offensive blue line. Neither was quite sure if the other would take it since they both wanted it and knew the other wanted it, too.
“…it’s just one of those fluky plays. For me, that’s hockey…,” Sullivan said.
For context, the Dumoulin-Letang pair has played about 793 minutes this season. The Matheson-Letang pairing played only 175 minutes.
We’ll start simple and denote the pairing by the different defender. So, Matheson = Matheson-Letang. Dumoulin = Dumoulin-Letang. Stick tap to NaturalStatTrick.com for the numbers.
Corsi: Matheson (53.3%). Dumoulin (50.23%).
Shots: Matheson(53.69%). Dumoulin (51.05%).
Goal Differential: Matheson (14-5, 73.68%). Dumoulin (34-30, 53.13%).
The Matheson-Letang goal differential is extraordinary at over 73%. That can and should get your attention. If it didn’t, I added the bold lettering. The numbers likely didn’t escape Sullivan’s eyes.
Expected Goals For (xGF): Matheson (53.86%). Dumoulin (50.94%).
Scoring Chances: Matheson (55.68%). Dumoulin (51.25%).
High-Danger Chances: Matheson (51.28%). Dumoulin (49.14%)
Seeing the high-danger chances drop is a concerning sign for the Pittsburgh Penguins in general, but seeing Dumoulin-Letang underwater is even more concerning. Here’s the real kicker:
High-Danger Goals: Matheson (8-3, 72.73%). Dumoulin (19-21, 47.50%).
Color me as surprised as you probably are. Despite goalie Tristan Jarry’s above-water numbers and stellar season, Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin are getting burned on high-danger chances and goals.
And one of my favorite stats to judge defensemen:
One-Ice SV%: Matheson (.948). Dumoulin (.9284).
How are we feeling so far? There is a slight difference in offensive zone starts. Matheson-Letang has started on the fun side 61% of the time. Dumoulin-Letang are at 55%.
So, with all of the above, it appears the Matheson-Letang pairing is indeed superior to Dumoulin-Letang. Certainly, the dynamic offensive power and puck possession makes it more difficult for opponents to defend or get the puck. It also appears in the growing sample size that the pairing with Matheson finishes more chances, too.
That’s likely because of Matheson’s ability to skate deep into the zone and force opponents to defend him. Also, most teams don’t defend BOTH defensemen on the rush. The Penguins’ uncovered option can pick his spot and go.
Dumoulin is far more traditional, and while I think he has more offense to give, he simplifies his game and cedes the fun stuff to Letang.
“We always talk about possibilities, whether it be defense pairs or line combinations…nothing is ever off the table,” Sullivan said last weekend. “Mike and Tanger have a real offensive component to their game, but they’re both dynamic skaters, and they defend well. If we choose to go with the (Dumoulin-Letang) pairing, we know what that looks like. We know what we’re getting. It’s the same thing with Mike…”
The Pittsburgh Penguins won two of three games with the pairing and dominated scoring chances against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night despite the 4-1 loss that could have been much closer if not for Nashville goalie Juuse Saros.
From the above 700 words, there seems no reason to break up Matheson-Letang, right?
In 120 minutes together, the Dumoulin-Marino pair has a 38% Corsi and 40% scoring chance rate, and…it just gets worse from there.
So, perhaps Sullivan is setting the table for something to change in the next week? Otherwise, the absence of a second pairing will negate the benefits of Matheson on the top pairing.
But it’s something to consider should things change, now or in the summer.